No corruption needed: the American right's 'Putinphilia' is based on a hatred of democracy

No corruption needed: the American right's 'Putinphilia' is based on a hatred of democracy
Russian President Vladimir Putin in May 2021, Wikimedia

Fox News host Tucker Carlson has said that Ukraine is “not a democracy” but is rather a “puppet regime” of the United States.

Fox News contributor and erstwhile progressive Glenn Greenwald claimed without evidence that Ukraine had US bioweapons labs.

Former President Donald Trump has over the years praised Putin repeatedly, referring to him as “very, very strong.”

All these talking points cheering on Putin and lambasting Ukraine fit in with Russian propaganda. That has led many commenters to believe that Carlson, Greenwald, Trump and their ilk are in the pay of Russia.

Typical social media replies to Carlson include comments like “Does Putin pay Tucker Carlson as a contractor or is he a salaried employee?”

Editorial Board editor John Stoehr mentioned to me, when I pitched this article, that he gave some credence to the idea that some elements of the right were actually in the direct pay of Russia.

I think John is wrong.

There’s no direct evidence of payments from Putin to the vast majority of his western boosters. Putin gets support from some elements on the right (and the left), because of the dovetailing of ideology and interest.

Direct corruption would almost be more understandable and less corrosive. But the unfortunate fact is that some elements in the US find fascism and imperialism appealing. They support Putin not because he pays them, but because they like what he stands for.

Progressives often laudably critique concentrations of wealth and power. When you are attuned to the influence of the rich, it’s natural to assume that politicians or commenters who take ugly or immoral positions do so because they are being paid off.

Progressive discussions of the NRA, for example, often focus on its cash contributions to reelection campaigns. “Fistfuls of NRA money” supposedly explain why the US can’t pass gun control legislation.

But analysts who have actually looked at NRA contributions have found that the organization just doesn’t give politicians that much money compared to overall donations. Just as importantly, the NRA tends to give money to candidates in very conservative districts that would support its agenda already.

Billionaire Michael Bloomberg's “Everytown for Gun Safety” was explicitly designed to erase the NRA’s money advantage in lobbying. It was basically successful. But gun control legislation didn’t pass.

Voters and politicians embrace gun control because guns have become central to rural white identity politics, not because they’re being paid.

Ideology is the main issue when politicians vote against gun control, even though we know politicians do receive some NRA donations. In cases in which there’s no evidence of financial gain at all, we should be even more ready to assume that individuals are taking positions out of interest and ideology, rather than because they are paid off.

So why would people like Carlson support Putin for free?

The main reason is that is currently the symbolic leader of the global far-right, as Jason Stanley and Eliyahu Stern explain in Tablet.

According to Stanley and Stern, contemporary Russian nationalism, embodied by Putin, insists that “liberals, cosmopolitans and progressives undermine defined and necessary ethnic and religious identities.”

Putin’s invasion of liberal democratic Ukraine is, for Putin, Carlson and their ilk, an assertion of nationalist virility against a decadent liberal democratic regime.

Trump and Trumpists, fresh from the failed J6 coup, imagine themselves overthrowing weak, corrupt liberal democracy just like Putin wants to. They support him because they share his goals and long to repeat what they see as his successes.

This congruence of ideology is perhaps most obvious in a congruence of homophobia. Putin has cultivated virulent hatred of LGBT people as a central part of nationalist Russian identity. Just as Hitler scapegoated Jews for all of Germany’s woes, so Putin frames LGBT people as an invasive decadent western force that must be exterminated in Russia to preserve national greatness.

The rabid homophobic right in the US eagerly co-signs Putin’s equation of national vigor with homophobia. At the outset of the invasion of Ukraine, numerous right-wing pundits (including Carlson) claimed the war could have been prevented if only the US had shown strength by banning gay and trans soldiers from the military.

The right is invested in Russia’s success because the right wants to prove LGBT people are inferior and weak, and Putin stands for homophobia. If Putin shows strength, it follows that it is right to harm LGBT people. (Of course, Putin’s military has revealed itself to be corrupt and incompetent. Don’t expect Tucker Carlson to retract.)

There are some concrete instances of Russian aid to right-wing figures. Most notably, there is extensive evidence that Russian intelligence was in contact with Trump campaign advisors in 2016. There’s also evidence of Russia being involved in the hack of Democratic computers and of Wikileaks knowing Russia was the source when it leaked the files.

Since Russia provided material aid to Trump, shouldn’t we assume that his statements supporting Putin, and his plans to pull the US out of NATO, were part of a quid pro quo?

Anything’s possible with Trump.

But it’s worth remembering that he’s fiercely unloyal to just about everyone who’s ever done him a good turn. He cheered on an attempted mob assault on his own vice president.

When Trump says how much he likes Putin, it’s probably because Putin’s authoritarian rule sincerely appeals to him.

Putin’s aid to Trump in the election was probably because he knew Trump shared ideological goals and a love of authoritarianism (though he may have hoped for access and influence as well.)

Some may wonder why these distinctions matter.

If Carlson is an authoritarian homophobe bent on the destruction of American democracy, why quibble at calling him a paid stooge?

He’s horrible, so why defend him from any charges ever?

There are two reasons. First of all, it’s important to acknowledge that there can be good-faith criticism of Russian policy.

Some analysts argue we shouldn’t provide US arms to Ukraine. Many argue we shouldn’t institute a no-fly zone. You can agree or disagree. But we shouldn’t assume people who hold them are being paid by Russia.

Accusations of corruption and false dealing should require strong evidence. Otherwise, they become little more than smears. And it becomes too easy to sling them at good faith rhetorical opponents.

The second reason to be cautious is that you don’t want to downplay the danger Carlson, Greenwald and their cohort pose.

If authoritarian fascism is a foreign imposition, you can convince yourself it’s relatively easy to handle and easy to defeat.

If Putinphilia is something that comes from outside, we just need to stop the Russian cash streams and we’re good.

The truth is less comforting.

Many Americans don’t need Putin to undermine their commitment to democracy. They hate democracy all on their own. Plenty of our fascism is homegrown. Defeating Putin won’t root it out.

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