Washington • The links among Vladimir Putin, President Trump and segments of both the Republican Party and the American conservative movement seem bizarre. How can this be, given the Russian president’s KGB pedigree and a Cold War history during which antipathy toward the Soviet Union held the right together?
In truth, there is nothing illogical about the ideological collusion that is shaking our political system. If the old Soviet Union was the linchpin of the Communist International, Putin’s Russia is creating a new Reactionary International built around nationalism, a critique of modernity and a disdain for liberal democracy. Its central mission includes wrecking the Western alliance and the European Union by undermining a shared commitment to democratic values.
Putin is, first and foremost, an opportunist, so he is also happy to lend support to forces on the left when doing so advances his purposes in specific circumstances. But the dominant thrust of Putinism is toward the far right, since a nationalism rooted in Russian traditionalism cements his hold on power.
And the right in both Europe and the United States has responded. Long before Russia’s efforts to elect Trump in the 2016 election became a major public issue, Putin was currying favor with the American gun lobby, Christian conservatives and Republican politicians.
In a prescient March 2017 article in Time magazine, Alex Altman and Elizabeth Dias detailed Russia’s “new alliances with leading U.S. evangelicals, lawmakers and powerful interest groups like the NRA.”
Evangelicals, they noted, found common ground with Putin, a strong foe of LGBTQ rights, on the basis of “Moscow’s nationalist and ultraconservative push — led by the Russian Orthodox Church — to make the post-Soviet nation a bulwark of Christianity amid the increasing secularization of the West.”
Altman and Dias highlighted the role of Maria Butina, a Russian national who was in court last week after her indictment for conspiring to act as a foreign agent.
Butina was at the forefront of forging Russian ties with the NRA. In 2015, many of its leaders traveled to Russia to attend her annual gun-rights conference, Altman and Dias reported. Such a meeting is absurd on its face given Russia’s autocratic nature. It should be a bigger scandal than it has been so far that those who speak so much about constitutional liberties and individual freedom have cozied up to Putin.
The Russian president did not have to invent Europe’s new right. It was rising without him, although he has been happy to help it along. Writing in New Statesman, the British center-left magazine, veteran journalist John Lloyd described the formation of what he called an “Illiberal International” that seeks to limit immigration and weaken or destroy the European Union.
Lloyd focused on Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian chancellor; Victor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister; and Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister whose Lega party is now in a coalition government with the Five-Star Movement.
It’s important to recognize that something more is going on here than merely a generalized effort to disrupt American and European politics. Putin is pushing in a very particular direction, a lesson that should be absorbed across our philosophical divides.
The deepening ties between the Russian government and elements of the right should give pause to all conservatives whose first commitment is to democratic life. The willingness of traditionalists and gun fanatics to cultivate ties with a Russian dictator speaks of a profound alienation among many on the right from core Western values — the very values that most conservatives extol.
It should bother members of the GOP that the progressive writer Brian Beutler was on to something when he observed recently that “in many ways, Moscow understood Republicans better than Republicans understand themselves.” Putin saw that what he and parts of the right share is a hatred of liberalism.
And Republicans should bear in mind that disrupting Robert Mueller’s probe serves Putin’s interests, not just Trump’s.
In the meantime, progressives and moderates should not be intimidated by those, including Trump apologists, who claim that standing up to Putin’s intervention in our election represents an effort to revive the Cold War. No, opposing Putin is principled, rational and necessary because he is waging a campaign against democracy and is working to undermine the pluralism and tolerance on which it depends.
It’s odd that self-styled opponents of globalization who shout slogans about putting their own countries “first” are actually putting their ideology first as they seek to globalize the far right. Friends of democracy everywhere need to stand in solidarity and resist this backward-looking drift to autocracy.