Paul Krugman: Putin and the right’s tough-guy problem

It turns out that being an unwoke strong man doesn’t win modern wars.

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko during their meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Monday, Feb. 22, 2021. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

A democracy — imperfect, as all nations are, but aspiring to be part of the free world — is invaded by its much larger neighbor, a vicious dictatorship that commits mass atrocities. Defying the odds, the democracy beats back an attack most people expected to succeed in a matter of days, then holds the line and even regains ground over the months of brutal fighting that follow.

How can any American, a citizen of a nation that holds itself up as a beacon of freedom, not be rooting for Ukraine in this war?

Yet there are significant factions in U.S. politics — a small group on the left, a much more significant bloc on the right — that not only oppose Western support for Ukraine but also clearly want to see Russia win. And my question, on the anniversary of Russia’s invasion, is what lies behind right-wing support for Vladimir Putin?

Now, Putin isn’t the only foreign autocrat America’s right likes. Viktor Orban of Hungary has become a conservative icon, a featured speaker at meetings of the Conservative Political Action Committee, which even held one of its conferences in Budapest.

But conservative admiration for Orban, I’m sorry to say, makes rational sense, given the right’s goals. If you want your nation to become a bastion of white nationalism and social illiberalism, a democracy on paper but a one-party state in practice, Orban’s transformation of Hungary offers a road map. And that is, of course, what much of the modern Republican Party wants.

Yet Orban is not, as far as I can tell, the subject of a right-wing cult of personality; how many American conservatives even know what he looks like?

Putin, by contrast, very much is the subject of a personality cult not just in Russia but on the American right and has been for years. And it’s a fairly creepy cult at that. For example, in 2014, a National Review columnist contrasted Putin’s bare-chested horseback riding with President Barack Obama’s “metrosexual golf get-ups.”

Until the invasion of Ukraine, Putinphilia also went hand in hand with extravagant praise for Russia’s supposed military effectiveness. Most famously, in 2021, Ted Cruz circulated a video contrasting a Russian military recruitment ad featuring a muscular man doing manly stuff with a U.S. ad highlighting the diversity of Army recruits. “Perhaps a woke, emasculated military isn’t the best idea,” Cruz declared.

What was the basis for this worship of Putinism? I’d argue that many people on the right equate being powerful with being a swaggering tough guy and sneer at anything — such as intellectual openness and respect for diversity — that might interfere with the swagger. Putin was their idea of what a powerful man should look like, and Russia, with its muscleman military vision, their idea of a powerful country.

It should have been obvious from the beginning that this worldview was all wrong. National power in the modern world rests mainly on economic strength and technological capacity, not military prowess.

But then came the invasion, and it turned out that Putin’s not-woke, unemasculated Russia isn’t even very good at waging war.

Why has Russia’s military failed so spectacularly? Because modern wars aren’t won by strutting guys flexing their biceps. They’re won mainly through logistics, technology and intelligence (in both the military and the ordinary senses) — things, it turns out, that Russia does badly and Ukraine does surprisingly well. (It’s not just Western weapons, although these have been awesomely effective; the Ukrainians have also shown a real talent for MacGyvering solutions to their military needs.)

Just to be clear, wars are still hell and can’t be won, even with superior weapons, without immense courage and endurance. But these are also qualities that Ukrainians — men and women — turn out to have in remarkable abundance.

Speaking of courage, am I the only one struck by the contrast between President Joe Biden’s daring visit to Kyiv and the way President Donald Trump retreated to the White House bunker in the face of unarmed protesters in Lafayette Park?

But back to the war. The key to understanding right-wingers’ growing Ukraine rage is that Russia’s failures don’t just show that a leader they idolized has feet of clay. They also show that their whole tough-guy view about the nature of power is wrong. And they’re having a hard time coping.

This explains why leading Putinists in the United States keep insisting that Ukraine is actually losing. Putin is “winning the war in Ukraine,” declared Tucker Carlson on Aug. 29, just days before several Ukrainian victories. There’s still a lot of hype about a huge Russian offensive this winter; the truth, however, is that this offensive is already underway, but as one Ukrainian official put it, it has achieved so little “that not everyone even sees it.”

None of this means that Russia can’t eventually conquer Ukraine. If it does, however, it will, in part, be because America’s Putin fans force a cutoff of crucial aid. And if this happens, it will be because the U.S. right can’t stand the idea of a world in which woke doesn’t mean weak and men who pose as tough guys are actually losers.

Paul Krugman | The New York Times (CREDIT: Fred R. Conrad)

Paul Krugman is a columnist for The New York Times.