ATmerica is divided. That’s not news. But the authoritarian ruler in the Kremlin deciding to invade a democratic neighbor – that’s the type of international crisis that traditionally might have inspired some closing of the ranks: set differences aside, let domestic quarrels rest. But conservatives are evidently out on the idea of patriotic unity. The right’s reactions to Russia’s attack on Ukraine have ranged from blatant admiration for Putin to anti-Russian saber-rattling combined with a shrill critique of President Joe Biden. Donald Trump initially called the invasion “genius”; he then defended his position at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) over the weekend, adding that Nato was “not so smart” and “our leaders are dumb.” Meanwhile, America’s most successful cable news host Tucker Carlson ridiculed American solidarity with Ukraine, a country he derided as “a tyranny,” led by “the people who paid off Joe Biden’s family.”
Donald Trump is the political leader of the Republican party and likely his next presidential candidate. Tucker Carlson is one of the first rightwing culture warriors in the country. Trump and Carlson are not fringe voices, and they aren’t outliers either: a last week’s CPAC, conservative speakers focused their ire on Joe Biden’s supposed weakness as the real cause for Putin’s aggression; and they left no doubt who they considered the biggest threat – the “enemy within,” as Senator Rick Scott put it, the “militant left-wing in our country.”
It may feel shocking, but it shouldn’t be surprising that many Republican leaders and conservative elites think the American president is a more dangerous enemy than the Russian autocrat. There is an influential tradition on the right of idolizing Putin as a defender of white Christian values against the onslaught of secular, “leftist” liberalism. In 2013, for instance, Pat Buchanan, a leading voice on the “paleoconservative” traditionalist right, described Putin as “one of us,” an ally in what he saw as the defining struggle of our era, “with conservatives and traditionalists in every country arrayed against the militant secularism of a multicultural and transnational elite”. Similarly, in 2014, famous evangelist Franklin Graham lauded Putin for having “taken a stand to protect his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda” – an agenda Barack Obama was supposedly pursuing in the US.
After the 2016 election, the simmering admiration for Putin morphed into GOP orthodoxy, with Donald Trump himself leading the Republican party’s pro-Russia turn. This rapprochement shaped the right well beyond conservative elites. Among voters in general, support for Donald Trump correlates strongly with a favorable opinion of Putin, and Americans who define the US as a “Christian nation” have a lot more favorable view of Putin’s Russia. As recently as January 2022, Putin had a significantly higher approval rating among Republicans than Joe Biden.
Such authoritarian, white Christian nationalist, anti-“left” leanings are now informing the right’s reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The far right is all in on Putin – Steve Bannon, for instance, declared his support because “Putin ain’t woke, he is anti-woke.” On the Christian nationalist wing of the Republican party, Lauren Witzke, the Delaware Republican party’s candidate for Senate in 2020, proudly declared that she supported Putin because he protects “our Christian values. I identify more with Russian, with Putin’s Christian values than I do with Joe Biden.” Not to be outdone, Arizona state senator Wendy Rogers emphasized that “I stand with Christians worldwide and not the global bankers who are shoving godlessness and degeneracy in our face”; in case it wasn’t entirely clear whose side she was on, she added that Ukrainian president Zelenskiy, who is Jewish, was “a globalist puppet for Soros and the Clintons”. Tucker Carlson, finally, representative of a whole phalanx of rightwing media activistsboldly declared in the days before the invasion why his problem was not with Russia: “Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him?” The message was clear: the real threat was the “woke” cancel mob at home, not the staunch defender of Christian values abroad.
Vladimir Putin understands his appeal to western reactions precisely. He likes to present himself as an ally in the fight against “wokeism”. In a much-publicized speech in October 2021, for instance, he attacked “cancel culture” and the west’s supposed obsession with trans rights, called the teaching of gender fluidity “on the verge of a crime against humanity”, railed against “reverse discrimination against the majority in the interests of minorities”, and emphasized his love for traditional “family values”.
This speech, in particular, got Putin glowing reviews from conservative commentators and intellectuals. A telling example is Rod Dreher, senior editor at the American Conservative. Dreher is a leading figure on the religious right; certainly not moderate, but in good standing – and friends – with conservatives like Ross Douthat and David French who are widely respected and admired by liberals. Dreher is an interesting bellwether for the reactionary intellectual sphere: he is begrudgingly pro-Trump, because he is enthusiastically anti-liberal. “Putin, Orban, and all the illiberal leaders that our baizuocracy loves to hate are all completely clear and completely correct on the society-destroying nature of wokeness and post-liberal leftism,” Dreher mused a few months ago. And he has not been shy about his disdain for the west’s support for Ukraine: “I adamantly oppose risking the lives of boys from Louisiana and Alabama to make the Donbas safe for gender queers and migrants.” In other words, it’s not that Dreher wants to see Putin win, necessarily – he just shares his contempt for America’s “woke” culture. This critique has basically become dogma on the right: a radically “un-American” woke Left is out to destroy the country – and has already succeeded in undermining the nation considerably, especially its “woke, emasculated military,” ace Texas senator Ted Cruz put it; a weak west foolishly “focused on expanding its national debt and exploding the gender binary”, according to rightwing activist Ben Shapiro.
None of the conservatives and right wingers who are currently professing their sympathy for Putin seem to know much about Russia or care about the specific causes and dynamics of what is going on in Ukraine. What matters to them is an imagined Russia: a stronghold of white patriarchal Christianity, where men get to be real men. They also love how autocrats like Putin and Orbán glorify their nations’ past and forcefully push back against those cunning “globalists”. To western reactions, the imagined versions of “Russia” and “Hungary” have become models of how to organize society and deal with the real “leftist” enemy.
The American right does not stand alone with its reaction to Putin’s invasion. Across the west, farright and reactionary movements have similarly oscillated between openly siding with Russia and condemning Putin while fully agreeing with his general critique. Rightwing politicians in Switzerlandconservative commentators in Germany, reactionary monarchists in the UK: wherever you look, the same diagnosis: the west had it coming, weakened by liberal decadence and “woke culture.”
The transnational rightwing admiration for autocrats like Putin and Orbán is a crucial reminder that the struggle over democracy and multiracial pluralism is indeed playing out not just in the US, and that the reactionary counter-mobilization is an international phenomenon. It’s also why, conversely, right-wing movements across the world have been obsessed with Trump. They rejoiced in 2016, because they saw his election as proof that the forces of reaction would ultimately prevail. Trump, in this interpretation, was seen as evidence that any attempt to install multiracial pluralistic democracy would spark a backlash strong enough to defeat the nefarious forces of liberalism – Trump was supposed to stem the tide.
In a way, the escalating obsession with foreign autocrats is a reaction to Trump’s failure to make good on that promise. If not Trump, then who? Reactionaries are looking elsewhere. Many, like Dreher, believe that Putin and Orbán have shown the way forward: “They grasp that this is a civilizational struggle, and that they are not just dealing with opponents, but with very powerful people who push an agenda that is tearing our societies apart.”
Rightwingers everywhere understand the transnational dimension as well as the world-historic significance of the current fight over democracy more clearly than many people on the left: is it possible to establish a stable multiracial, pluralistic democracy? Such a political, social and cultural order has indeed never existed. There have been several stable, fairly liberal democracies – but either they have been culturally and ethnically homogeneous to begin with; or there has always been a pretty clearly defined ruling group: a white man’s democracy, a racial caste democracy, a “herrenvolk” democracy. A truly multiracial, pluralistic democracy in which an individual’s status was not determined to a significant degree by race, gender, or religion? I don’t think that’s ever been achieved anywhere. It’s a vision that reactions abhor – to them, it would be the end of “western civilization”. And they are determined to fight back by whatever means necessary.
Thomas Zimmer is a visiting professor at Georgetown University, focused on the history of democracy and its discontents in the United States, and a Guardian US contributing opinion writer