Putin's Willing Accomplices
Putin has many willing accomplices in the United States.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has many willing accomplices on the American political right.
WIlling accomplice no. 1 — Former President Donald Trump on Putin’s maneuvers before the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine: “This is genius…. You gotta say that’s pretty savvy.”
Willing accomplice no. 2 — Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who also called Putin “savvy” (was there a memo?), as well as “a very talented statesman… [who] knows how to use power. We should respect that.”
Willing accomplice no. 3 — Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, who parroted Putin’s line by referring to Russia’s “border dispute… with a nation called Ukraine.”
Willing accomplish no. 4 — Ohio Republican senatorial candidate J.D. Vance, whose apathy suggests the United States and its allies ignore Russia’s naked aggression and grant Putin a free hand: “I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another.”
There are many other instances of American politicians and media personalities on the right praising Putin, excusing his conduct toward Ukraine, endorsing his aggressiveness, or calling his actions no big deal, but the point is clear. No longer does a foreign threat or crisis serve to unite the nation. The age is long over when Americans believed “politics stops at the water’s edge.”
I gave much thought to what to call Americans who support Putin. I considered “useful idiots,” but the definition of a useful idiot is “a naive or credulous person who can be manipulated or exploited to advance a cause or political agenda.” There is nothing naive about Trump, Pompeo, Carlson, et al. They are not being manipulated by Putin. No, they signed up for the job and willingly are doing the Russian dictator’s bidding.
“Useful idiots” is an apt descriptor for House Republicans who tweeted a picture of President Joe Biden walking away from a White House podium with the caption, “This is what weakness on the world stage looks like.” Well, true, Biden was not doing cartwheels, so I guess he did not project vigor. But, walking was what was needed, and he did that quite well, thank you. I presume the House Republican tweet indicated their opinion that Putin should be opposed, but undermining the president of the United States does not seem geared to accomplishing that end. Besides, for a real picture of weakness on the world stage, note the photograph of Trump and Putin at Helsinki in 2018. Putin has his chest out, standing tall, while Trump’s head is bent as if he is confessing some wrongdoing to the school principal.
Putin’s American accomplices support the Russian strongman precisely because they admire strength. Many disaffected people in America, and in other democratic countries, want a strong, autocratic leader because they fear trends in the modern world of which they do not approve. The strong leader is one who will build walls to keep out “undesirables” who seek entry and whose presence will transform nations into diverse and multicultural societies.
Carlson is an admirer of Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s autocratic ruler. Carlson has broadcast his show from Budapest, where he praised Orbán’s fence-building attempts to keep Muslim immigrants out of Hungary. He has accused Democrats of “trying to replace the current electorate [with] more obedient voters from the Third World.” Carlson’s use of the infinitive “to replace” is a not-so-subtle nod to the racist conspiracy contention, prevalent on the right, called “the great replacement theory.” Antisemitic tiki-torch wielding marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 chanted “Jews will not replace us.” Promulgators of “the great replacement theory” see the threat from many corners: Blacks, Muslims, Jews, virtually anyone who is not a White Christian.
Trump voices these fears. He praised the “very fine people, on both sides” in Charlottesville. The former president had a 40-minute phone call last week with French presidential candidate Eric Zemmour, reportedly telling the leading French advocate of “the great replacement theory” to “never give in, hold on, be brave.” Trump’s call with Zemmour is viewed in France as a blow to Marine Le Pen, the perennial right-wing French presidential candidate who had courted Trump’s support. Zemmour’s hardline opposition to immigration has put him to the right of Le Pen.
“The great replacement theory” is a term coined by the French writer Renaud Camus in 2011. Camus claims that elitist rulers in Europe are colluding against White Europeans to replace them with Muslims from Africa and the Middle East. Camus calls this alleged plot “genocide by substitution.” While Camus came up with the term, the idea of replacement is more than a century old, voiced as far back as 1900 by French nationalists. Like Trump, Camus has been banned from Twitter for his incendiary tweets.
Trump, Carlson, and others on the right admire autocratic rulers because a strong, non-democratic leader is seen as the best defense against the triumph of the “other,” the nightmarish fear of believers in “the great replacement theory.” Support for Putin must be viewed in this context, and it is part of the 21st-century march toward authoritarianism. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, there was a world-wide assumption that liberal democracy triumphed. A scant 30 years later, that wishful thinking has been demolished.
Trump often voices his admiration for dictators, including Kim Jong-un of North Korea, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, and, of course, Russia’s Putin. These strongmen — and others around the world — form a kind of dictators international, kleptocrats devoid of ideology who ally with one another to cling to power while promising their societies that they will be racially, ethnically, and religiously pure. As Anne Applebaum pointed out in The Atlantic, unfortunately the “bad guys” are winning. Democracy is in retreat.
If Putin — with the full support of his American accomplices — gets away with his invasion of Ukraine, then the “bad guys” will have chalked up another win.
Posted February 25, 2022