Trump’s adoration for Putin is not an anomaly in today’s American politics. Such at least is the gist of Jeremy Peters’ recent article in the New York Times , which shows that figures on the American right have been lauding Putin’s virtues for some time. Although mainstream Republicans have not yet adopted the same thinking, figures like Rudolph Giuliani, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, and various Fox News personalities have been expressing for a while their awe of Putin’s strong-arm tactics, his embodiment of conservative values, and his defense of Western civilization against its enemies. This tendency makes Donald Trump’s unconventional stance towards Putin more acceptable to conservatives, even given their traditional strong aversion to Russian power.
The key point is that the phenomenon of Putinphilia preceded Trump and made his position relatively easy to take. Most obviously, praise of Putin during the Obama administration served as a tempting way for rightists to mock a black, liberal president. The aggressive Russian leader stood out as a jolting contrast to the cerebral Obama. Critics who hated Obama’s globalist tendencies, his caution in foreign policy, and his personal coolness found Putin the perfect foil.
But just as significant, the Putin fad reveals underlying right-wing trends in both Russia and the United States that should not be ignored. Putin’s Russia has increasingly viewed itself as a fortress of sorts against Western-style democracy, globalism, and so-called cultural decadence. Employing an ethnic brand of nationalism, it has identified with and funded some of Europe’s neo-fascistic movements, including those in Hungary, France, and Greece. And particularly since the beginning of Putin’s third term (post-2012), the government has adopted an ultra-conservative stance in alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC).
In this latter regard, Russia’s elections in 2012 stand as a significant turning point. The elections, which Putin won, were accompanied by mass protests against corruption in his government. Rightly or wrongly, Putin believed that they were clandestinely funded by Western entities and supported by Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. His close cooperation with the ROC became more salient following these events, as he began to crack down on Western liberal influences. Feminists and the LGBT community, who condemned his traditionalist approach, were the first in the line of fire. Legislation passed in the next couple of years signaled the new trend: a strict law regulating the foreign adoption of Russian children so as to disqualify countries that recognized same-sex adopters (2012); a law making it a crime “to insult the feelings of believers” (2013); and a law outlawing so-called anti-gay propaganda, essentially a ban on free speech. Behind these laws was an angry, almost vindictive militance.
Meanwhile on the American side of the equation, various forces on the right were warming up to what they saw happening in Putin’s Russia. Even as far back as the 1990s when things were chaotic under Boris Yeltsin, the U.S. Religious Right viewed Russia as a field of opportunity and began to increase its evangelical activities there. But Putin’s recent social conservatism has brought a cultural embrace of sorts. Major evangelists like Franklin Graham have made no secret of their affinity for the regime for its position on gay rights, the blurring of church state divisions, and abortion. The TV evangelist Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association lauds Putin as a promoter of the Christian cause, calling him a “Lion of Christianity.” A key organization of the Christian Right for global outreach, the World Congress for Families, which exports homophobia under the name of protecting the “natural family,” has found eager partners in today’s Russia. A conference in 2016 took place in Tbilisi, Georgia. Even the Putin regime’s recent religious favoritism toward the ROC at the expense of Western evangelical churches has not damaged the relationship.
American white nationalists have likewise crooned over the Putin regime. In recent years, neo-fascist Richard Spencer, white supremacist David Duke, and Matthew Heimbach of the Traditionalist Worker Party have all expressed strong approval of Putin’s Russia. They have been drawn to the aggressive expression of ethnic nationalism, anti-globalism in the Breitbart mode, and attacks on liberal democracy. Duke and Spencer view Russia as nothing short of a beacon of white civilization. Heimbach calls Putin the “leader of the free world” and speaks of Russia as the home of a new “Traditionalist International” in the model of Stalin’s Comintern. For all of them, Putin serves as a stern rebuke of today’s tolerant American ethos and represents the last best hope for the survival of “white” civilization.
It’s too soon to say whether Putinphilia will become a permanent feature of American politics. Already polls show that at least half of the Republican electorate takes a favorable view of Putin. On the other hand, most elected Republicans and self-styled conservatives, still influenced by canons of individual freedom, still seem to find the embrace of a heavy-handed Russian strong man hard to swallow. Their recent legislative support of sanctions against Russia, even in the face of Trump’s displeasure, is an indication of that view. The real test will be whether Republican voters begin electing Russiaphiles and brazen nationalists into office. A tendency in favor of overt authoritarianism would drastically alter America’s political system and be an indication that Trump was not simply a lone black swan.