Putin's Challenge To The American Right
An invasion in Europe has exposed the flimsiness of post-liberalism.
It would perhaps be too glorious an irony if it were Vladimir Putin who finally buzz-killed the American and European right’s infatuation with post-liberalism. But, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine staggers shambolically and criminally forward, it’s no longer unthinkable. The icon of the West’s new right is in serious trouble now — and it might tarnish all of those who only yesterday were idolizing his reactionary zeal.
It’s not so much Putin’s trashing of international law, his unhinged rehashing of post-Soviet grievances, his next-level Covid paranoia, the foul murders of his opponents, or his brazen embrace of shelling hospitals that has so deepened the damage to the Putin brand among the West’s new Russophiles. These atrocities and madnesses they have long found ways to live with. No, it’s Putin’s failure — thus far — to actually win the war he started that’s so damning. It’s one thing for a dictator to be deemed cruel; and quite another — and far more dangerous — thing for him to be seen as incompetent.
And it’s happened so fast. The love letters had been flowing for years now before this unfortunate interruption. “Russia is like, I mean they’re really hot stuff,” Donald Trump chortled in April 2014, adding that “now you have people in the Ukraine — who knows, set up or not — but it can’t all be set up, I mean they’re marching in favor of joining Russia.” Two weeks ago, in the face of Putin’s pre-invasion posturing over the Donbas region, Trump marveled:
How smart is that? I went in yesterday and there was a television screen, and I said, ‘This is genius.’ Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine, of Ukraine, Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that’s wonderful … And he’s going to go in and be a peacekeeper. … There were more army tanks than I’ve ever seen. They’re gonna keep peace all right. … Here’s a guy who’s very savvy… I know him very well. Very, very well.
“They’re gonna keep peace all right.” Think of the depth of the cynical callousness that has to lie behind such a smirk. Notice that for Trump, Putin is not just a thug but a smart one, and the possibility of his brutal incursion into a sovereign neighbor state was, in Trump’s mind, “wonderful.” And cheap: “He’s taking over a country for $2 worth of sanctions. I’d say that’s pretty smart.” With Trump, evil is always better when it’s also a bargain.
Even those on the far right who had long had to acknowledge that, yes, well, Putin was a bit of a sociopath, nonetheless professed to admire his skill, if not his motives. Nigel Farage, the well-nicotined Brexit pioneer, called Putin one of the world leaders he most admired, hurriedly hedging with “as an operator, particularly the way he managed to stop the West from getting militarily involved in Syria.” He later reiterated: “He’s a very canny, very sharp, very clever political operator.” Eric Zemmour, the dynamic far-right leader in France, also spoke highly of Putin, calling him “the last bastion against the hurricane of the politically correct which, starting in America, has destroyed all the traditional structures of family, religion and nation.” He later added, “I dream of a French Putin emerging, but there is none.”
Putin’s Russia, like Orban’s Hungary, appealed to many post-liberal conservatives in the West for obvious reasons. Part of it was the shamelessness of the strongmen’s ethnically-homogeneous nationalism, compared with what was seen as the simpering, multicultural globalism of EU types; part was hatred of Obama, who was always deemed weak in contrast with, er, anyone; and part was a more amorphous but nonetheless profound view of Putin and Orban as cultural traditionalists, standing up to Western decadence, as it staggers into its Drag Queen Story Hour hellscape. For besieged social conservatives and Christianists in America, Putin loomed like some phantasm of strange hope.
Steve Bannon summed it up: “Putin ain’t woke. He’s anti-woke.” Congressman Madison Cawthorn took it further: “Remember that the Ukrainian government is incredibly corrupt, and it is incredibly evil, and it has been pushing woke ideologies.” That plucky little Zelensky, speaking live to the British House of Commons as bombs rained down on his country’s cities? An “incredibly evil” “thug.” Our old friend Dinesh D’Souza, in his usual temperate style, sees the Democrats as posing “a far greater threat to our freedom and safety than Putin.” And Bannon is still urging his minions to give “zero dollars to Ukraine,” even as the corpses of children lie on the streets. There’s an alt-right edginess to this moral perversity.
And over the years, this drumbeat of love for the Russian dictator shifted the views of many grassroots Republicans. In the wake of Trump’s personal infatuation with Putin, the murderer’s favorability among Republicans jumped from 10 percent in 2014 to 37 percent by December 2016. Until as recently as January this year, “62 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents considered Vladimir Putin a stronger leader than Joe Biden.” That’s the primrose path down which the GOP led its supporters — seeing Putin as a more legitimate president than Biden.
The last two weeks, to put it mildly, have pummeled this narrative. It’s happened in a couple of ways. The first is that there really is no legitimate defense — even at CPAC, the fetid armpit of the Trump right — of sending troops and tanks into a neighboring country to teach it a lesson in submission to Mother Russia. Putin didn’t even use his “little green men” to deny accountability this time. If you’re Bannon, you can still try and wing it, but the sheer sight of bombed hospitals, murdered children, homeless seniors, and mortar explosions in residential neighborhoods tends to shape public opinion overnight.
Not even Tucker Carlson has been able to muster up enough shrill bullshit on that one — which is why his show this week has been a hathos-filled, must-watch spectacle, trying recently to advance Russian propaganda about alleged US-funded “bioweapons” in Ukraine. Was Fauci behind it all? Stay tuned! Yes, you can still make a credible and legitimate argument that the West mishandled Russia in the recent past, and bears some responsibility for the mess. Listen to Mearsheimer for that case. But all of that is now simply blasted away by the facts and visuals of a sudden, brutal, unprovoked invasion, justified by a deranged rant about Russian imperial destiny.
Secondly, and perhaps most important, Putin is failing. He looks weak. The visual of a vast, stalled, vulnerable convoy of trucks on its way — or not — to Kyiv is now a metaphor for Putin’s presidency. The world is currently mocking the decrepitude and amateurishness of the Russian military. We look set for a long bloody struggle to gain some kind of control over Ukraine, followed by an even longer and bloodier insurgency. This “canny” and “savvy” mastermind appears to have sent an unprepared, ill-equipped, misinformed, over-extended army into a massive country it cannot even begin to control let alone occupy. Not exactly “genius.”
Putin has also done something no US president has been able to do in decades: rally Europe around NATO, get NATO countries to re-arm (finally), and give them a new and pointed mission: the deterrence of Russia. And Putin’s blunder has revealed, in fact, that the West has a unique new weapon in the history of global warfare that can end wars almost before they begin: an economic kill-switch. The vast and complex set of financial, economic, and travel sanctions that the West unveiled this past fortnight and is imposing on Russia — effectively removing it from international banking and most international trade — is something no country can survive for very long.
This novel and astonishingly broad set of measures — deployed with staggering speed by global institutions and corporations as well as governments — is a form of blockade, an act of war. Putin is right about that. Few bombs could do as much damage to a nation-state. He will seek support from China (and India), but that won’t make up for losing his grip on the entire European energy market. Sure, he’ll still be able to sell some gas and oil to Europe. But if the EU is able to ramp up nuclear power (as France and Britain are), allow more fracking, and keep its investment in renewables surging, Russia’s entire carbon-based economy will have an expiration date attached to it.
None of this was supposed to happen. The West wasn’t supposed to unite this expeditiously; the EU wasn’t expected to find a new and confident voice; Russia’s access to global finance wasn’t supposed to be severed overnight; and a senile American president wasn’t supposed to corral a massive coalition to marginalize and isolate Russia on the global stage. But it all did. David Frum had a nice line on this: “Everything the [far right] wanted to perceive as decadent and weak has proven strong and brave; everything they wanted to represent as fearsome and powerful has revealed itself as brutal and stupid.”
And so a president recently celebrated as a mastermind on the world stage has allowed his ancient fantasies of imperial glory to kick-start his own country’s economic and social collapse. Putin emerges from this as neither smart nor strong; he is, in fact, dumb and increasingly weak.
That’s why he’s a useful insight into what reactionism actually is. It’s not really a politics; it’s a mood. It’s not really about the problems of the present; it’s about living in an imagined past, and believing that you alone can restore it by some mystical rhetorical magic. It’s about “subscribing to a worldview that combines Orthodox Christian mysticism, anti-American conspiracy theories and hedonism.” And its view of history is long. Putin is attempting to build a civilizational Russian state, which would have no meaning without authoritarianism at home and control of its neighbors’ culture and politics abroad. He is vowing to Make Russia Great Again. In a 2017 essay that has aged extremely well, Matthew J. Schmidt explained:
Putin’s vision is not to build a new Soviet Union, but rather a new Russia that adapts much of its feudal past to the present. Putin is reimagining the authoritarian state at home, and the vassal-state-abroad structure of Imperial Russia for the new century, not the centralized Communist state. The motivation behind such a neofeudal world order is Eurasianism: a pan-nationalist movement that puts Moscow at the center of a countermovement to the American-dominated post-Cold War order.
And we’d be dumb not to see this as politically potent domestically. The annexation of Crimea certainly helped Putin — and his current ratings, in so far as they have any meaning at all, suggest he’s riding a jingoistic wave. But as an actual strategy to deal with reality, it still won’t work. You can’t force a country to embrace an invasion; Putin doesn’t have the manpower or weapons to keep it under control for very long; and the invasion has cut Russia off from much of the material base from which to finance the war. And events since 1991, when Ukraine emerged from the Soviet empire, have only strengthened Ukrainian nationalism. At this very moment, it is probably more vibrant than at any point in its history, and that includes the Maidan occupation in 2014. Even if Putin does somehow manage, through sheer brutality and determination, to keep military control of Ukraine, it will be a punishing Pyrrhic victory.
The world changes. It’s the only constant thing about it. When change happens too fast, or humiliates aging generations, or generates its own disasters, the impulse to recreate an older, purer time is hard to resist. It’s certainly easier than attempting to govern what is actually in front of you. Trump longs for the 1950s in America — just as Putin longs for the USSR of the same period. Wrapped up in nationalism, provoked by left-extremism, corralled by skillful demagogues, this longing can be a path to power. It can bring tyrants into office. But it cannot work in practice — because the world is different now. We live in 2022. America will never have the cultural and relative demographic homogeneity of the 1950s again. Never. “White nationalism” in the most ethnically diverse democracy in human history is a kind of insanity — perpetuated by woke leftists and sad rightists. No wall, no president, no new immigration policy, no mass deportations, no book-bannings and no neo-Nazi rallies will bring it back. It’s gone.
Same for Russia. It will never dominate its neighbors the way it once did — for similar reasons. Those neighbors, once liberated, will never return willingly. Communism as an economic model has been disproven. Yes, there will be adjustments in the foreseeable capitalist future. The global economy may retrench a little, bring home more supply-lines, decelerate the pace of globalization and free trade. But globalization as a whole will not be undone. And because it will not be undone, exclusion from it will effectively remove any country from great power status in the foreseeable future. And so Putin has had his bluff called as well. If the sanctions hold, the danger from Russia henceforth will come from desperation, not ambition.
I think that’s true of reactionary currents at home too. There’s something both horrifying and yet also powerless about them. Trump’s constant invocation of “strength” is an obvious way to bluster past his palpable weaknesses. He barely won in 2016 against an uncommonly awful candidate; and four years later, lost re-election to a foggy retiree in a Delaware basement. He built no wall. He deported fewer people than Obama did. He passed no infrastructure bill. He presided over a murder wave in the cities. He lost white male voters to Biden. He sent the far left into overdrive. In the end, Trump was reduced to egging on a crew of malcontents, loonies, and thugs to attack the Capitol building to reverse an election result they couldn’t reverse, and didn’t. Yes, it was a horrifying, violent, and shameful insurrection. But it was also, in a word, pathetic.
And this is often the risk of reactionary movements. The backlash they provoke can be lethal to their cause. Think of the convoy-truckers in Canada, understandably miffed by their government’s overbearing Covid policies. What they actually provoked in the end was an invocation of the Emergencies Act that claimed the power to freeze the bank accounts of those who contributed money to the convoy cause. That’s a precedent the woke-authoritarians to our north are celebrating — but which are terrifying for the future of Canadian democracy. And what Putin has provoked by his needless invasion is a similar dynamic. If Trudeau tried to freeze the bank accounts of political opponents, the West has chosen to cut an entire country off from global finance — to precipitate its collapse. The scale of this organized global cabal and the immensity of its power should alarm anyone. Putin’s hyper-nationalism has actually generated the most potent globalist power grab since the Cold War. And made it look reasonable.
If this makes me sound optimistic, my apologies. I understand the appeal of nostalgia, reaction, and counter-revolution. But I’m a conservative, not a reactionary. I believe in the pragmatic maintenance of free and dynamic societies, preserving their cultural and social stability and coherence. I don’t believe in attempts to resurrect past glory in a present in which it is largely meaningless.
So here’s hoping that Putin fails, and fails badly (but not badly enough to bring the world to the nuclear brink). And here’s hoping that the Western right will see in their Putin flirtation a cautionary tale: that post-liberal reactionary politics, abroad and at home, from Putin to Xi to Trump, is full of sound and violence, but is getting nowhere anytime soon.
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New On The Dishcast: Maia Szalavitz
Maia is the author of Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction, and her latest book, Undoing Drugs, which we cover in this episode. Much of her reporting and research on harm reduction is informed by her own history of hardcore drug addiction, which we also go into. I felt we could do with another view of drug policy, after the hugely popular episode with Michael Shellenberger, and Maia makes a strong case.
For two clips of our conversation — on how much to blame Big Pharma for opioid addiction, and to what extent harm reduction enables addicts — head over to our YouTube page. Listen to the whole episode here. That link also takes you to some reader commentary on Shellenberger’s convo.
Hip, Hip, Hooray
Some notes on my recovery from hip replacement surgery are here, in the paid version of this week’s Dish. Trigger warning for TMI!
Dissent Of The Week: Should Putin Push Us Away From Oil?
A reader writes:
Thank you to Josh Barro for his excellent guest-column last week, but with all due respect: the Dems should be working overtime to lower gas prices?! Why, because if thermonuclear war doesn’t get us, let’s let climate change do the trick?
The Dems should announce a massive, clean, nuclear-power plan (combined with electric vehicles) that weans the US off the oil teat of suicidal autocrats and shows some leadership in climate change. The days of fighting for lower gas prices are OVER — at least in the long term. And honestly, this long-term horizon has become much shorter (read any recent climate change report). Why can’t we use Russian aggression to engage in a moonshot on nuclear and alternative energy?
Sorry, the histrionics over “10 year” or similar climate deadlines are just marketing.
Climate change is a significant problem that will reduce global standards of living in the future compared to if global temperatures were not rising — though life in the future will still be better than life today because of economic growth and other advancements. We should want even more improvement, which is why we should want the climate to change less. But climate change is not a catastrophic concern that inherently overrides other policy areas that affect well-being. We need to weigh the costs of marginal changes in US carbon output against the costs of other factors affecting the human condition, like Russia feeling free to bomb the shit out of its neighbors.
Stable energy prices are important both for keeping the global economy out of recession — recessions take away people’s sources of livelihood; they are not just numbers on a page — and for preserving the political support that will be needed to isolate a major petrostate like Russia. If gasoline goes over $5 a gallon and stays there, it will be easier for Putin to press Western governments to ease off, forgive his war crimes, and get his oil flowing freely again.
Another necessary component of a strategy to reduce our economic exposure to oil price swings is, yes, greater investments in non-carbon-emitting energy sources, including renewables and nuclear — though the most cost-effective thing we can do on nuclear is stop closing the plants we already have. Reorienting in this direction would provide both geopolitical and climate benefits over the medium- and long-term. But we can’t make that shift overnight, and if we rely solely on that element of the strategy, Democrats will lose the next elections in a consumer freakout over gas prices. Either Biden can work to moderate gas prices now, or Republicans will be elected and do it for him.
There’s a reason the Obama administration let the last US fracking boom flourish — it was good for the American economy and the American people, even in the context of longer-run efforts to shift away from fossil fuels.
Sign up for Josh’s Substack here! He’s also got a great podcast you should check out, also called “Very Serious.”
In The ‘Stacks
This is a feature in the paid version of our newsletter spotlighting about a dozen of our favorite pieces from other Substackers every week. This week’s selection covers topics such as the grain crisis from Putin’s war, femcels, and the resentment of being a racial token (not Tolkien). Here’s an example:
Ed West compares Russia to the dystopia in Children of Men and unpacks the terms “infertile crescent” and “Pax Americana Geriatrica” more broadly.
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You can also browse all the Substack writers we follow and read on a regular basis here — a combination of our favorite writers and new ones we’re checking out. It’s a blogroll of sorts. If you have any recommendations for “In the ‘Stacks,” especially ones from emerging writers, please let us know: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The View From Your Window Contest
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