Unpacking the admiration Westerners on both political extremes express for Vladimir Putin, one of the terrible men of our time.
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“Horseshoe theory” is the idea that the more extreme polar opposites on the political spectrum become, the more aligned they actually are. This is often true, and perhaps never more so than now. Since Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, Americans on both the right and left have found it in themselves to defend or outright admire Russia’s spymaster strongman, a development I find deeply disturbing.
After I recently shared my personal recollections of the revolutions of 1989 and wondered whether modern-day tyrants — including the fundamentalist mullahs oppressing Iran, as well as an isolated and desperate Putin — might face similar reckonings at the hands of the crowd, I received this angry message from a small-time, activist documentary filmmaker:
So you DO work for the CIA.
All illusions dropped.
You are pimping American imperialism toward Iran, Russia, etc., begging for WWIII.
You are a disgusting human being. Truly repulsive.
This shrill fellow is an example of Putin Derangement Syndrome — but he is far from alone in reacting with blind anger to anyone who criticizes Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Examples can be found among both the anti-imperialist left and the anti-woke right, both of whom readily praise Putin, and do so to score political points with their core constituencies.
.@TheGrayzoneNews has obtained an April 2022 plan drawn up for senior British intelligence officers hashing out a scheme to blow up Crimea’s Kerch Bridge with the involvement of Ukrainian forces. @KitKlarenberg's full story, with leaked documents: https://t.co/uoAng6rHpQ
— Aaron Maté (@aaronjmate) October 11, 2022
Perhaps a woke, emasculated military is not the best idea…. https://t.co/8aVFMW98NM
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) May 20, 2021
These people remain steadfastly oblivious to Putin’s criminal nature, his racism, the number of prominent dissidents he has had murdered, the actual false-flag attacks he has staged to silence his opposition, and his undeniable aspirations to revive the Soviet empire.
But while the US’s Russia policy has failed on almost every front since 1989, and while there are problems with NATO — a military alliance designed to isolate the Soviets, and thus well past its sell-by date — there is no rational analysis that deems Putin’s invasion a defensive measure.
One friend, a former diplomat who served in the Balkans for many years, mentioned to me the other day that he had very friendly relations with Russian diplomats until early in the new century, when he felt a chilling change of attitude. Putin, of course, veered anti-West after the Iraq invasion, and most of us were mortified by Washington’s post-9/11 ploys to secure a “new American century.” But it is hard to believe that Putin launched his own global enterprise out of some core moral vision. Still, Russia pushes the relativist “whataboutism” line hard, pointing out the US’s doings as justification for its own behavior — and it resonates.
The latest development is Elon Musk’s absurd direct diplomacy with Putin. According to political scientist Ian Bremmer, Musk spoke directly to the Kremlin leader just before posting a tweet that promoted a blatantly pro-Russia “peace” plan in which Crimea and a swath of Ukraine would become Russian territory. The world’s richest man denied speaking to Putin — he says their last tête-à-tête was before the invasion — but only a deluded mind could find his proposal acceptable.
Elon Musk also turned off Starlink for the Ukrainian military after this conversation with Putin.
Someone explain why Elon Musk shouldn’t be under investigation for
a) Not registering as a foreign agent
b) 18 U.S.C. Sec. 957
b) Violating the Logan Act & the Neutrality Act https://t.co/JCEaKF2fIW
— Claire Musk (@ClaireMusk) October 11, 2022
After the success of their social media disinformation campaigns, Russia created fake websites posing as European news outlets like The Guardian and Der Spiegel, making it falsely appear that those outlets published pro-Moscow articles — and people are eating it up.
Russia’s sophisticated disinfo assault apparently doesn’t bother these people. In fact, the campaign is so successful that its talking points are parroted every night on RT by Margarita Simonyan, a propagandist so gleefully vile she makes Tucker Carlson look like Johnny Carson.
Although many — like that angry filmmaker — believe themselves sophisticated students of politics and history, they have instead bought Russian propaganda as legitimate news.
It is not clear if they are victims of disinformation or just hobbled by their own sclerotic nature.
Critics justifiably decry the American propaganda machine and its imperial ambitions, but when an “enemy” of America does it, suddenly it becomes legitimate.
That’s the same technique the Soviets have used since the dawn of the Cold War: The gulag archipelago and Russian tanks crushing protesters in Prague and Hungary are considered by hardliners beyond reproach, on the basis of America’s own subversion of foreign governments and use of oppressive racism at home against its own citizens.
Speaking as someone who has investigated and reported more on US wrongdoing than that by other countries — the reason why most people know about me is my work exposing the Bush crime family, not exactly a resume-builder for a putative CIA asset — I was struck by how quickly certain people abandon honest inquiry when it no longer fits their agenda.
Aside from the filmmaker who sent me that angry note and Musk, many others share this line. Here’s Tulsi Gabbard saying freedom of information in the US and Russia is just about the same — a preposterous notion. Here’s Max Blumenthal’s Grayzone, among the most tedious repeaters of the falsehood that Ukraine is full of Nazis, publishing “leaked documents” (I wonder where they acquired them?) that assert the destruction of the key bridge linking Crimea and Russia was in fact a British intelligence plot.
A day later, Russia’s own security services arrested eight people and blamed Ukraine for the audacious assault, making me wonder whether Blumenthal wasn’t clowned by his own Russian handlers. If he was, he seems blithely unaware.
The current climate reminds me of the Cold War fever that permeated every aspect of American life in the 1950s, early ‘60s, and briefly in the Reagan years. In these circles — populated by those who enjoy the freedoms of living in the US, Canada, and the like — they suffer from a kind of Ameriphobia. They assume that everything the US does is bad, or part of an evil global imperial cabal. It’s as if, for them, the global angels and devils are preordained. They cannot recognize that presidential administrations are not the same or even accept that countries can and do evolve.
On the left, it is a straight critique of US/NATO imperialism, and the excesses of Wall Street capitalism, even though Russia is, if anything, characterized by far greater capitalist style economic theft from its citizens and, in recent years, by perpetual military aggression.
On the conservative end, the right has totally abandoned its existential fear of and obsession with Communist Russia, and views fascistic Putin as simply a strong leader — and what’s not to love?
Pro-Putinistas on the American right seem mostly enamored of his appeal to traditional values (including state-sponsored religion), and criticism of the liberalization of society — a strong parallel with today’s GOP. Thus, just as Donald Trump’s vulgarity, dishonesty, and hypocrisy can be overlooked for “larger purposes,” so can a little murderous invasion.
And there are what one might call the “Libertarian asshats,” like Musk and the hacker Kim Dotcom, telling Ukrainians they cannot defeat Putin.
The most shocking thing of all is how different this is from the days when Americans took to the streets to protest US policy, from Vietnam to Palestine to Iraq. Today, the US is in sync with nearly all of the world in support of Ukraine’s right to survive — yet a certain simplistic group of Americans essentially roots for Putin.
It’s truly astonishing. Grotesque, even.
I see almost no discussion of this phenomenon. It starts with intense anger at the US and its allies, and ends with utter amorality. A complete abandonment of values. A previously unimaginable defense of cruelty. A raging hypocrisy. It’s so obtuse that it feels like a kind of mental illness. Especially because the pro-Putin, pro-mullah crowd is not only against most of the world, it is actually against the average person in Russia and Iran.
That does not in any way justify or excuse the excesses of the United States. But if you think the calamities of the Iraq or Afghanistan invasions or decades of CIA schemes somehow justify an autocrat’s own imperial project, you are one of his minions, and in his diligent service.