Two old friends of mine once sat on opposite ends of the political spectrum. One used to be pro-American — a liberal Cold Warrior and defender of the Vietnam War. The other was very much in the leftist camp, a lifelong opponent of “American imperialism” and a committed anti-Zionist. Both are now keen promoters of Vladimir Putin’s propaganda: Ukraine is a U.S. puppet state dominated by Nazis, Putin is a man of peace, Russia must defend itself against a warmongering North Atlantic Treaty Organization and so forth.
One could easily dismiss their blogposts and YouTube performances as the rantings of bitter old men. But that won’t quite do. For their views echo those of prominent politicians on the far reaches of both left and right. And they are amplified in major media such as Fox News as well as, of course, on countless social media outlets well beyond the United States and Europe.
Until quite recently, far-right French presidential candidate Eric Zemmour called Putin a brave nationalist defending his country against NATO. “I would dream of a French Putin,” he once said. His far-left rival Jean-Luc Melenchon defended Russian atrocities in Syria and blamed NATO for the invasion of Ukraine.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump famously called Putin a “genius.” Tucker Carlson, the political showman of Fox News, described Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy as an “obedient puppet of the … State Department,” praised Putin as a defender of white Christian values and repeated Russian propaganda about U.S. biological warfare labs in Ukraine.
What possesses these parrots of Putin’s propaganda? For the most part, their defense of the indefensible has less to do with any real love for Putin or Russia than with domestic politics. Zemmour wants to be the French Putin. Melenchon wants France to leave NATO.
Carlson and his hero Trump hate U.S. President Joe Biden so much that they will defend his greatest enemy. In this, they resemble the America Firsters in the 1930s, who saw Franklin D. Roosevelt as a more dangerous enemy than Adolf Hitler. Those isolationists, too, felt the U.S. was being dragged into a foreign war — in their view, by liberals and Jews. The latter, in the words of Charles Lindbergh, posed a particular danger because of “their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.”
Today, too, much pro-Putin rhetoric reflects loathing of what is seen as the grip of the “liberal elites” on media, finance and foreign affairs. In Europe, these elites are associated with the European Union bureaucracy, generous immigration policies and a tolerance of Islam. In the U.S., the main bugbears are the United Nations, anti-racist activists, immigrants and liberals who believe that the U.S. has a duty to fight for global freedom and democracy. In developing countries such as India, Putin backers resent being lectured by Western powers about human rights.
Even noxious ideas sometimes contain a kernel of truth. America’s catastrophic wars in the Middle East, touted by Republicans as well as hawkish Democrats as great battles for democracy, were dreadful mistakes. Poor Americans rightly resented the politicians who sent them to fight abroad. That helps explain why NATO, which once had bipartisan support, is now viewed on the Trumpist right with almost as much hostility as it is on the anti-imperialist left.
Yet the most important thing extremists on either side of the political spectrum have in common is a sense of deep self-pity. In their minds, they are always being “marginalized,” or dominated or threatened by a seemingly omnipotent establishment. In the U.S., inevitably, race plays a large role in such feelings, though for opposite reasons on the left and right. Left-wing activists are obsessed, not entirely without cause, with “white supremacy.” On the right, Carlson asks with a straight face: “Is [Putin] teaching my children to embrace racial discrimination?”
Both Putin and Trump like to portray themselves as victims — or, at least, as leaders who speak for the victims of liberal elites, arrogant internationalists, critical race theorists or people who fail to respect Russian or American “greatness.” It is this idea of victimhood that people, especially on the far right, identify with. Remember the degree to which Nazi propaganda was soaked in grievance: the treatment of Germany by the allied nations after World War I, the dominance of Jews who supposedly pulled all the strings of power. The first official heroes of the Nazi movement were “martyrs” who had died in street brawls with leftists.
Real victims exist, of course. But when powerful men exploit a fear of impotence to stoke popular anger, it becomes a dangerous force, for it is always bent on vengeance. When there is vengeance, there will always be blood.
More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
• To Save Democracy, We Need a Few Good Dictators: Robert D. Kaplan
• Putin’s New Alter Ego is Igor Strelkov: Leonid Bershidsky
• How to Hold Vladimir Putin Accountable for War Crimes: Editorial
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Ian Buruma is professor of human rights at Bard College. His latest book is “The Churchill Complex.”
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