I need you to explain something to me.
I think I still have a pretty good idea of how you think, even if I haven’t been back for a few years now. I understand, for example, why most of you voted for Donald Trump. You’re mad about a lot of things. You don’t like where the country is headed, you hate Obamacare’s mandates and dictates, you didn’t want Hillary Clinton to take away your guns. You don’t like Hollywood and the East Coast telling you what to do. I get all that.
But what I really don’t get is this whole thing about Russia.
When I was growing up in our town, I was surrounded by people who happily expressed their patriotism. We were a community that believed in America. Lots of folks in the older generation had fought, and bled, for this country — including my father. I looked up to him, and those like him.
The idea that a U.S. president would be eager to make friends with a country that sees us as an enemy was inconceivable.
But that’s where we are now. And I just don’t understand it.
It should be clear by now that we are under attack. Russia intervened directly in our political system during the last election. And now we have growing evidence that the Trump campaign team was seeking to work with the Russians to exploit this opening.
Russia regards the United States as an enemy. Vladimir Putin believes — wrongly — that we’ve been actively trying to undermine his regime, and he wants to do anything he can to push back. He wants to restore Russian greatness, and he sees us as his main obstacle. That’s probably why the state-dominated media in his country continue to pour out torrents of vitriolic anti-American propaganda. (Odd behavior for a would-be friend, don’t you think?)
None of this comes as a shock to me. I’ve been studying Russia for a long time. I speak the language, and I lived in the former Soviet Union for eight years. I witnessed the explosive growth of anti-U.S. sentiment there firsthand, and I’ve watched Moscow work hard to reestablish its sphere of influence through bribery, assassination and outright war. In the past decade, Russia has invaded two of its neighbors, in one case directly annexing territory that belongs to one of them. That was the first time that any European power has done anything comparable since World War II.
What I can’t understand is why so many of you folks back in the hometown seem to think this is okay. When Trump persists in flattering Putin in the creepiest terms, you don’t seem to mind. When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson dismisses Russian meddling in our political process and says that we need to “move forward,” you nod in approval.
I hear some of you saying that we need Russia to fight the Islamic State. That’s a red herring. Moscow has been fighting in Syria to uphold its alliance with dictator Bashar al-Assad, not to vanquish the terrorists. Most of the military progress against the Islamic State on the ground has come through our alliances with the Iraqi government and the Syrian Kurds.
Some of you admire Putin because he’s a “strong leader.” But do you ever discuss the issue of his personal corruption, his alliances with Hezbollah and Iran and North Korea, his gross mismanagement of his state-dominated economy? (Given Russia’s incredible natural wealth, it should be the richest country in the world. Instead, it has a gross domestic product roughly equivalent to Italy’s.) Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were strong leaders: They persuaded by argument and example. Putin operates more like Tony Soprano.
I’ve even heard some of you say that he’s a Christian leader who’s defending “Western civilization” from the threat of liberals and gays and feminists. Really? Putin makes an odd poster boy for the defense of Christianity. He started his political career in the Soviet KGB, a militantly atheistic organization. The present-day Russian Orthodox Church is basically a branch of the Kremlin, locked in a mindset of xenophobia and anti-Western paranoia. It is run by priests who worked as KGB informers in Soviet days, and who are themselves profoundly corrupt.
The kind of Russian political culture that Putin represents today, steeped in centuries of autocracy, has far more in common with places such as China or the Middle East than with any part of the West. But Putin knows what conservatives in the West like to hear, and he’s shrewd enough to give it to them. (Note to you gun fans: Russia is scamming you when it portrays itself as a paradise for gun owners. It has some of the toughest gun control laws in the world.)
Putin is contemptuous of freedom, and he sneers at the idea of representative democracy. He believes in corruption, lying and poison as tools of statecraft. His only version of Christianity is one in which priests serve as his stooges. I don’t see how you can defend a man like this and still believe in the values that America is supposed to stand for. I don’t see how you can claim to be a patriot and simultaneously embrace a leader who hates our way of life.
So follow Trump’s lead if you will, and join the Putin fan club. But I, for one, will never understand how you can do it.