In the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, many American leftists — including quite a few members of the Democratic Party — regarded the Soviet Union through a pink-tinted filter of earnestly held ideals. The U.S.S.R. was a “socialist paradise,” a place run by gruff but honest workers who were doing away with the economic and political injustices that plagued the United States.
The appeal of this vision was so powerful that many who clung to it had trouble confronting the brutal realities of the Soviet system. True believers dismissed the reports of famines, purges and concentration camps as capitalist propaganda, and scorned those who did the reporting as “Whites” or “reactionaries” or even “fascists” — in outright denial that many who first began to speak out about their experiences of Stalinism were ex-communists or socialists themselves.
I was reminded of those reality-averse leftists this weekend, when I saw a photo that was making the rounds on the Internet. The photo showed two older American men wearing identical T-shirts with the slogan “I’d rather be a Russian than Democrat.” Both were clearly pleased with themselves — they were clearly enjoying the feeling of trolling their presumed liberal opponents.
Yet, their prank still tells you a lot. It’s a reflection of the extent to which the Republican Party has now swung behind President Trump’s extraordinary Russophilia.
The trend isn’t new, of course. For years we’ve seen American conservatives cultivating ties with Russian counterparts who seem to embody all the cool things they can’t get at home: contempt for “political correctness,” the unapologetic defense of “Christian values” and rule by a macho strongman who sneers at journalists, gays and liberal snowflakes of all varieties.
The American right is mistaken, however, when it idealizes Putin as a defender of “conservative values.” Whatever values Putin has are entirely situational — he’ll do whatever it takes to boost Russia’s power and his own (because the two are intertwined). And clueless Republicans have given him a wonderful opening to exploit.
Take the case of Maria Butina, the alleged Russian agent who cultivated contacts with the National Rifle Association as a supposed “gun rights activist” from Siberia. Had anyone at the NRA troubled to ask, that person could have easily learned that her country has strict gun-control policies. Kremlin officials would never tolerate a genuine grass-roots challenge to that principle. But they do know what Republicans want to hear.
American evangelicals who come to Russia seeking allies in the fight against unbelief have proven equally gullible. Their official interlocutor, the Russian Orthodox Church, had a long history of collaboration with the Soviet regime, one that extends into the present. The church is less a religious community than an arm of the state, which repays that loyalty by making life hard for potential rivals. Putin would never allow evangelical Protestants or Catholics to compete in a free marketplace of religious ideas. The fact that Russian authorities have explicitly banned Jehovah’s Witnesses effectively puts the lie to any claims that Russia cares about “Christian values.” (And don’t look now — but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seems to agree.)
Russian religious leaders love telling their American counterparts — such as star Trump supporter Franklin Graham — how much they hate the idolatry and decadence of the modern age. Yet, the stirring sermons never seem to have much of an effect on Russia’s sky-high levels of corruption, the ubiquity of drugs and prostitution (allegedly ably abetted by the police, who run lucrative protection rackets), or the prevalence of abortion, which remains the Kremlin’s favored method of birth control. That’s a view shared by Putin, by the way — though I doubt that many Republicans are aware. At 480 abortions per 1,000 live births, Russia’s rate is more than twice as high as that of the godless United States.
I’ve even heard some especially ill-informed conservatives try to argue that Russia is a paragon of the free market — even though anyone who knows about the country’s economy can tell you that its leading business tycoons enjoy their positions at the mercy of Putin. Those who tout Russia’s low income-tax rates should keep in mind that the tax service is one of the Kremlin’s most effective tools for keeping its political rivals in line.
And what about those white nationalists such as Richard Spencer, who like to praise Russia for its alleged success at remaining the “sole white power in the world”? Actually, a visit to just about any provincial town would show idiots like him a far more complicated reality, shaped by large-scale immigration from the majority-Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union. In that respect, indeed, even authoritarian Russia is wrestling with exactly the same globalizing forces that confront western Europe or the United States.
In short, the modern-day Republican romance with Russia has little to do with reality and everything to do self-delusion — making them oddly similar to those 20th-century leftists who succumbed to the fairy tales of Stalinism. You would think that Trump and his supporters would at least have the advantage of being able to learn from history. No such luck, apparently.