In a year of surreal political developments, a curious flipping of the script is playing out in Washington: Democrats furious about reports of alleged Russian interference in the American electoral process are the main ones banging the drum about Kremlin perfidy; conservatives, once at the vanguard of the Cold War, are now more circumspect in their criticism of Moscow and, in some instances, rushing to its defense.
Even if the CIA's allegations of deliberate Russian meddling in the American election in Trump's favor prove to be flimsy, a profound new reality is reshaping Western politics.
Soon, governments in Washington and Moscow will be both led by figures who embrace a similar brand of right-wing nationalism, one that harps on the primacy of national sovereignty, invokes myths of a greater past, trumpets Christian values and rejects multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism. Their ideological brethren have also found firm footing in parts of Europe and threaten to rewind decades of liberal integration on the continent.
Russia under its autocratic president, Vladimir Putin, is not pulling all the strings in this vast, rightward turn. But his government has actively pushed for such a realignment. A November report published by the Atlantic Council outlined how, through a network of media affiliates and political alliances in various European countries, Russia “seeks to infiltrate politics, influence policy, and inculcate an alternative, pro-Russian view of the international order.”
The examples are legion. Ultranationalist parties across the continent, from Hungary to Sweden, have been courted by Moscow. France's far-right National Front, whose leader, Marine Le Pen, stands a good chance of winning presidential elections next year, received sizable loans from Russian banks. A leading champion of the populist, anti-establishment move toward Brexit — the nickname for Britain's departure from the European Union — appeared regularly on Russia Today, a state-funded international media company.
In various ways, they all articulate a worldview that rejects globalization and liberal values in favor of a more muscular nationalism at home. This is in line with Moscow's thinking. Le Pen has called for an end to European sanctions on Russia and supported Putin's annexation of Crimea. These far-right parties also operate at a moment where declining trust in national governments and establishment media has led to a proliferation of conspiracy theories, sometimes fueled by groups or leaks linked to the Kremlin.
The ultimate goal, wrote the Atlantic Council's Alina Polyakova, “is to weaken NATO and the EU.”
Part of this is a function of Russia's resistance to an American-led world order, a continuation of Cold War rivalries updated for a post-Soviet world. It surfaced in Putin's 2014 power play in Ukraine and is on full display in Russia's successful preservation of a Syrian regime that brutalized its own civilians.
Trump has a stated affinity for Putin. A coterie of his former, current and future advisers have links to the Russian government or have expressed sympathy for its agenda. Trump cheered on Brexit, which signaled the greatest crisis yet for the future of the European project, and heaped skepticism on the viability and importance of NATO, a military alliance that guaranteed the security of much of Europe for more than a half-century.
The potential appointment of ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson, a man with considerable ties to Russia, as secretary of state reinforces the sense that the Trump White House will abandon some of the more idealistic precepts that underlie — if not always guide — American foreign policy.
“This is a clear sign that U.S. foreign policy will move from principles, values and strategic partnerships towards a more transactional approach,” said Vladimir Milov, a Russian opposition politician, in an interview with Britain's Guardian newspaper.
But this shift is hardly devoid of its own ideology, either. There are real values that may link a future Trump administration to right-wing, populist parties in Europe and Putin's Moscow. And they present a radical departure from President Obama's two terms in office.
Some Republicans are alarmed by Trump's turn toward Moscow, a perennial foe of Washington hawks. “But many civilizational conservatives,” the Atlantic's Peter Beinart writes, “who once opposed the Soviet Union because of its atheism, now view Putin’s Russia as Christianity’s front line against the new civilizational enemy: Islam.”
The feverish memes of the so-called alt-right — white supremacists and other figures of the American far right who gained a voice during Trump's election campaign — champion Putin as a hero of the Christian West. The Russian leader has talked tough on Islamist terror at home while linking his own political legitimacy to Russia's influential Orthodox Church.
Stephen K. Bannon, the alt-right ideologue tapped to be a senior adviser in Trump's White House, praised Putin's ethno-nationalism in a 2014 speech.
While not condoning what he deemed was Putin's “kleptocracy,” Bannon told a gathering of European conservatives that “we, the Judeo-Christian West, really have to look at what [Putin]’s talking about as far as traditionalism goes — particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism.”
In speeches throughout the past year, Trump spoke in the language of a clash of civilizations, hailing the promotion of “Judeo-Christian” values as part of his foreign policy agenda, while rejecting “the false song of globalism.”
Such rhetoric carries direct echoes of remarks made by Putin, not least during a fiery state-of-the-nation address at the end of 2013, where he defended “traditional” values and attacked the cultural mores of a progressive West. He targeted liberalism's “so-called tolerance,” deeming it “genderless and infertile” and claiming it “asks us to accept without question the equality of good and evil.”
About the same time, a Kremlin-backed think tank issued a report pointing to nationalist constituencies in the West that were hostile to multiculturalism, allergic to feminism and gay rights, and felt marginalized at a moment when the cultural left seemed to be in ascendance. “Against the backdrop of a difficult economic situation,” the think-tank researchers suggested, this constituency could become a potent political force.
The report's title: “Putin: World Conservatism's New Leader.”
“Putin may be seeing the future with more clarity than Americans still caught in a Cold War paradigm,” declared American traditionalist Patrick Buchanan in 2013, who went on to argue that the defining struggle of our age was between “conservatives and traditionalists in every country arrayed against the militant secularism of a multicultural and transnational elite.”
Three years later, Putin has become a convenient foil — a patriotic strongman who rebuffs the feckless globalist elite — for Trump and his fellow travelers in Europe taking aim at all that supposedly defines the status quo in their countries. A new poll found that Putin's popularity among U.S. Republicans is surging.
“Being pro-Moscow, or at least deviating strongly from the establishment in his attitude to Moscow, is a fantastic raspberry to blow at the Beltway,” wrote Soviet-born British journalist Peter Pomerantsev in an essay on how Putin became the “Che Guevara” of the West's anti-establishment right. Others are drawing similar Cold War analogies — linking the current moment to the days of the Soviet “Comintern,” when the Kremlin actively sought to extend its global influence through leftist proxies.
“Throughout the Cold War, Moscow subsidized the leftist fringe in Western Europe,” Mike Lofgren, a former veteran Republican congressional aide, writes. “Now it does the same with right-wing parties there — same tactics, different ideological players.” Except now, the Kremlin may have a friend in Washington.
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