How to explain the right’s Putin mania

Dr Oliver Hartwich
20 February, 2024

Tucker Carlson’s visit to Moscow made headlines in recent weeks. Carlson first did a servile interview with Putin, then produced a series of short videos expressing his admiration for Moscow, its underground and even supermarket shopping carts.

In both cases, Carlson’s pretended naïveté made it hard to regard him as the journalist he once might have been. Instead, he appeared as a blind cheerleader for the Russian government.

His next engagement at the World Government Summit in Dubai about Russia confirmed this impression. “Every leader kills people, some kill more than others,” Carlson told the crowd. “Leadership requires killing people, sorry, that’s why I wouldn’t want to be a leader.”

Four days after Carlson’s conference appearance, Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny died in prison. Perhaps Putin wanted to prove Carlson right at least once.

Those of us who have followed global affairs over the past years should not be surprised by any of this. Navalny is just the latest victim of a regime that has killed many of its opponents. They include ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko (poisoned in 2004), journalist Anna Politkovskaya (shot in 2006) and rogue mercenary Yevgeny Prigozhin (plane crash in 2023).

Carlson’s affection for Russia and Putin, is no surprise, either. There is a growing group of Putin apologists among right-wing populists around the world. They have found an unlikely hero in the Russian dictator. Carlson was simply adding his voice to the global extreme right-wing choir.

Though this is not a huge surprise, it still requires an explanation. Who could stand by the man responsible for one of the bloodiest wars in decades? How could anyone be blind to the barbaric atrocities committed by Russian forces in places like Bucha? Which democrat could defend this autocrat’s assault on democracy, the media and the rule of law?

It may seem bizarre, but plenty of people like Carlson seem perfectly capable to do all that. They are happy to justify Putin’s crimes – or at least to overlook them. They blame others for what is happening in Ukraine. And maybe, deep down, they even admire Putin’s ability to have his way.

There are three easy explanations for Putin apologism – and a fourth more disturbing one. Let’s take them one by one.

The first reason to defend Putin is the most harmless but also the most naïve. While accepting Putin’s responsibility for the war and other tyrannous actions, some people would rather make deals with him than confront him head-on. They favour appeasing the dictator and negotiating with him. They may even hope to do business with Russia again, say to import cheap Russian oil and gas.

However, to reach that point, they must first downplay Putin’s brutality and evil. Even appease-niks have some pride, and no one would want to be accused of making deals with the devil or a modern-day Hitler. Chamberlain, of course, once tried, and it did not end well.

Although I consider the appeasement approach morally wrong and shortsighted in the extreme, I can understand why some people prefer to delude themselves in this way.

Another explanation is that some people may have simply been sucked into Russia’s propaganda. The Russian regime has spread falsehoods through many channels for decades, and some of them have taken hold.

For example, Russia’s claim that NATO gave it a guarantee that it would not accept new Eastern European members is demonstrably false. But that does not stop Moscow from propagating it ad nauseam. Meanwhile, they forget to mention that Moscow once guaranteed Ukraine’s security when the Ukrainians gave up their nuclear weapons.

Similarly, Russia’s claim that NATO ‘encircled’ it with its expansion is often taken at face value. Yet looking at a world map reveals how difficult it would be to do that to a country spanning eleven time zones.

Even so, frequent repetition can make even outright falsehoods stick. With Russian propaganda about “Nazis” in the Ukrainian government, Ukraine’s allegedly dodgy dealings with the US, and Western weapons manufacturers’ interests, some people then find themselves caught up in this Russian-made conspiracy theory.

The third reason for the right’s Putin-mania is even more troubling. For some Putin supporters, far from denying his evil, the dictator’s traits are what they admire most.

They see Putin as the ultimate ‘decisive leader.’ Someone who does not care what the world thinks of him. Someone who prefers action over negotiation. If a few hundred thousand people get killed in the process, it only shows that Putin will not be stopped on his mission. Tucker Carlson’s ‘reporting’ from Moscow displayed this strongman fascination that blinds people to Putin’s crimes and evil.

These three justifications – a wish to deal with the regime, the effects of Russian propaganda, and the strongman cult – all play a role for those Putin sympathisers. They range from naïve to ugly.

However, there is a fourth justification that goes even further. That is the self-hatred of Western liberal democracy among parts of the extreme and populist right.

In Putin’s Russia, they see a country very different from their own. Putin likes to portray it as similar to the countries his admirers imagine theirs once to have been.

And so, it looks to them as if Putin’s Russia is a society in which LGBTIQ+ issues are not a concern. As if it was one in which traditional institutions like church and family are still cherished. As if it was a country in which law and order are maintained. In which men are still men – just like Vladimir Putin, who was once photographed riding shirtless on a horse.

This idea of Russia contrasts with Western countries’ left-wing leaders, environmental policies, and identity politics. Because the extreme right hates the state of their own countries so much, they embrace Putin as their countries’ nemesis.

As a result, Putin does not have to pretend to be anything he is not. Putin appeals to his fans on the extreme right by simply being the opposite of those Western leaders they despise, such as Joe Biden, Rishi Sunak or Olaf Scholz. This is the right-wing version of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” - and it is a manifestation of the Western spirit of self-hatred.

There is only one enemy of their enemies who may be even closer to their hearts, and that is Donald Trump, along with his agitator Tucker Carlson.

No wonder they all get on so well with Putin. It is their disdain for free societies that unites them.

And it is that which makes them a danger to any democracy and freedom-loving person.

To read the article on the Newsroom website, click here.

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