Why Trump’s Nostalgia Voters Support His Embrace of Putin

Last week I wrote about what Robert Jones referred to as Trump’s “nostalgia voters.”

Trump’s campaign—with its sweeping promise to “make American great again”—triumphed by converting self-described “values voters” into what I’ve called “nostalgia voters.” Trump’s promise to restore a mythical past golden age—where factory jobs paid the bills and white Protestant churches were the dominant cultural hubs—powerfully tapped evangelical anxieties about an uncertain future.

They pine for the “good old days” of their monochromatic view of the 1950’s. But back then, the former Soviet Union was emerging as the great threat to this country. Now they support a president who is determined to ease any tensions between the U.S. and Russia, while an investigation is underway about whether his campaign colluded with Putin in the 2016 election that put him in the White House. There is certainly no nostalgia for the days of casting that country as the “evil empire.” What changed?

Franklin Foer describes how Vladimir Putin stumbled onto something after returning to power in Russia in 2012.

After the global financial crisis of 2008, populist uprisings had sprouted across Europe. Putin and his strategists sensed the beginnings of a larger uprising that could upend the Continent and make life uncomfortable for his geostrategic competitors. A 2013 paper from the Center for Strategic Communications, a pro-Kremlin think tank, observed that large patches of the West despised feminism and the gay-rights movement and, more generally, the progressive direction in which elites had pushed their societies. With the traditionalist masses ripe for revolt, the Russian president had an opportunity. He could become, as the paper’s title blared, “The New World Leader of Conservatism.”

Notice how Putin’s language about the West echoes the concerns expressed by the white Christian world of Trump’s nostalgia voters.

[Putin] hurled splenetic attacks against the culturally decadent, spiritually desiccated “Euro-Atlantic.” He warned against the fetishization of tolerance and diversity. He described the West as “infertile and genderless,” while Russian propaganda derided Europe as “Gayropa.” At the heart of Putin’s case was an accusation of moral relativism. “We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization,” he said at a conference in 2013. “They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious, and even sexual … They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan.” By succumbing to secularism, he noted on another occasion, the West was trending toward “chaotic darkness” and a “return to a primitive state.”

As Foer goes on to explain, those views line up perfectly with Trump’s white nationalist wing, headed up by Steve Bannon. He notes what the chief White House strategist said to a conservative Catholic think tank in 2014.

“We, the Judeo-Christian West, really have to look at what [Putin’s] talking about as far as traditionalism goes,” Bannon said. He shared Putin’s vision of a world disastrously skidding off the tracks—“a crisis both of our Church, a crisis of our faith, a crisis of the West, a crisis of capitalism.”

At about the same time (during Russia’s incursion into Ukraine), Pat Buchanan was calling Putin a “Christian Crusader.”

With Marxism-Leninism a dead faith, Putin is saying the new ideological struggle is between a debauched West led by the United States and a traditionalist world Russia would be proud to lead. In the new war of beliefs, Putin is saying, it is Russia that is on God’s side. The West is Gomorrah…

Putin is entering a claim that Moscow is the Godly City of today and command post of the counter-reformation against the new paganism. Putin is plugging into some of the modern world’s most powerful currents. Not only in his defiance of what much of the world sees as America’s arrogant drive for global hegemony. Not only in his tribal defense of lost Russians left behind when the USSR disintegrated. He is also tapping into the worldwide revulsion of and resistance to the sewage of a hedonistic secular and social revolution coming out of the West.

In the culture war for the future of mankind, Putin is planting Russia’s flag firmly on the side of traditional Christianity.

That sentiment was echoed by Franklin Graham (who told us that “God showed up” at the polls when Trump was elected) when he went to Russia in 2015 and was interviewed by the Moskoviskij Komsomolets newspaper.

[T]he situation in the US regarding religion is in decline. Secularism, which is almost no different from communism, is an atheistic movement. Our country is becoming more and more secular, more atheist, taking God out of government, taking God out of schools. We are witnessing America losing many religious freedoms. In your country over the past 30 years, we have seen positive changes. But over this same period of time in the US, the changes have been negative.

For nostalgia voters, this kind of talk taps into the belief that the United States (and “the West”) is in decline based on issues like abortion, gay rights, school prayer, and, as this MSNBC report indicates, guns.

If you are able to watch that segment, did you catch the dog whistle from G. Kline Preston? To explain how Russia shares his values he says, “We’re very similar people. In fact, you could take many Russians, you could put them in a room with people that are from Nashville, Tennessee and everybody would kinda look the same.”

Obviously he’s talking about the idea that Russians would look like white people from Nashville. There is some ugly history tied to that idea. It all comes from the word often used to describe white people in this country: “caucasian.” The origins of that descriptor come from the Caucasus Mountain region in Southern Russia and Georgia. The connection between the people of the Caucasus region and white people in the U.S. has an extraordinarily racist history.

Back in the late 1700s, German philosopher Christoph Meiners believed in the psudeo-scientific theory of scientific racism. Meiners thought that people from the Caucasus region had the “whitest, most blooming, and most delicate skin” and viewed non-Caucasians as inferior and “animal-like.”

German scientist and skull-collector Johann Blumenbach added to Meiners’ theories saying that people from Georgia were the most beautiful on Earth; therefore, it must have been the birthplace of humanity. He would go on to refine his theory of race, believing that all European people came from Georgia and were all part of the same race: Caucasian.

So you see, this embrace of Putin by Trump has something for all the intertwining threads of the “divinely ordained way that things are supposed to be” for nostalgia voters (i.e, confederate insurgents).  As the rest of us focus on the increasingly plausible idea that the president’s campaign coordinated with the Russians to influence the 2016 election, that is not necessarily a problem for these voters. Instead, they see Trump implementing “heaven’s agenda.”

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.