Putin, Trump, and the New Cold War Between Liberalism and White Supremacy

The conflict is global, and the left must recognize it as such.

It’s one of the most perplexing questions in politics: how do Republicans and the conservative movement continue to justify covering for a President who is clearly compromised by the Russian regime? How did the supposed party of God, country and the flag swerve so quickly to the left of Noam Chomsky, denigrating the United States with whataboutism and using past American interference in other countries’ elections to justify collusion with Russia to steal American campaign data and private documents for partisan gain? How did Republicans witness Donald Trump’s debasement before Putin in Helsinki and collectively shrug, even as they do their best to stymie an ongoing FBI investigation into collusion with Russia and obstruction of justice to cover it up?

Many theories abound, but most are insufficient to explain it fully. Tax cuts and judges? Republicans already got them for the most part, and would get them just as surely with Mike Pence or Paul Ryan in the Oval Office. Fear of their own primary electorate? Republican base voters certainly do support Trump, but that begs the question: Trump’s considerable support would dissipate quickly if Fox News and most of the Republican Congress decided to turn on the president and expose him, or even if a few insiders came forward to tell what they know publicly. Electoral self-interest? Perhaps, but Republicans must know that whatever very short-term gains they make by tying themselves to Trump now will guarantee the party’s annihilation in the years to come with demographic changes, just as surely as the Republican Party in California has practically vanished only 19 years after Pete Wilson’s last term as governor. None of these are adequate answers.

The simplest explanation is also perhaps the most terrifying: U.S. conservatives align ideologically much more closely to Putin than to their domestic opponents, and aren’t bothered by an open alliance with him.

Putin’s interference in U.S. elections troubles them no more than right-wing Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s unprecedented diplomatic and political efforts to hamper Democrats and bolster Republicans. A form of global partisan bond between conservatives across nation-states in defense of white nationalism has begun to transcend any particular allegiances to fellow citizens within their nation.

Consider this: in just four years, Gallup shows Republican approval of Russia and Putin has increased from 18% to a whopping 40%. CBS polling shows a 27-point swing toward a majority seeing Russia as an ally in just three short years. To be sure, voters overall are still quite skeptical of Putin’s regime, but that is fast changing among Republicans.

But this more recent movement by average Republican voters belies a far-right movement that has long had an ongoing love affair with the Russian kleptocratic state. Putin’s domestic policies are virulently theocratic, plutocratic, homophobic and misogynistic, allying with rural conservatives and the Russian Orthodox Church in defiance of both Islam and alleged western liberal decadence. Racists and neo-confederates have been swooning over Putin for years as the last great defender of the white race, nor is it any accident that contacts between Russia and various strident xenophobes like Donald Trump as well as openly prejudiced organizations like the National Rifle Association have been increasing for some time. Tucker Carlson on Fox News and Republican Senator Rand Paul have both been calling for a “rethinking” of America’s alliances.

This is the globalization of a hard-right hyperpartisanship in which Russia makes alliances not with nations per se, but with the racist white nationalist and plutocratic movements and candidates within those countries–and in which those  movements quietly or not-so-quietly welcome Russia’s help. It would be a misnomer to say that Russia, Israel and the United States maintain a strong alliance: it is far more accurate to say that Putin’s kleptocracy, the Republican Party and Likud have an alliance, alongside to various degrees white nationalist governments in Hungary, Poland, Italy and elsewhere. These alliances are not against other countries on the global stage, but rather against the liberal and cosmopolitan populations within those countries.

Liberals and centrists across the world are slower to catch on. They still maintain notions of national unity and patriotic loyalty. Even so, there is an understanding among many in the European Union that the President of the United States does not actually speak for the United States, but rather for the conservative white nationalists in the United States. The world was reminded by the rush of Russian protesters onto the field during the World Cup final that Vladimir Putin does not speak for the Russian people, but for his mob and for the worst elements in Russia.

Barack Obama once said of America that there are no red states and blue states, but the United States. This is no longer strictly true here, or even in other countries. Increasingly, a cosmopolitan liberal half a world away is more a liberal’s countryman than the parochial conservative next door, and this rings doubly true for the world’s white nationalist conservatives who feel increasingly besieged in a world they feel is slipping away from them politically and demographically.

Conservatives do not recognize the legitimacy of a United States that is not run by rich conservative Christian white men, on behalf of rich conservative Christian white men. An America that respects the rights and interests of women, racial and religious minorities and that protects and defends the unfortunate from the predations of Ayn Rand’s WASPy ubermenschen becomes something alien and other for them. Trump’s disdain for traditional European allies and criticism of non-white immigration into the continent reflects a broader sentiment on the far right worldwide that Europe has fallen and is no longer recognizable as Europe.

It should come as no surprise, then, to see conservatives calculate openly that treasonous collusion with Russia to install a right-wing autocratic regime in the United States is defensible to prevent the nation from becoming a minority-majority nation with universal healthcare–a country that they would no longer recognize as the United States. Tucker Carlson came close to stating this outright when he said just days ago that “Mexico is routinely interfering in our elections [more effectively than Russia] by packing our electorate.” Within a space of months or years, you can expect to see Republican politicians muse aloud over whether we ought to be defending white conservative Russia from an overrun Europe, rather than the other way around.

Of course, this globalization of ideological conflict is isn’t new to those who lived through or have studied the Cold War. But the Cold War saw a cadre of relatively stable adversaries, with countries aligning variously with capitalism or communism on the periphery in obvious ways. This global conflict is more subtle, with a misleading veneer of domestic democratic politics disguising the reality. The white nationalist right understands the nature of the battle, and will increasingly show no hesitation about crossing transnational boundaries to win at all costs in a betrayal of their own countrymen, if it means preserving white supremacy, patriarchy and the privileges of the wealthy.

The cosmopolitan left should not stoop the same level of criminality, but it must recognize the true nature of the conflict in order to win the battle–or it will be left flat-flooted with dropped jaw at each new violation of national election laws and patriotic ideals.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.