Putin Ain't Woke
On the American hard right's Russophilia
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has resurfaced American right-wing Russophilia, a longstanding phenomenon that became most visible to the broader public during the Trump presidency.
This week, in an interview on the The Clay Travis and Buck Sexton Show, Trump enthused over Putin’s strategy of recognizing Donetsk and Luhansk, two regions of southeastern Ukraine, as newly sovereign republics as “genius.” The former president went on, “ I said, ‘How smart is that?’ And he's going to go in and be a peacekeeper. That's the strongest peace force. We could use that on our southern border. That's the strongest peace force I've ever seen,” Trump said. “Here's a guy who's very savvy... I know him very well. Very, very well.”
On his Fox News show, Tucker Carlson compared Putin favorably to the American left. Carlson told his audience, “It may be worth asking yourself… why do I hate Putin... Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him?” These views have been echoed in many forms on the hard right, although the dominant strain of the Republican party still holds to the bipartisan consensus against Russian expansion. Of course, GOP sensibility doesn’t prevent right-wing media personality Candace Owensfrom blaming NATO and… Justin Trudeau.
What are we to make of this alignment with Russian nationalism? It’s important to understand that it is not just a product of the Trump era, or even the Cold War. Liberal theories of Trump as “Putin’s puppet” (to use Hillary Clinton’s words) are simplistic and personalize a much deeper affinity, one that has nothing to do with personal enrichment or blackmail but is rooted in racist views of global politics.
There are two important strands of right-wing Russophilia. They often overlap, but are distinct and can occasionally be in tension. One is the belief that Russia is a necessary bulwark against liberalism. The other view is that Russia is a necessary ally in global white supremacy, pitting white nations against the non-white world (often imagined as being led by China).
Prior to the communist revolution in 1917, Russia typically played a reactionary role in European and global politics. It was the regime least touched by the Enlightenment, the one that bolstered monarchists and theocrats. The Russian Revolution changed that, but even in the communist period there were a few scattered voices who thought Russia could return to its old role as the bulwark of anti-liberalism.
The American fascist agitator Francis Parker Yockey (1917-1960) was a key figure in the right’s shift on Russia. A murky figure, Yockey spent much of life travelling through covert neo-Nazi international networks under a variety of passports and aliases. In 1960, airport authorities opened up a lost suitcase in Fort Worth, Texas. Inside they found seven birth certificates and four passports, carrying a variety of names but all seemingly used by the same person. This led to a nation-wide FBI manhunt, with Yockey eventually arrested in Oakland, California.
In the late 1940s, Yockey took note of the fact that Stalin, then on the verge of death and increasingly paranoid, was reviving antisemitism as a way of consolidating nationalist support. His belief in Russia’s transformation only intensified in the early 1950s, the highly paranoid era of the doctor’s plot conspiracy and Czechoslovakia’s Slánský trial in Prague, where 11 Jewish communists were convicted of treason and executed in a rank display of antisemitism. Yockey took the Prague event as an auger that the Soviet block had in practice already abandoned Marxism and was ready to revert to its traditional role as guardian of the old order. Yockey’s new interest in Russia was coupled with increasing disenchantment with the United States, which he saw as decadent society dominated by liberals and Jews.
As Matthew Rose notes in his fascinating new book A World After Liberalism, Yockey’s work “marked the beginning of a rethinking about Russia on the radical right whose distant echoes are being heard today.” In a 2018 article in The Daily Beast, Mark Potok pointed out, “in 1948, an American ideologue named Francis Parker Yockey promoting pan-European fascism that saw the Soviet Union as less of a threat to Europe than the United States was. By the late 1950s, Yockey was suggesting the USSR could help ‘free’ Europe from U.S. domination.”
What distinguishes this anti-liberal worldview from the overlapping perspective of global white supremacy is the priority given to anti-Americanism which opens the door for alliances with non-white nations if they stand up to the United States.
After his jailhouse suicide, Yockey’s estate was taken over by the antisemitic agitator Willis Carto, who shaped a myth of Yockey as a heroic fascist martyr. Yockey’s work enjoyed an underground reputation for many decades, but after the collapse of communism, there has been a revival of his ideas on Russia as a spring root for non-liberal and anti-liberal values. These arguments are no longer confined to the fascist right but also show up among more mainstream right-wingers.
In a 1990 issue of Policy Review, Paul Weyrich, co-founder of The Heritage Foundation, argued, “We must also be open to importing from Central Europe and Russia elements of Western culture that have survived better there than here.“
In 2013, Pat Buchanan spelled out the logic of this position in an article that asked, “Is Putin One of Us?” Buchanan’s answer was an enthusiastic yes.
Is Vladimir Putin a paleoconservative?
In the culture war for mankind’s future, is he one of us?
President Reagan once called the old Soviet Empire “the focus of evil in the modern world.” President Putin is implying that Barack Obama’s America may deserve the title in the 21st century.
Nor is he without an argument when we reflect on America’s embrace of abortion on demand, homosexual marriage, pornography, promiscuity, and the whole panoply of Hollywood values.
While much of American and Western media dismiss him as an authoritarian and reactionary, a throwback, Putin may be seeing the future with more clarity than Americans still caught up in a Cold War paradigm.
As the decisive struggle in the second half of the 20th century was vertical, East vs. West, the 21st century struggle may be horizontal, with conservatives and traditionalists in every country arrayed against the militant secularism of a multicultural and transnational elite.
If you believe that liberalism is an existential threat, as many conservatives do, then it’s easy to see Putin as not just a lesser evil but also a potential ally.
Global White Supremacy
Yockey-style Russophilia is predicated on a war between liberalism and the right. As we’ve seen, in Yockey’s original formulation, it had a racial dimension of equating liberalism with Jewishness. But there’s another Russophilia that sees Russia as a potential ally in a wider conflict of global race war between whites and people of color.
In his 1970 book The Passing of the Modern Age, the traditionalist historian John Lukacs claimed,
the world is breaking up into vast racial regions; the various races are beginning to be sovereign within their own regions, somewhat like the nationalities of Europe that began to form themselves into national states toward the end of the Middle Ages. Except for the Americas and Australia, the white race has returned to Europe; Africa belongs to Africans, Asia more and more to Asians. There remains the huge question of Russia's empire in Northern Asia: at the end of the last century Bismarck was supposed to have said that the most important fact in the twentieth century would be that Americans speak English; it is not impossible that the most important condition of the next hundred years might be that the Russians are, after all, white.
Lukacs was writing in a speculative vein. The line of thinking Lukacs identified was taken up by the right-wing science-fiction writers Jerry Pournelle (an admirer of the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini) and Larry Niven in their series of CoDominium novels, which started in 1973. The series was premised on the idea that the Soviet Union and the United States would in the future form an alliance to stave off the threat of the non-white world.
What were once fantastical extrapolations in the hands of sci-fi novelists is now a more serious premise on the hard right. Steve Bannon and Tucker Carlson have repeatedly argued one reason to cultivate friendship with Russia is that it will be a necessary partner in the struggle against China.
The two arguments for Russophilia (anti-liberalism and global racism) often enough work together, but they could also be in tension depending upon which salience has priority. Bannon is an example of how the two strands can work together. He’s pumped up Russia as a potential ally against China but also admires Putin for not being woke:
But Bannon’s desire for a crusade against China isn’t universally shared. The right is divided on China. Among some quadrants of the far right, it’s possible to see signs of some sympathy for China as well.
David Beattie J. Beattie, a former Trump advisor, tweeted:
Richard Hanania of The Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology, is sympathetic to China and Russia:
With Hanania and Beattie, we see that Russophilia is compatible with Sinophilia. The underlying logic of these ideological twists and turns is “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” As long as the far right defines liberalism as its enemy, it will find stranger and stranger friends.
(Edited by Emily M. Keeler)
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