What was once a discussion mostly confined to American intellectual circles has increasingly spilled out onto the national political scene.
LOS ANGELES—Eight long years ago, Patrick J. Buchanan, founding co-editor of TAC, provocatively wrote: “Is Vladimir Putin a paleoconservative? In the culture war for mankind’s future, is he one of us?”
Long before “Russiagate,” “Ukrainegate,” or the former country’s 2014 invasion and potential re-invasion of the latter, Buchanan preempted POTUS 45 by asking, in essence, “You think our country’s so innocent?”
“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,” Buchanan wrote for TownHall.com in December 2013. “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.”
Buchanan may have been a grandee of both the Reagan and Richard Nixon administrations, but like his later presidential campaigns—to say nothing of the historical project of this magazine—his was a perspective then alien to Republican frontline politics. How things have changed.
Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri’s analysis is more geopolitical than cultural, but the urge toward greater neutrality on Russia is clear enough. “The same people who led us into two failed wars in 2 decades, enabled the rise of China [and] botched evacuation of Afghanistan are furious that I am against putting more Americans in danger in Europe when our signal threat is China. It’s time for change,” he said this week.
Hawley has channeled his inner George Kennan, the legendary former policy planning director at State who warned we were making a mistake with Moscow in the Bill Clinton era by driving eastward even after Soviet extinguishment. Hawley says he’s against Ukraine’s admission to NATO, the binding mutual defense compact. Even in the often-stuffy U.S. foreign policy community, it is quietly a common enough perspective—that Ukraine is ultimately not worth the risk of nuclear war. But that didn’t stop White House press secretary Jen Psaki from arguing Hawley’s statement was tantamount to reciting the Kremlin’s perspective with the obsequiousness of an island bird.
Hawley appeared on Tucker Carlson’s show on Wednesday to reiterate his view; Carlson has been leading the charge on the right outside the halls of Congress for this kind of re-think. The GOP establishment clearly fears the new guard is winning the day, but Carlson and Hawley will still have to contend with powerful conservative rivals such as Ohio Rep. Mike Turner, the Intelligence Committee ranking member, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, both of whom have made clear they abhor this perspective. Carlson denounced McConnell in his Wednesday night opening monologue, albeit on a separate matter.
Players in Congress used to matter, especially on foreign policy. Think the late Sen. John McCain. Think John Kerry. Think Joe Biden. But on Russia, and the right…how did we get here?
The quick answer is Donald Trump, who had half his presidency consumed by unsubstantiated accusations of being Putin’s patsy (though his affection for the ex-KBG knife-fighter is clear enough). No actual connection—not financial, not treasonous, not urinary-erotic—was ever established between the duo, aside from liking the cut of each other’s jib.
But that’s maybe the point. The relative pivot on the right away from Russia hawkishness isn’t the stuff of spycraft as much as style. More secular nationalists might not be on board with rolling back gay rights, or the full gamut of “Hollywood values” (here, too, Buchanan predicted the future; a few years later, GOP presidential runner-up Ted Cruz would, unsuccessfully, try to knock off Trump by attaching him to “New York” values).
But Putin is conceded, very quietly but very surely by many American center-right elites, to have—in his own way, however imperfectly, however unacceptably murderously—nonetheless “made Russia OK again.” Once abysmal, birthrates and family formation are at least officially a mission of the Russian state, a Republican Senate candidate recently told me. Ditto an all-hands-on-deck approach to an abominable alcoholism rate, at its worst putting even the British to shame (one smirks slightly if Russia had to endure a “Partygate,” were it a democracy).
Looking at the astonishing present pessimism in my newly adopted state, America’s largest and most prominent, as detailed in a survey highlighted by Politico California on Thursday, one wonders why there is not a more urgent discussion of national greatness, or what became of it. Peruse the headlines in America’s technology capital six hours up north, and one reads in the San Francisco Chronicle not of an alcohol crisis, though this country probably has that, but of the terrifying and fatal fentanyl craze. Instead of worrying that their rivals might be moonlighting for Russia Today, where’s the White House on that?
That seems to be the perspective of many Republicans. The perspective of many Americans.
In the meantime, cold reality intervenes. America is already in the fight of its life against an autocratic regime in Eurasia—and it’s not the Russian Federation. “Our interest isn’t the ‘liberal order,’” former Defense official Elbridge Colby said this month. “It’s denying China’s hegemony.… Disorder in Europe is a problem but pales in comparison.”
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