As I wrote two weeks ago, it’s almost an obscenity—and the height of parochialism—to think about the war in Ukraine in terms of domestic US politics.
But there is an aspect to that discussion that goes beyond tribalism. Because I hasten to remind you, dear reader, that until it recently became embarrassing to them, one of our two political parties was fully aligned with Vladimir Putin and a vocal supporter and ally of his regime. And its standard bearer continues to be his BFF.
That is well worth keeping in mind as we watch wanton Republican gaslighting over Ukraine, and as we contemplate the GOP’s effort to regain power right here in the USA.
A GENTLE REMINDER
So much has happened in the last two years that it’s easy to forget what would otherwise have been earth-shaking events. One such event is Trump’s first impeachment which, you may recall, turned on him blackmailing the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy—the same guy they are now calling the Jewish Churchill—to manufacture dirt on Joe Biden if he wanted to get American anti-tank weapons with which to defend his country against a Russian invasion.
All but one of the 49 Senate Republicans—everyone but Romney—thought that was much ado about nothing, or at least pretended to.
But that was the least of it.
For the past four or five years, Republicans were extraordinarily forgiving—and even openly supportive of—Vladimir Putin, following the example of their own Dear Leader, whose worshipful groveling before the Russian dictator was widely noted and commented upon. (After one particularly appalling episode, the 2018 Helsinki summit, Sen. John McCain called Trump’s kowtowing “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”)
In thrall to Donald much as Donald was in thrall to Vlad, the GOP dutifully emulated his attitude toward the Russian police state.
There have long been many things American reactionaries overtly admire about Putin: his racism, his distortion of Christianity, his homophobia, his total control of the press, his use of brute force to get what he wants—abroad, with invasions of uppity neighbors, and at home, with violent suppression of dissidents. Above all they admire his chokehold on the domestic electoral process, such that he never has to face a true challenge at the polls.
The ascent of Trump brought all that to the foreground, unabashedly.
But now that Putin has, in brutal fashion, reminded the world of his true colors (NB: it’s Tarantino-brand blood red, Pantone 032), Republicans are trying to walk a very fine line, hoping that we will forget about their pro-Putin past, even though it was only yesterday, while opportunistically trying to score points in a contest over who can bang the drums of war the loudest.
By now we ought to be used to such gaslighting.
It’s true that, until Trump, Russophobia was also a staple of mainstream Republican politics, even among its isolationist wing, so one might say the GOP is just returning to its roots. But we ought not let them do so without accounting for their quisling behavior of the recent past. (The general knee jerk xenophobia and Red Scare-style paranoia of that Russophobia is yet another matter).
A gentle reminder should suffice to put it all in perspective: The Kremlin worked its collective ass off to help put Donald Trump in office, Trump welcomed the assistance, and then returned the favor by doing Russia’s bidding throughout his administration. And that water-carrying continues to this day, no matter how much some Republicans would like us to forget it.
WAR BY OTHER MEANS
As we watch this horrific war unfold in Ukraine, we ought to remember that we were attacked by Putin too—far less brutally, but still in an outrageous “cyber Pearl Harbor” fashion.
The always astute Rebecca Solnit, writing in The Guardian, quotes the British journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who explicitly describes Russia’s actions during 2016 as “a military attack on the West.”
We called it “meddling.” We used words like “interference.” It wasn’t. It was warfare. We’ve been under military attack for eight years now.
That attack included not only efforts on Trump’s behalf but also support of Brexit and groups like LePen’s racist neo-fascist National Front in France (lately rebranded as the National Rally). This, as Clausewitz teaches us, is a form of war on the low end of the spectrum of conflict. Also known as politics.
Solnit lays it out quite clearly—in particular, the close coordination between the Kremlin and Team Trump, including what some might call (gulp) a quid pro quo:
(T)he most striking role of the Russian government in the 2016 US election was its many, many ties with the Trump campaign, including with Trump himself, who spent the campaign and the four years of his presidency groveling before Putin, denying the reality of Russian interference, and changing first the Republican platform and then US policy to serve Putin’s agendas.
This included cutting support for Ukraine against Russia out of the Republican platform when he won the primary, considerable animosity toward NATO, and ultimately trying to blackmail Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in 2019 by withholding military aid while demanding he offer confirmation of a Russian conspiracy theory blaming Ukraine rather than Russia for 2016 election interference.
When Solnit reminds us of the shoulder-shrugging of many on the left over Moscow’s actions in 2016 (looking at you, Glenn Greenwald)—“Hey, hasn’t the US interfered in lots of foreign elections?”—it is eerily reminiscent of what we are seeing and hearing from those quarters now, over Ukraine:
Stunningly, a number of left-wing news sources and pundits devoted themselves to denying the reality of the intervention and calling those who were hostile to the Putin regime cold-war red-scare right-wingers, as if contemporary Russia was a glorious socialist republic rather than a country ruled by a dictatorial ex-KGB agent with a record of murdering journalists, imprisoning dissenters, embezzling tens of billions and leading a global neofascist white supremacist revival.
(Yes, I know the US has meddled in plenty of foreign elections. Doesn’t make it right when it is done to us….or when the senior members of one of our two political parties openly welcomes that interference and serves the ends of the foreign power that perpetrated it.)
Solnit details the “stunning number of Trump’s closest associates (who) had deep ties to the Russian government,” including his campaign manager Paul Manafort, who spent a decade as a lobbyist for Putin’s toady Viktor Yanukovychwhen he was the howlingly corrupt president of Ukraine, and also shared internal Trump campaign polling data with the Russian intelligence agent Konstantin Kilimnik before himself being convicted of bank fraud and other crimes (Trump, of course, pardoned him)…..former Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who shared information with the Russian ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak before going on to be Trump’s first Attorney General…..LTG (Ret.) Mike Flynn, who was paid to speak at a dinner celebrating RT, Russia’s state-run propaganda channel, before serving as Trump’s first (of four) National Security Advisors, a post from which he was forced to resign and was subsequently convicted of lying to the FBI (Trump pardoned him too)…..and last but not least, Trump’s son-in-law and top advisor Jared Kushner who tried to set up a backchannel to communicate with Russia’s ambassador to Washington in order to hide their communications from the CIA.
Wow. Imagine if Hillary Clinton’s team had those Russian connections. Her corpse would still be dangling from a makeshift gallows in front of Fox News HQ in Midtown Manhattan.
But that is only the appetizer.
More broadly, Solnit indicts the “corruption and amorality inside the United States” that enabled Putin, from the likes of Trump and Manafort to “Silicon Valley’s mercenary amorality that created weapons and vulnerabilities (that) were exploited to destructive ends,” with the help of “international players such as WikiLeaks and Cambridge Analytica”; to “media outlets such as Fox News that continued—in Tucker Carlson’s case until last week’s invasion of Ukraine caught up with him— to defend Putin and spread disinformation.”
But it’s all good, because these people are all in prison now, rightly held accountable for their crimes.
Wait, what? They’re not? They’re actively campaigning to run the country again? And the smart money says they’re going to succeed?
DOG WAGGING 101
On the right there is this narrative that Ukraine is a Wag the Dog situation, that even if Biden did not himself create the war a la Robert DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman—and there are those he would have us believe that he did—he is at the very least using it to distract from his sagging poll numbers, from inflation, from lingering COVID (bad news, Republicans: it’s on the wane), and other right wing bugbears.
But the fact is, it is the right that is using Ukraine in Wag the Dog mode, to try to distract us from the investigation of their attempted coup, and from their attempts to undermine and take control of the electoral process here at home, and to make us forget their support of Putin and other despots in the past.
For all their infamous Barnum-like ability to control the narrative, “a lie goes round the world”-style, the GOP can sometimes be pretty clumsy with public relations. For example, why does Truth Social sound like the least popular sister-wife in a religious cult?
In The New York Times, Jonathan Weisman writes that “the bulk of the Republican Party (is trying) to get on the right side of history amid a brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine.” That will be a neat trick, considering their shameful history on that topic heretofore. Not surprisingly, their go-to move is to promote reckless military action by the US.
Republicans are among the most vociferous champions for the United States to amp up its military response, and are competing to issue the strongest expressions of solidarity with Ukraine’s leaders.
Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi has taken up Mr. Zelensky’s call for a western-enforced no-fly zone. Senator Rick Scott of Florida said deploying US ground troops to Ukraine should not be “off the table.” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina encouraged the assassination of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to save a nation that many in his party had previously portrayed as hardly worth saving.
As I wrote last week, the jingoism of this crew is matched only by its contempt for the intelligence of the American people.
Even worse, of course, are the Republican voices still defending Putin. But as Weisman notes, “Now, even the far-right flank seems confused.”
On Monday, (Marjorie Taylor) Greene used her Twitter account to both call one of the whistle-blowers in former President Trump’s first impeachment, retired Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, a “clown” who was “clueless about Americans being fed up with sending our sons and daughters to die in foreign lands,” and advise, “While innocent people are being murdered in Putin’s war on Ukraine, the US response is critical.”
Maybe MTG is worried about the Gazpacho.
Such great human beings as Tucker Carlson, and convicted felons Dinesh D’Souza and Steve Bannon (like Manafort and Flynn, both pardoned by Trump) would have us believe that Joe Biden and the Democratic Party are the greater threat to American democracy than Vladimir Putin, and that we should take Russia’s side over Ukraine’s. (Carlson’s words, as is frequently the case, are being widely broadcast on Russian state TV.)
Even Bill Barr, while hawking his new book in which he describes how Trump spread the Big Lie and tried to eviscerate American democracy, told NBC’s Savannah Guthrie that he will still vote for Trump in ‘24, if he is the Republican nominee. “Because I believe that the greatest threat to the country is the progressive agenda being pushed by the Democratic Party, it’s inconceivable to me that I wouldn’t vote for the Republican nominee.”
Hive mind: help me figure out what to file that under. Hypocrisy? Tribalism? Cowardice? Greed? Psychopathology?
MY CANDIDATE, RIGHT OR WRONG
There is simply no way to separate Trumpism from Putinism, or to honestly support the former while condemning the latter. But Republicans are damn sure trying, like the odious New York Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, the third ranking Republican in the House, a former moderate turned staunch Trump supporter, who is now releasing videos condemning Putin over Ukraine, even as she tries to blame it all on Biden.
An even better example is Nikki Haley, another Republican with presidential aspirations, who is supposed to represent the “still sane” wing of the party. Haley used to have little to say about Ukraine, except that Putin wasn’t going to invade it. Even as the crisis heated up, she spouted JD Vance-like talking points about how Biden ought to be less concerned with Eastern Europe and more with our southern border. Now she is a regular presence on Fox talking tough about Putin and accusing Biden of being soft.
I was born at night, Nikki, but it wasn’t last night.
The Bulwark’s William Saletan writes:
(Haley) has no courage. It’s easy for American politicians to talk trash about Putin. What’s hard is to stand up for democracy and the rule of law when those principles are threatened by a man who can derail your career. In Haley’s case, that man is Trump, not Putin. And when Haley is asked about Trump’s sabotage of NATO, his praise for Putin, and his attempts to overturn the 2020 election, her response is thoroughly craven. “I’m not a fan of Republicans going against Republicans,” she pleads.
Even Trump’s own National Security Advisor (#3 of 4) John Bolton, asked about the war in Ukraine by Sirius XM’s Julie Mason, said: “I think one of the reasons that Putin did not move during Trump’s term in office was he saw the president’s hostility of NATO. To Putin’s mind it’s a binary proposition. A weaker NATO is a stronger Russia. So I think Putin saw Trump doing a lot of his work for him, and thought maybe in a second term Trump would make good on his promise to get out of NATO.”
On Twitter, Liz Cheney—along with Adam Kinzinger, the conscience of the Republican Party (NB: that’s why it disowned her)—recently referred to “the Putin wing of the GOP.” The specific thing that prompted her remark was retired US Army Colonel Doug MacGregor, once considered a deep thinker in the military, who now goes around saying that Russian forces have been “too gentle” and “I don’t see anything heroic” about Zelenskyy. Not surprisingly, he too is frequently seen on Fox—he’s a favorite of Tucker’s—and (you guessed it) RT.
During his presidency Trump nominated MacGregor to be a senior advisor to the Secretary of Defense, where he was in charge of—you guessed it again!—the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. On Trump’s watch, that consisted of making a deal with the Taliban not to attack us until we slashed US troop strength so deeply that they no longer had to. So please spare me your cries that Biden fucked it up.
Trump also tried to make MacGregor Ambassador to Germany, until the Senate refused, due to his statements about minorities, Islam, the “Israel lobby,” and Germany’s too-nice-to-the-Jews remembrance of the Holocaust. Appointed by Trump to serve on West Point’s advisory board, MacGregor distinguished himself by repeatedly spreading “a conspiracy that the Biden administration is bringing in non-White immigrants as part of a ‘grand plan’ to have them outnumber White Americans of European ancestry in the United States.”
The best people, amirite?
PUTINISM ON THE POTOMAC
Some will ask: why are you looking to the past? Shouldn’t we all band together as Americans and look forward? It’s a disingenuous question to say the least. I’m looking to the past because past is prologue. The Republicans have shown us who they are when it comes to Putin. They continue to show it still, as Carlson bleats pro-Putin propaganda to his millions of viewers every single night. If they take power again, they will continue to facilitate the Putinist agenda, and that’s not all. They will also undermine our democracy here at home, continue trying to establish an autocracy, and generally carry on the spirit of the January 6 insurrectionists.
The Russian autocracy is precisely what Republicans aspire to in America, right down to the cult of personality around its leader. But right now they don’t want us to recognize that, as they try to piggyback off the general condemnation of his aggression in Ukraine.
In the words of my man Flavor Flav: Don’t, don’t, don’t believe the hype.
Under its new, Republican-made voting laws, Texas just flagged over 27,000 mail-in ballots in its recent primary, a blunt demonstration of how the GOP intends to suppress and subvert the vote in the midterms and in 2024. Florida is banning the very use of the word “gay” in public schools, while the racist assault on so-called “critical race theory” and “wokeism,” in the Orwellian name of free speech, is giving us actual book burnings. The Big Lie that Trump won the election is now sacrosanct dogma for any Republican who hopes to run for office, and a chilling number of these candidates are openly campaigning on the promise that, should a similar constitutional crisis arrive again, they will deliver the victory to Trump or his surrogate. Failing that, real Americans are justified in taking up arms to overthrow the tyranny of Pelosi.
The good news is that it’s startling to see how the Ukraine crisis has made Trump shrink on the American mental landscape. It’s not merely his continued cheerleading for Putin, even now. It is—what feels to me—like a late-dawning awareness of how fucking crazy this guy was, how inept and reckless and ignorant, and how lucky we are he’s not in the Oval Office in the midst of this epochal crisis. I think even many Republicans and other conservatives feel that way, at least the rational ones among them. (I know them both.)
It’s as if the Russian invasion of Ukraine has reminded us of how serious geopolitics really is.
Bear that in mind when you go to vote in November 2024.
Very early days, of course, but we all know Trump cannot resist praising Putin, no matter what. So will that hurt him (as almost nothing else ever has) if and when he runs in 2024 and this war is still raging, or at the very least its repercussions are still being felt?
Maybe. Americans have very short memories, and, as we’ve seen, a shockingly high susceptibility to Trump’s carnival barker bullshit. Hell, the dude had been a step ahead of the law his whole rotten life, dodged two impeachments, COVID, and even an emergency landing in a private jet this week. Those pacts with Satan have some pretty good bennies, evidently.
So will Ukraine be the thing that finally dooms him? Not holding my breath.
The last word—or at least the penultimate one—goes to Ms. Solnit:
The Republican party met its new leader by matching his corruption, and by covering up his crimes and protecting him from consequences, including two impeachments. The second impeachment was for a violent invasion of Congress, not by a foreign power, but by right-wingers inflamed by lies instigated by Trump and amplified by many in the party. They have become willing collaborators in an attempt to sabotage free and fair elections, the rule of law, and truth itself.
Well worth remembering as we watch the bloody events unfold in Ukraine, precipitated by a man whom a powerful wing of the GOP continues to lionize, and as we push back against their attempts to emulate his rule here in the US.
Illustration: Tim O’Brien, TrumPutin.