Ukraine invasion and the dystopian US political landscape

A local resident walks past a tank of pro-Russian troops in the besieged southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine, March 18, 2022. Photo: Reuters

As Russia's invasion of Ukraine rages on, one of the strangest spectacles is a bunch of video clips of Fox News Channel's conservative commentator and America's top cable show host, Tucker Carlson, repeatedly showing up on primetime Russian state-owned television.

This is about as weird a development as an Iranian ayatollah popping up at a White House ceremony, or former US President Donald Trump showing up at a Black Lives Matter rally.

This is an extraordinary change in American politics. Domestic US reaction to global wars—and US involvement—used to break down along predictable ideological lines. Those on the left were the sharpest critics of US involvement in a war, while the further right you went along the ideological spectrum, the more unquestioned the support was for US policies, until at the very right, you had people bitterly turning on domestic war critics for "blaming America first."

Going back all the way to the Vietnam war, right up to the Iraq war and Afghanistan, the American right has blindly backed US policies. (There is the odd historical exception—in 1972, US President Richard Nixon, a vicious, life-long red-baiter, went to Beijing and cozied up to uber-doctrinaire Communist leader Mao Zedong, whose government's descriptions of the West and its allies used to include such choice endearments as "imperialists and its running dogs." But exceptions just prove the rule.)

The war against Ukraine is exposing a new stark development in the American right, with its most tell-tale manifestation in its extreme fringes.

"Why do I hate Putin so much? Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him?" Carlson has said. He has also called Ukraine "an obedient puppet of the Biden state department", and suggested that Putin's invasion was nothing more than a "border dispute."

Let's turn to a few colourful conservative lawmakers whom the deceased Republican Sen. John McCain once memorably called "wacko birds."

Take North Carolina Republican Congressman Madison Cawthorn. I'll just quote a completely unsubstantiated remark of his and let the reader be the judge: "I took to the house floor a couple weeks ago to reveal the heinous mutilating techniques that Dr. Fauci has been using on puppies in Africa using YOUR tax dollars."

Cawthorn recently called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a "thug" and the Ukrainian government "incredibly evil," criticising the country and its leader as Russia invaded it.

Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene backed him. To give you an idea of where Greene is coming from, she thinks that the suggestion that Trump is secretly fighting a worldwide child-sex-slavery ring is "worth listening to", that "Zionist supremacists" are secretly masterminding Muslim immigration to Europe to outbreed white people, and that wildfires in California had been started in conjunction with the Rothschilds, using a space laser.

Greene said that she agreed with Cawthorn's highly criticised comment that Zelensky is a "thug."

This political development is so contrary to Republican political culture that it's enough to cause vertigo.

Carlson's equivocation on Russian aggression is "not only confused, it's almost dada," former Syracuse University media studies professor Bob Thompson told The Guardian newspaper. "You see it playing out on the show when someone makes a rational argument and it's deflected not with an alternative, but the abandonment of rationality."

What has brought about this remarkable turnaround in significant parts of the American right? Like everything in US Republican politics today, the figure that looms largest is Trump. His love for autocrats is no secret, and he is on record expressing his admiration for Putin quite recently.

But there is more to it than that. At the core of the resentment in the most conservative sections of the Republican Party is a fear of the dominant multicultural ethos that threatens their sense of identity that is White nationalist and Christian. Putin's Russian muscular, macho nationalism has enough elements in it to resonate deeply. Russia, to be sure, has been capitalising on this with great skill on social media.

This White nationalist resentment has curdled into what journalist Matt Taibbi calls "reverse chauvinism." So deep is the resentment against what the Republican right considers the overwhelming dominance of the "woke" culture that there is almost a Pavlovian response to lambasting anything it supports. If it includes supporting the egregious Putin, so be it.

This is not merely an affliction of the political right, however. The left-leaning Taibbi was actually referring to analysts on the left who were reluctant to protest Russia's attacks. Ideological preferences can blinker sound judgement. Over the past decades, there have been powerful instances of this all over the ideological spectrum: the denial of Stalin's purge or China's terrible famines in the last century under Communist rule, and of course, America's sordid history of toppling governments and backing thugs and crooks.

Today, as one witnesses Russia's attempts to bomb Ukraine into the stone age, with millions of its citizens fleeing the country, there is no question that this invasion must be condemned in the most categorical terms.

However, it is the exaggerated claims of moral superiority by the West, led by the US, where things get trickier. US claims of its revulsion of Russia's barbarity ring particularly hollow. Of the innumerable examples, I will mention two. Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who died recently, was widely lauded in US editorials, yet under her watch, according to a UN study, 500,000 Iraqi children died due to sanctions imposed by the Clinton administration. Or take the more recent examples of unaccountable drone attacks in America's global war on terror. Subsequent reports revealed that many of them killed unarmed and innocent civilians.

The sobering lesson is that global politics is a murky business. Our conscience requires that we condemn what is unacceptable, even if the company we keep is not entirely salubrious. We cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good.


Ashfaque Swapan is a writer and editor based in Atlanta, US.


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