During the Cold War, the term “useful idiot” described Westerners who functioned as apologists for the Soviet Union. No matter how unjustifiable the behavior—whether invading Hungary in 1956 or unilaterally constructing a wall to divide the city of Berlin—the Soviets could depend upon a core group of supporters on the other side of the Iron Curtain who would defend their every move. Envisioning themselves valiant defenders of a socialist paradise whose steadfast loyalty to the international proletariat was appreciated by their friends back in Moscow, such dupes for tyranny were often viewed with contempt by the Soviets, who cynically took advantage of their naiveté.
“I was taken around and shown things as a ‘useful idiot’… that’s what my role was,” Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing recalled about a 1952 delegation to the Soviet Union. “I can’t understand why I was so gullible.”
In recent years, post-Soviet Russia has cultivated a new breed of no-less gullible useful idiots among a seemingly unlikely constituency: paleoconservatives.
Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to have settled upon a new, international role for his nation: defender of “traditional values.” This is quite a makeover for the country that once claimed to be the vanguard of worldwide communist revolution. From Argentina to Zimbabwe, the Soviet Union armed and equipped left-wing insurrections aimed at upending the world order, and backed a host of puppet, “people’s democracies” implacably hostile to the West. With its collectivism, violent expansionism, and atheism, Moscow threatened everything that the American conservative coalition of free-marketers, defense hawks, and Christian activists held dear. During the Cold War, anti-communism was the glue that bonded the American conservative movement together.
But with the twilight struggle long over, opposition to communism no longer offers the unifying appeal to American conservatives as it once did. And Putin’s cynical talk about protecting “moral and ethical norms” has earned him fans among the arch-traditionalist, isolationist wing of the conservative movement, the paleocons.
“Is Vladimir Putin a paleoconservative?” former Nixon speechwriter, Republican presidential candidate, and paleocon godfather Pat Buchanan asked in his nationally syndicated column. Buchanan, a fundamentalist Catholic who lost his pundit job at MSNBC in 2012 after publishing a book lamenting “the end of white America” and “the death of Christian America,” lauded Putin for signing into law last year a measure prohibiting the “propagation of non-traditional sexual relationships to minors.” That act was followed by a wave of violent homophobia in Russia, and determined protests from democratic governments, including the United States. Standing defiant, Putin lashed out at his Western foes for “requiring…the mandatory acknowledgement of the equality of good and evil.” Buchanan took this as a swipe at the West’s increasing acceptance of homosexuality, writing that, “To equate traditional marriage and same-sex marriage is to equate good with evil,” thereby casting all of those people engaged in same-sex relationships as “evil.”
Paleocons like Buchanan have always looked at America with alarm, nostalgic for the days when the country was segregated, gays were in the closet, and quotas were placed on the numbers of Jews admitted into universities. “Our grandparents would not recognize the America in which we live,” Buchanan writes. “America’s embrace of abortion on demand, homosexual marriage, pornography, promiscuity, and the whole panoply of Hollywood values,” validates Putin’s critique. But if one judges a society by these socially conservative metrics, it is Russia, not America, which performs poorly. Russia has both the highest abortion and divorce rates in the world. And last year, the State Department downgraded Moscow to its lowest tier of countries with regards to efforts at combatting human trafficking. Like the infamous former New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty, who denied Stalin’s famines in Ukraine, Buchanan is either unaware of these facts or willing to ignore them in his attempt to uphold Russia as a bastion of virtue, so enamored is he with Putin’s assault on gays.
But it’s more than just social issues that have earned Putin admiration from American paleocons. More important to them is his robust defense of national sovereignty, or, to be precise, the notion that authoritarian governments ought to be able to get away with the worst human rights abuses—up to and including genocide—without facing punishment or intervention from the West. For the paleocons, who look back with fondness on the likes of Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh and other leaders of the World War II-era America First movement, America ought to “mind its own business” and radically reduce, if not eliminate completely, its overseas commitments.
Putin, according to Peter Hitchens, a paleocon columnist for the U.K.’s Daily Mail, “stands—as no other major leader does in the world today—for the rights of nations to decide their own business inside their own borders.” Hitchens is admirably honest about the cost his prescription entails. “The principle of leaving people to get on with their own affairs inside their sovereign borders is so important that you might have sometimes to stand by and let horrible things happen.” The least that can be said about Hitchens is his acknowledgement that “horrible things” do happen when America and its Western allies stand idly when dictatorial governments commit horrible deeds; the board of paleocon Ron Paul’s new think tank boasts a number of individuals who deny the Serbian genocide and other depravities committed by regimes and non-state actors they like to depict not as aggressors but victims of American “imperialism.”
Echoing the fears of Paul and other paleocons who envision supranational bodies like the United Nations and European Union as akin to a newfangled Soviet empire, Hitchens lauds Russia for having “spotted long ago that the New Globalists—led by Anthony Blair—wanted to dissolve independent countries and replace them with dependent, subservient provinces in a New World Order,” that boogie man of radical right-wing conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones who warn about U.S. government “black helicopters” descending upon unsuspecting Americans to round them up into “FEMA camps.” Hitchens’ admiration for Putin inevitably leads him to discount or even ridicule those brave people who stand up to him. He dismisses the peaceful, democratic movement that overturned the corrupt, ossified, neo-communist leadership in post-Soviet Georgia as “a mob-bolstered putsch nauseatingly named ‘the Rose Revolution.”” (Hitchens incorrectly identifies the Russian-Georgia war of 2008 as having taken place in 2010). Likewise, prominent paleocon Daniel Larison refers to Ukraine’s 2004 democratic “Orange Revolution,” which protested the theft of an election by then-Prime Minister and current President Viktor Yanukovich (who just accepted a massive bail-out offered to him by Putin), as a “red-brown” revolution, that is, one led by communists and fascists.
Larison is a dependable Putin apologist no matter how egregious the Russian president’s behavior. In a piece insultingly titled “Persecuting Putin,” he writes of “the long-running neoconservative interest in encircling, containing and weakening post-Soviet Russia that recurred throughout the ‘90s,” as if the wholly voluntary decisions made by the democratic governments of nations once colonized by the Soviet Union to join NATO were all just part of a plot foisted upon them by a small Washington cabal. Larison laments the “reflexive reaction of blaming the Putin regime” for the 2006 murder of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned with polonium in London. Litvinenko, a prominent critic of Putin, claimed to have information relating to the murder of the crusading Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a dossier proving the Kremlin’s frame-up of recently-released oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and evidence implicating the Russian government in the 1999 bombing of Moscow apartment bombings, ultimately blamed on Chechen separatists and which Putin used as pretext for launching the second Chechen War. In light of all this, it takes either willful naivety or outright slavishness to the Kremlin not to suspect Putin of having orderded the hit on Livinenko.
The paleocons’ esteem for Putin’s Russia goes deeper than mere admiration for his standing up to what they see as a bullying, interventionist America. For the paleocons, Putin evokes the values that made America great, before the disasters of multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism wreaked their havoc on American society. Writing in the current issue of the American Conservative, the magazine Buchanan founded, William Lind faults Americans for not failing to take off their Cold War goggles and realize that Russia no longer presents a threat to the Western way of life; if anything, Lind argues, it is Russia that today embodies the traditional values forsaken by a post-Christian West. We simplistically conflate Russia with the Soviet Union, Lind alleges, “forget[ing] that Tsarist Russia was the most conservative great power, a bastion of Christian monarchy loathed by revolutionaries, Jacobins and democrats,” a rather clear repudiation of democracy itself. Democrats had ample reason to loathe Tsarist Russia, of course. Not only was it a country that carried out frequent pogroms against Jews (something which probably doesn’t bother Lind, who at a 2002 Holocaust denial conference, spoke of a plot seeking the “destruction of Western culture” carried out by “guys” who “were all Jewish), it was one of the most unequal societies on earth, bounded by a tiny, noble aristocracy at the top and a vast peasant class at the bottom. Indeed, it was Tsarist Russia’s punishing inequality and its refusal to reform that sowed the seeds of the Bolshevik Revolution. That Lind, Buchanan, and other paleocons would romanticize such a backwards, agrarian society is hardly surprising, given their wistfulness for the antebellum, pre-industrial American South, a “humane and decent civilisation [sic],” in Larison’s words. “The defeat of the Confederacy, though the Confederate political experiment does not exhaust the richness of Southern culture and identity, was a defining moment when the United States took its steps towards the abyss of the monstrous centralised [sic] state, rootless society and decadent culture that we have today.”
Lind praises Putin for having “saved and strengthened the Russian state” after the “chaotic Yeltsin years,” failing to mention that Putin did so by pulverizing tens of thousands of civilians during the bloody Chechen Wars. “Washington elites” failed to appreciate the awesomeness of Putin because they were “blinded by their worship of the clay god ‘Democracy.’” All in all, Lind exhorts the magazine’s dwindling readership, “American conservatives should welcome the resurgence of conservative Russia.”
In his column praising Putin, Buchanan favorably cites his old boss, President Ronald Reagan, who famously labeled the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” Whereas that was a fitting sobriquet for the “godless” Soviet Union, today, Buchanan suggests, it better describes godless America. “President Putin is implying that Barack Obama’s America may deserve the title in the 21st century,” he writes, coyly refusing to endorse what he so plainly believes. The paleocons claim to love America, but it is an old America that claims their allegiance. Today, they see a land of increasing racial diversity, tolerance of homosexuality, urbanization, and other indicators of progress and can do nothing but grumble. It tells you everything you need to know about the paleocons that they look to Putin’s Russia—a brutal society marked by violent nationalism, social breakdown, domestic authoritarianism, and foreign aggression—as a place to emulate.