National populists—the same people who are dogmatic about protecting national borders—are in a tough spot right now, thanks to Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression on Ukraine.
The same ultra-nationalists passionate about building a wall on the U.S.’ southern border, or obliterating the EU and returning to hard borders among European nation states—seemed utterly unconcerned about Ukraine’s borders during the run-up to war. These folks are also known for the fetishization of masculinity and toughness, and yet they suddenly became introspective, nuanced, and dovish in their excuses for Putin’s invasion of a sovereign nation.
Up until now, the ultranationalists enjoyed the luxury of criticizing the establishment without having to accept any actual responsibility. In their minds, the elites of both parties were always effete, decadent, and bumbling—regardless of what they said or did. Opposing whatever they said carried little risk.
So when the Biden “regime” and the “corporate media” started warning about a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine, the nationalists reacted with mockery, working off of the assumption that this was all so much globalist hyperventilating.
Instead, Putin called their bluff, and the national populists became the dog who caught the car. And by catching the car, I mean, slamming into it. Suddenly, inconsistencies that could once be swept under the rug by the national populists (hereafter, referred to as “natcons”) were now impossible to avoid.
Here are a few questions that are now hard to escape:
If one believes national borders are sacrosanct, why not respect Ukraine’s?
If the answer is that one solely cares about Making America Great Again, then why all the interest in boosting the European far right, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, India’s Narendra Modi, and even the right-wing ultranationalists of Israel?
If one hates and fears foreign “dictators” (see their attacks on Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau), why all the love for Putin?
And if one exalts rugged manliness, has there ever been a better example of that than the courage being exhibited by Ukraine?
As journalist Michael Weiss (formerly of The Daily Beast) recently told me, “If your argument is a defense of traditional masculine virtue,” then who’s more manly—right-wing pundits, Putin, or Volodymyr Zelensky, “the guy who’s literally walking through streets that are under attack?”
Irony, too, is no respecter of boundaries.
During a recent episode of The Remnant podcast, Jonah Goldberg noted that natcons were quick to celebrate anti-mask and anti-vaccine mandate protests, but “when the actual spirit of a sort of Andrew Jackson-type of America [shows up,] they’re like ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Everyone needs to calm down. There are two sides to every story. Putin’s not the bad guy the corporate media’s telling you [he] is.’”
In short, Putin’s invasion has exposed the fact that America’s ultra-nationalist populism isn’t just hypocritical, it’s incoherent.
Of course, the natcons had no way of knowing that Ukrainians would rise to the occasion and expose their inconsistencies. But in the runup to war, the natcons deployed plenty of prebuttal spin. Addressing the question of why people who obsess over borders don’t care about Ukraine’s, a natcon explained on Fox News that Ukraine wasn’t a real nation, but one that is “essentially managed by the [U.S.] State Department.” Former Trump White House senior adviser and Breitbart boss Steve Bannon said the same thing on his own podcast.
The natcons also threw in a lot of random misdirection to muddy the waters and justify their comments and actions.
They noted that (a) Ukraine is far away (“I’m sick of being told that we have to care more about people 6,000 miles away than we do people like my mom.”) And besides, b) what about America’s borders? I mean, c) Putin never called me a racist! And don’t forget, d) all the Burisma money the “Biden crime family” got paid. Besides, e) Putin is pro-Christian and f) the “woke” U.S. military is a godless arm of the Democratic Party. Besides, g) “there is quite literally no Russian threat.” Warnings of invasion were h) “baseless and embarrassingly incorrect.” Sure, i) Russia may annex some separatist areas full of Russian language speakers, but that’s no big deal. Biden just has to j) “call it an ‘invasion’ otherwise this whole media/government act will seem like a fraud.” I could go on.
Again, movements are messy, and this incipient coalition is far from monolithic. But it is clear that these bullshit natcon excuses were tantamount to throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing if anything sticks.
What these natcons do seem to have in common is a hellbent determination upend the post-World War II rules-based liberal order. With all of their being, they oppose a worldview that includes an affinity for alliances with freedom-loving nations, as well as other maxims such as “appeasing a strongman is like feeding a crocodile, and hoping he will eat you last.”
Putin’s irredentist ambitions led him to actually launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which caught the natcons completely flat-footed. It also raised the stakes for them—as it exposed “trolling the libs” and “needling the neocons” as the hollow, performative tactics they are.
Retroactive attempts by natcons to distance themselves from Putin and explain why they were so wrong have been just as scattershot.
On Thursday night, for example, Tucker Carlson claimed that Kamala Harris’s involvement in diplomatic efforts with our allies signaled to him that the Ukraine crisis wasn’t imminently serious. Using the royal “we,” he continued, “We didn’t underestimate Vladimir Putin; we overestimated Joe Biden.” Tucker is probably one of the smartest people I know, but this is one of the lamest excuses for blowing a story that I have seen.
These tortured attempts to move on from their past comments may be embarrassing, but it was just a matter of time before things would come to a head and the natcons would have to confront their incoherence.
What their miscalculation of Putin’s invasion illustrated is that natcons lack a shared commitment to any concrete philosophical principles, other than admiration for authoritarians who wield power without concern for inconveniences like democracy. Many also have a tribal affinity for the “right” (which seems to, more often than not, feature an affinity for white cultural Christians), and a concomitant visceral opposition to the “left.”
Where does this ultra-national populism lead? As America has only dabbled in this unsavory brand of politics, this is, perhaps, the most important question.
To the degree that Putin and his cheerleaders are avatars of it, I think we now know the answer: The “little guy” gets screwed. In the name of “peacekeeping,” cities are destroyed and innocent citizens are slaughtered.
But at least Putin showed everyone he’s not to be fucked with!