Global lens

‘I’m with Vlad’: who are the US conservatives praising Putin?

Tucker Carlson has repeatedly played down Russia’s aggression – and he’s not alone

Eighty years ago, when Hitler was invading his neighbours in Europe, he found an ally in the US, said William Saletan in The Bulwark (Washington DC). That ally was Charles Coughlin, a popular radio host who defended the Nazis and opposed America’s entry into the War, arguing that the movement to enlist the US was a Jewish conspiracy. “Today, a new demagogue has taken up Coughlin’s mantle: Fox News host Tucker Carlson.”

The leading conservative pundit of the moment, he had previously – repeatedly – played down Russia’s aggression, insisting that it was no business of the US. This from the same man who cried that Canada had “cancelled democracy” by arresting a few anti-vaccine protesters, said Max Boot in The Washington Post.

Alas, Carlson is not alone. His views are echoed by many other “America Firsters”, including Donald Trump, who was still praising Vladimir Putin as Russian troops moved into Ukraine last week, hailing his moves as “genius”.

These conservatives might as well have pinned “I’m-with-Vlad” badges onto their lapels, said David Corn in Mother Jones (San Francisco). Because they’re consumed with hatred for Joe Biden, and he’s confronting Putin, they feel compelled to defend Putin and “trash-talk” Biden – insisting that Trump would have done a far better job of managing this crisis.

That’s an absurd claim when you consider the record of Trump’s craven interactions with the Russian leader, and the ways his divisive approach undermined Nato. When the Kremlin mounted a covert attack on the US election in 2016, Trump didn’t kick up a fuss. He actually encouraged Russian hackers to target Hillary Clinton. And he has barely said a critical word against Putin since.

Trump’s praise of Putin’s “savvy” tactics in Ukraine was shameful, said Rich Lowry in the New York Post. But he may have been right in asserting that the Russian assault on Ukraine “never would have happened” while he was president. It’s certainly notable that Putin’s two Ukraine invasions – in 2014 and today – occurred during the administrations of Trump’s Democratic predecessor and successor. “Trump’s unpredictability and sensitivity to slights and threats surely would have made Putin think twice before trying his current gambit.”

For all his warm words, Trump pursued a reasonably tough approach to Moscow during his administration. He armed Ukraine, which the Obama administration had refused to do; he inveighed against the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany; and pushed Europeans to spend more on defence – “all of which were unwelcome to Putin”.

There is an argument that people should put partisan politics aside at a time like this, said Dan McLaughlin in National Review (New York). I don’t agree: there’s nothing wrong with calling out leaders’ failure to deal adequately with evil men. Our histories of WWII are “full of criticisms of people other than Hitler, without for an instant relieving Hitler of his moral responsibility”.

But the sad truth is that few US politicians emerge well from our dealings with Putin, dating back to his war with Georgia in 2008. One who does come out well is the Republican Mitt Romney. While running for president back in 2012 he identifed Russia as “without question, our number one geopolitical foe”. He was much mocked for doing so. “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back,” Barack Obama told him, “because the Cold War has been over for 20 years.” Romney referred to that line in his statement last week about the Ukraine crisis, saying, “The ‘80s called and we didn’t answer.” Romney is surely “entitled to his I-told-you-so”.

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