As the images and stories of the war–brought to us by courageous journalists–fill our feeds, I can’t stop thinking about the approval rating for the war from within Russia, or the fact that Russian soldiers who took over Chernobyl had no idea what the place was, or the dangers that lurked there silently. Propaganda and lies are the bedrock of brutality.
That Russia had brainwashed its population isn’t new news, and the country has been criticized for its lack of free speech and its human rights abuses for decades. Its state-run media and its strong punishments for dissent and opposition for a long time meant that in a Western democracy like ours, maybe one of the few things those on either side of the aisle agreed on was that Russia was a foe and a danger to the United States.
But in the last few decades, there’s been an odd shift within one political party in particular where the things that used to make Russia a foe now make it more of a friend, from their perspective.
Maybe it was shared bigotry toward LGBTQ+ individuals. After all, Russia’s fight against what it called “gay propaganda” seems oddly familiar these days to some of the legislation like the “Don’t Say Gay” bills red states are swiftly passing in the U.S.
So, too, the homogeneity of Russia as a heavily white, Orthodox “Christian” state also plays heavily into the dreams of white supremacists and Christian nationalists alike for how the U.S. might look were it to embrace a culture more like Russia.
It should come as no surprise, in fact, that several January 6 insurrectionists have fled the U.S. for former Soviet, pro-Russian countries like Hungary and Belarus. And while Russia likes to pretend–as liberators of Jews in Nazi concentration camps–that it is firmly against all forms of fascism (cf. e.g. their lies that that the Ukraine war is an effort at “denazification”), in fact Neo-Nazi membership within Russia has been on the rise for quite some time.
A big part of that, of course, is how Putin–in order to remain in power–has cultivated nationalism within the country, and I’m not just talking about pride in one’s homeland but the kind of nationalism that makes the experience of being “Russian” “special,” which inevitably creates resentment and hatred of the “other.” There is no nationalism like this that is not by nature xenophobic at its core.
And finally, there is the way in which Putin has built up and fortified his power by collapsing any and all forms of opposition, most notably with the attempted murder and arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
As U.S. conservatives abandon any kind of agenda other than hatred of Democrats, and as some party leaders in the past few years have welcomed ideas of murdering or arresting their opponents, it’s not that difficult to see why they might find Russian success in such endeavors as attractive.
All of that is to say, you could argue it makes a good bit of sense that certain individuals within the Republican party would have warmed up to a country that they regard as a conservative paradise.
And as unthinkable as that may once have seemed, it’s happened all too quickly. The question is–how and why.
While I don’t want to get too caught up on Trump (as he’s more of a symptom of this disease than the cause itself), his love affair with Putin–I would argue–has been a catalyst for the embrace of Russia within the Republican party, and that makes it all the more dangerous as he continues to be the leader of the GOP. But just to drive this point home, I’ll remind you of a few important moments–and a slightly longer, though incomplete, list of his Putin obsession can be found all over the internet.
But one of the most important moments was during the 2016 Republican National Convention. Trump had an opportunity to reshape the entire Republican platform, drive home his own agenda. So, it was odd when the only change to the Republican platform he demanded–the only one at all–was that Republicans drop their support of Ukraine. An interesting move that brings us to today–and one that began more than six years ago.
Then, of course, we all know about his impeachment in which he was held accountable for trying to force Zelensky to come up with lies about Hunter Biden in exchange for U.S. foreign aid.
And, his most recent praise of Putin as a “genius” specifically for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine really makes anyone who had any doubts about whether there was “collusion” with Russia look pretty stupid.
Face it, when the guy who had been laundering money for the Russian mafia since the 1980s continues to push out their propaganda, advocated Russian talking points against NATO for decades, and it’s pretty crazy we haven’t all accepted that Trump is a Russian asset by now.
But maybe the suggestion that the U.S. president is a foreign asset was such a crazy notion that simply no one could accept that widely. It was something beyond our cultural willingness to suspend disbelief.
At this point, I’d argue refusal to acknowledge the Trump-Russia connection is inexcusable, but then I don’t live in the kind of bubble Russia has created for its own people, which leads me to my original point:
I said in the first paragraph that propaganda and lies are the bedrock of brutality. When they amass, you can always follow them down an inevitably violent path. Russia has long understood this, better than most, and their masterful ability to lie, not only to their own people but the whole world—about everything–has been at the core of who they are and helped bring us to where we are today.
The goal: if your people can’t agree on what is fact, they will turn to those who tell them what to believe, and that allows brutal rulers to consolidate their power. Your exhaustion with trying to uncover the truth, your embrace of relativism when you can’t “prove” anything, your willingness to lean on false equivalencies when “both sides” are, in fact, not equal in what’s true, all serve to shift power from an informed and free people to those who control the free flow of information.
And Russia has taken this goal and exported their keen approach at driving wedges through societies with the use of whataboutism, the firehose of falsehood, false balance, and other disinformation tactics that have left many of us at a loss about what to believe and left to turn on each other.
It would have been bad enough, of course, to have had a one-term president with more than 30,000 false or misleading claims, but it’s no longer just the president who thrives off those falsehoods. It’s Breitbart and Fox News and OANN and Truth Social and Parler and Facebook. It’s the collapse of journalistic gatekeeping. It’s the use of online “trolls,” and psy-op campaigns to sow dissent and distrust. It’s Republicans who, at this point, simply say things that are easily, verifiably false, like claiming Trump caught Osama bin Laden or, just today, when Ted Cruz claimed Biden started the war in Ukraine.
Politicians lying is not new, nor is it something only one side ever did, and yet, there was a time certain lies meant resignations and repentance, whereas today, the lies–which largely come from the party who sees firsthand what Russia has been so effective at doing and relies on their own propaganda machines to do the same–have a different, deadly affect on our society.
That one of those of lies, the “Big” one about the election, lead to an attempted coup of a legitimately elected president would be bad enough if it weren’t for the fact that more lies since have helped assuage our righteous indignation and pushed us to move on too quickly, care less than we should, or forget about it altogether.
So, for a moment, when the world–and the U.S. across party lines–rallied behind Ukraine, there was hope, to be sure, but I fear that’s quickly fading.
Now, there’s a kind of schizophrenia happening within the Republican party where many Republicans want to simultaneously hear out Tucker Carlson or Donald Trump and embrace them, in spite of their own embrace of anti-Ukraine propaganda; at the same time, Republicans want to support Ukraine, shouting “Glory to Ukraine,” as though they’ve all-too-easily forgotten their man wanted to ensure Ukraine would easily fall to Russia in the first place. Can they see the disconnect? Have any of them looked at Trump and others in the party embracing lie after lie and thought, “Something here is amiss”?
More to the point, as they watch war crimes amounting to genocide–the use of white phosphorus, the threat of nuclear annihilation, the intentional murders of civilians and journalists, the forced migration and disappearance of Ukrainians near the Russian border, the rapes of women and children, the intentional destruction of a food warehouse in order to starve the Ukrainian people, etc., have they ever even once stopped and thought, “Maybe I don’t want to be associated with or vote for the person or politician who calls the people behind all this ‘genius’ or praises the Russian leader who appears to be guilty of war crimes”?
My fear, my earnest worry, is that we’re not paying close enough attention or willing to admit that some of our fellow Americans don’t just look the other way on what’s happening in Ukraine–or even embrace Putin–simply because they have been lied to or don’t know any better. Rather, for at least some of them (and what could become many given more time and more lies and the slow and steady dismantling of public education), their embrace of this evil is a recognition that they actually like what’s happening–and would love to replicate it here.
Call it the “Sandy Hook theory,” or the “kids in cages theory.” Once the kind of violence that is the murder or detainment of children became “acceptable” or “unavoidable” in the United States, it shouldn’t be that difficult to believe, or that much of a surprise that we could become a country where other atrocities aren’t just possible but likely.
So go ahead, point your finger at the brutality and aggression of the Russian state, everyone, but please understand: the Russian state and the modern GOP are bedfellows like no other, and when they welcome and embrace those who commit war crimes and other reprehensible, genocidal acts, when they welcome and embrace the power of the lie to maintain their hold on that power, they know what they’re doing–and they aren’t far away from embracing the kind of violence necessary to ensure they never have to let that power go.
If nothing else, take note: the autocrats and the wannabe autocrats are learning from each other–and their first act is to make sure we don’t learn anything.