Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin have been much in the news and on the minds of Americans this election and post-election season. During the campaign, Donald Trump’s alleged sympathies for Vladimir Putin played a large role in Hillary Clinton’s apparent campaign strategy to appear as the more conventional and “steady” (read hawkish) candidate on foreign policy. Any mention of embarrassing Wikileaks revelations was answered by “But Russia did it!” If one didn’t know better, he could be forgiven for thinking he had somehow been transported back to the 1980 election during the height of the Cold War, such were the efforts to cast Russia and its Leader in the role of the boogie man, but oddly with the parties largely reversed.
Since the election of Trump, this dynamic has continued. For example, the apparent friendliness of Trump’s rumored Secretary of State pick, Rex Tillerson, toward Russia has many critics up in arms. The leaked CIA assessment that allegedly claims Russia interfered in the election on behalf of Trump has maximally cranked upped the volume.
All this focus on Russian influence has brought into much wider view the very dichotomous attitudes certain sectors of the American right have about Russia and Putin that have been apparent to us foreign policy obsessives for a long time. These differences have long been a subtext of the debate over NATO expansion, the Georgia and South Ossetia conflict, the Ukraine election and subsequent coup, the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s role in Syria. The differences break down to some degree along interventionist vs. non-interventionists lines, but not entirely. There is a well-represented segment of generally non-interventionist libertarians who view Russia and Putin hostilely and see their actions in Georgia and Crimea, for example, as evidence that Russia is still a bad actor with expansionist designs. That the people and institutions that represent this segment all seem to be funded by a certain pair of very wealthy brothers known for their generosity is purely a coincidence, I’m sure.
Now, how one views Russia is no longer just a matter of concern to wonkish foreign policy debaters. In fact, Russia/Putin seem to have become something of a litmus test. There are some people, especially on the right, who are still stuck in a Cold War mentality and hear Russia and just think “Commies” and “evil” and can’t get past that. While this is unfortunate for the sake of the debate, these are not the people I’m talking about. Among people with a more nuanced view, so to speak, Russia/Putin seem to be a very distinct dividing line. There is a good reason for this.
Russophile nationalists/anti-globalist in the US see Russia as a nationalistic country that is resisting the march of global Western hegemony more than any other single force and Putin as a patriotic Russian who wants what is best for his country, not what is best for the global order. They see Russia as essentially the last line of defense of old “Europe” against regnant globalism. They hope a newly nationalistic America under Trump can align with Russia to form an anti-globalist force strong enough to turn back the rising tide of hegemony. Russophobes left, right and center, however, also see Russia as the last major holdout against Western hegemony, but they view Western hegemony as a positive and hence Russian resistance as a negative. They not only don’t want the US to oppose Western hegemony, they see US leadership of it as a desirable thing and even an imperative. So in the big picture, these anti-globalists see Russia as the good guy on the world stage and globalism as a negative force to be resisted. Anti-Russian internationalists see Russia as the recalcitrant bad guy and the global project as something to be celebrated.
This is really a very profound difference, and it explains why we see such extreme polarization on the issue. People who may agree on 90% of other issues, can see friendliness to Russia and Putin as either dangerous and treasonous or striking a blow against the hated global elite. For an example of the former, take a look at the increasingly hysterical twitter feed of Evan McMullin who ran for President as the NeverTrump candidate. He openly calls Donald Trump disloyal and accuses him of subversion. For an example of the latter, Justin Raimondo, the libertarian editor of AntiWar.com, accuses the CIA of attempting a domestic coup.
This dynamic is stark and also appears to transcend left and right. In a dramatic reversal of recent history, most American Russophiles seem to be on the anti-globalist right, but part of the reason for this is undoubtedly because Russia is not viewed as a particularly progressive bastion of resistance to globalism despite its lingering skepticism of pure laissez-faire capitalism. Putin has, for example, regardless of his own personal piety or lack thereof, attempted to strengthen the Russian Orthodox Church and has spoken out against Western “decadence.”
However, if you look beyond the Russian element of the equation, whether US led hegemony is viewed as a beneficent or malicious force definitely cuts across left and right as those are generally understood today. In fact, it roughly seems to settle out along a “fringes” vs. center axis. American global leadership is the current status quo and “conventional wisdom” opinion that is generally supported by, in fact essentially taken for granted by, the center, the center-right and the center-left and presented accordingly by their various organs and mouthpieces – the MSM, thinks tanks, the punditocracy, etc. It is generally questioned, for both similar and dissimilar reasons, by those outside the “center,” both left and right.
The center recognizes that their conventional wisdom is being challenged from all sides, which is why the Establishment is so desperate to maintain the reigning narrative that global hegemony lead by the US is a beneficent and desirable arrangement, and the fact that Russia represents the primary global impediment to this is why the Powers That Be are becoming increasingly strident in their efforts to cast Russia and Putin as the villain on the world stage. If the aforementioned former CIA operative Evan McMullin’s unhinged rantings are any indication, they may be overplaying their hand.