Back in February, we had a pretty good idea what was going on. Video and satellite imagery had shown the steady increase and massing of Russian troops, tanks, and military supplies around Ukraine’s borders. Vladimir Putin had started wars before — and here he was again, on the precipice of something truly horrific.
What bothered me was the extent to which several high-profile populist conservatives were seeming to reflexively side with the cruel Russian autocrat. I watched as Tucker Carlson and J.D. Vance defended Putin, or adopted the Kremlin’s critique of Ukraine. The country was a “pure client state of the United States State Department” said Carlson. “Spare me the performative affection for the Ukraine” said Vance on Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast.
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These interventions, made as Russia began an invasion that looks set to result in the deaths of thousands of Ukrainian civilians, look high risk and low reward. These commentators are undermining the credibility they have accrued for taking bold stances on the “security and identity” issues their base really cares about. Namely: wokeness, the border, crime and defending national heritage.
This is a real shame for populist conservatism in the United States. During the height of progressive moral panics such as the Covington Boys, George Floyd protests or Rittenhouse trial, Tucker’s show was an oasis of sanity. It was, too, on exposing campus craziness and anti-white rhetoric in institutions, or the scale of illegal immigration. He defended the legitimacy of Americans who wanted to regulate the pace of ethno-cultural change and protect social cohesion, taking immense flak from the great and the good. Others, such as Glenn Greenwald, highlighted the blind spots and biases of progressive organisations and tech firms. Most American politicians and legacy media outlets failed to cover these issues objectively.
And yet, when it comes to a suite of other problems, the incisive logic of the sceptics and their marshalling of evidence yielded to sweeping neo-Marxist conspiracy theories about a manipulative power elite. This became evident during the pandemic, a tricky new challenge in which experts and politicians had to optimise between death rates and freedom. While governments and public health bodies may have got the balance wrong, and overreached with mask mandates, such a complex issue does not lend itself to maximalist claims.
Instead, the difficulties of policymaking during the pandemic demanded building a patient case with data and arguing for the dial to be turned a bit towards greater personal autonomy. Indeed, the politics of anti-lockdown libertarianism has not paid off for those, such as Nigel Farage, who have attempted to campaign on it. It was never a populist position.
Another tricky issue which is largely tangential to populist voters’ concerns is foreign policy, where, even with Putin issuing marching orders to unprepared conscripts, populist elites continued to carry water for this killer. Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Eric Zemmour, and Viktor Orbán all, at various moments, spoke warmly of him. While it is legitimate to make a realist case — as John Mearsheimer has done — for tempering Ukrainian demands and accommodating reasonable Russian security concerns, the inability of some to reject the moral equivalence of Ukraine and Russia was glaring.
What lies behind this bizarre empathy toward Putin’s thuggish regime?
First, there is an important disconnect between Right-wing populist elites and their audience. Populist elites compete with mainstream intellectual elites, yearning for an overarching meta-theory to rival progressive liberalism or libertarianism. Many also desire a modicum of politically-correct respectability and thus try to pretend they are motivated by a desire to speak for the downtrodden. This typically results in a neo-Marxist mélange focused on globalist power elites and their manipulation of the masses. All of which pushes populist intellectuals toward grand theories of global economic and political order that bear little relationship to what national populist voters and audiences actually care about.
Steve Bannon talks endlessly about the perils of free trade, Davos and the working class, despite the fact the data shows very clearly that cultural attitudes and views on immigration, not material deprivation, are what predict support for Trump. Likewise, Brexit elites such as Boris Johnson or Douglas Carswell, with their libertarian dreams of a sovereign free-trading Britain, are strangely disconnected from actual Brexit voters, who were — like Trump voters — mainly motivated by a desire for less immigration and slower cultural change. The more Brexit voters glimpse the real Johnson, who cares nothing for these things, the less connected they feel to him.
Populist elites have developed a fixation on global elites and institutions as self-interested scheming actors, and have become obsessed with mobilising opposition to the globalist juggernaut. Rather than viewing the problem as a western cultural-Left worldview which repudiates national tradition and elevates a cult of victimhood, we are treated to conspiratorial musings about the “Great Reset” and elites in Davos, Geneva or Brussels. My limited experience, having given talks at some of these institutions, is that the more international the organisation, the less woke it is. Yes, western high culture permeates global institutions, but these are nodes rather than the epicentre of the problem.
Once convinced of their neo-Marxist grand theory, some populist elites, fired by hostility to the rules-based liberal world order, feel compelled to develop an anti-western foreign policy. “Enemy of my enemy is my friend” logic carries them toward Putin’s Russia and quasi-illiberal democracies such as Hungary. An isolationism which originally sprang from the valid concern — after protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — that American nationhood not be defined by missionary democracy promotion has mutated into support for autocracy.
The perception that Russia is a masculine, white, Christian country unafraid to stand up for its traditions forms part of its appeal to conservative populist thinkers. “Putin ain’t woke,” Steve Bannon said last month. “He’s anti-woke.” The Russian President’s 2019 interview with the Financial Times, when he declared that liberalism has “become obsolete” clearly impressed many Western conservative populists. Against Drag Queen Story Hour and self-flagellation about the sins of the past could be set Putin’s macho, Christian, nationalist Russia. Clearly, some populist elites took the bait.
Yet any honest appraisal of Putin’s Russia would reveal that its religiosity is weak, immigration substantial, and the Eurasianism of Putin and Alexandr Dugin would readily trade cultural homogeneity for more territory. Moreover, as the Russianist Edwin Bacon observes: “Eurasianists embracing Orthodoxy identify themselves as having far more in common with what they would call other traditional faiths — notably Islam, and principally Shi’a Islam — than with other Christian churches.” Putin’s Russia is a ramshackle, corrupt, aggressive despotism. It is not “really hot stuff” as Donald Trump put it once. It is not a post-woke paradise.
Populist elites also appear to like Russia because it has spurned liberalism, failing to appreciate that wokeness, whose sacralisation of minorities is used to restrict liberty, is best resisted by liberal arguments. They confuse procedural liberalism, which has been vital for the West’s success, with Left-modernist values such as celebrating diversity and change, which developed much later and are not central to liberalism.
As a ‘rational populist’ and liberal nationalist, I maintain that the values of the median voter should be reflected in policy, but that those tasked with carrying out such policies should be guided by science, analytic logic, and expertise. The problem with many Western elites is not their technical skills, but their post-national woke values, which spring from religious rather than rational wellsprings. While populist commentators correctly skewer the progressive pieties of the elite media and political class, the anti-globalist conspiracy theorising of many needs an urgent reality check. Populist pundits and politicians should resist the urge to stake out contrarian positions on every news item, tacking instead to the centre ground on side issues to avoid losing support for core issues.
Hopefully the Ukraine crisis can serve as a wake-up call, drawing them back toward the cultural problems their base actually cares about.