Few figures have inspired the so-called populist right in recent years as much as Vladimir Putin, a leader who has championed extreme Russian nationalism hand in hand with a revival of the most conservative iteration of the Russian Orthodox church, appealing to christian nationalists and neo-fascists around the world. His strongman politics have led to the legalized persecution of long marginalized groups like gays and lesbians within the Russian Federation in ways North American rightwingers like Steve Bannon or Ben Shapiro could only dream of.
While disingenuous culture war still rages in North America and Europe, these battles mostly seem to have already been won by reactionaries in the Russian Federation and what amount to its vassal states like neighboring Belarus. In Muslim Chechnya, where 2 brutal wars were fought in the 1990s and early in this century, the Putin supported government runs what amount to concentration camps for LGBTQI+ communities and has reportedly used death squads to go after those who have fled this persecution and their allies living abroad.
The witch hunts targeting LGBTQI+ people in Russia and its allies have been especially popular with North American far right evangelicals, who seem to feel that their bigotry is justified by their religion. Belief systems that seem to have become infected with the white‘christian’ identity politics popular with certain neo-Nazi groups more than 20 years ago.
In their early endorsements of what appeared at the time to be mere saber rattling directed by Putin and his subordinates at neighboring Ukraine, far right populists in the West applauded the 69 year old Russian president’s ‘manliness’, often making an argument previously championed by anti-imperialists on the left about NATO encroachment into Russia’s traditional sphere influence. After the invasion commentators like Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson quickly changed tunes, blaming ‘weak’ Democrats like Joe Biden for Putin’s folly.
That this aggression and the lives already lost can’t be justified under any pretenses doesn’t detract from legitimate criticism of NATO’s eastward expansion after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, when the perceived threat from Russia ended. The strategy of what amounts to encirclement is short-sighted as such things almost always are when powerful economic interests are involved. The best we can hope for now is that diplomacy will prevail in the current crisis and that the conflict in Ukraine will be as short as possible despite the windfall involved for Western and Russian arms manufacturers alike.
Speaking of short sighted people, as tensions were rising in eastern Europe, some at the CPAC event held at the end of last month in Florida, including that state’s governor and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, argued that the crisis over Ukraine should be ignored because the U.S. itself is facing an ‘invasion’ of its own along the country’s southern border, referring to asylum seekers mostly armed with their children and elderly relatives.
In Europe, leaders on the far right from France’s Marine Le Pen to Italy’s Matteo Salvini and Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who have all celebrated Putin as representative of the kind of strong leader they want to emulate have mostly bowed to public backlash in the wake of the savagery being inflicted not far from their doorsteps.
In purely political terms, the about faces are interesting because these are the same far right groupings that seemed to be once again growing in strength, especially with upcoming elections in France offering two far right candidates jockeying to see who can be most offensive in arguing that their country has been both ‘Islamized’ and ‘feminized’.
While the similar, if less thought out and focus grouped populism of American reality TV star Donald Trump seemed temporarily in retreat in North America after the events of January 6th at the U.S. capitol, anger at public health measures led to a trucker convoy that descended on Ottawa, the small city that’s home to Canada’s federal government and at a variety of border crossings into the United States, energized these forces on both sides of the U.S.’ northern border. The convoy organizers, a motley crew of far right demagogues and conspiracy theorists also raised millions in later seized funds showing they were far from spent force.
Alarmingly, the convoy protesters in Canada seemed to have a lot of mostly quiet support from police, something we’ve seen with groups like the Proud Boys in the United States in the past.
As we might have expected the former U.S. president was among the first to come out in support of Russia’s declaration recognizing the regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, where a large Russian speaking minority has been fighting Ukraine’s government since 2015, as independent on February 21st prior to the invasion proper, calling the move “genius”.
Trump went on to say, “He used the word ‘independent’ and ‘we’re gonna go out and we’re gonna go in and we’re gonna help keep peace.’ You gotta say that’s pretty savvy.”
The former U.S. president went uncharacteristically silent for a couple of days as Russian tanks and armored vehicles rolled into Ukraine, setting off the largest conflict in Europe in decades and shocking the world in the process. As Russian casualties have continued to mount, the invasion seems anything but ‘savvy’.
Hopefully, the reaction to events in Europe and across the Atlantic by rightwing populist leaders like Trump will at least slow down the perceived momentum created by the Canadian trucker convoy and legisltaive wins like the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill at the state level in the United States, especially with mid-term elections in the U.S. not too far off.
While it’s the last thing that most on the progressive left want to do since these issues already seem settled, we will need to engage with the culture wars that seem to be among the few winning issues for the right, if only to protect and elevate the most marginalized of working people.
Though the populist right is even more inclined to seek the simplest of solutions to complex problems than even traditional conservatives and neo-conservative hawks, parts of the left have a tendency to ignore nuance as well. It shouldn’t be controversial to say that while U.S. and allied imperialism must be opposed, despite its weakness by comparison, Russian imperialism must also be challenged. It’s just common sense.