This past summer while leading a Congressional delegation to Moscow, Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama proclaimed in a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that the United States and Russia “don’t necessarily need to be adversaries” and that “the world is better off…if Russia and the U.S. have fewer tensions.” While it is tough to disagree with Shelby, such statements are often expected from the perpetrators of cyber-warfare and election interference, not the victims.
Among fellow Republicans, Shelby is not alone in his conciliatory and even flattering tone towards our former Cold War enemy. Vice President Mike Pence said that it was “inarguable” that Russian President Vladimir Putin “has been a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in this country.” Likewise, President Donald Trump has gone from calling Putin a “strong leader” and “very smart” to asking “wouldn’t it be nice if we actually got along with Russia”.
Ronald Reagan would recoil and reject his fellow Republicans’ words. In 1983, Reagan declared the Soviet Union to be an “evil empire” and “the focus of evil in the modern world.” Indeed, these recent statements are a far cry from the hawkish tone Republican leaders used under Reagan. They also differ tremendously from the way Republicans spoke about Russia just a few years ago when Barack Obama still occupied the Oval Office, such as when 2012 Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney famously called Russia our “number one geopolitical foe.”
To what can we attribute this sudden, yet strong change of perspective within the GOP leadership?
It might be that former Russia hawks who have reversed their positions have done so out of political necessity. In just four years, the percentage of Republicans who consider Russia an ally has nearly doubled to 40 percent, while just 10 percent now consider Russia the greatest immediate threat to the United States. Russia, like Trump, is popular with the GOP base and Senators, like Shelby, want to keep their jobs.
But if politics can answer the question of why Republican elected officials have changed their minds on Russia, then what can possibly explain the Republican base’s change of heart?
Surprisingly, the Republican base’s pivot towards Moscow began well before Trump entered the political arena, let alone the Oval Office. In August of 2013, Matt Drudge, the conservative pundit and founder of the right-wing Drudge Report, called Putin the “leader of the free world.” Later that year, Pat Buchanan, the same Pat Buchanan who was a senior advisor to both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, penned a column defending both Putin’s leadership and conservative record. And in 2014, evangelist Franklin Graham, long a prominent face on the religious right along with his father, Billy Graham, defended Putin on a host of issues ranging from LGBT rights to military engagement in Syria. What gives?
While Buchanan and Graham’s respective defenses of Putin have been tied to his crackdown on gay rights in Russia, the right-wing obsession with Russia extends beyond “homosexual marriage,” (Buchanan’s words) and into the broader culture war taking place in the U.S. and across the Western world. On issues such as racial diversity and multiculturalism, immigration, LGBT rights, and abortion, the left and right in America and in Europe are increasingly divided.
Where does Putin stand on multiculturalism, gay rights, abortion rights, and immigration? Firmly in the conservative camp.
When it comes to racial diversity and immigration, Russia represents a Trump-Republican’s dream. While whites in the U.S make up 61% of the population, in the next 20 to 25 years, the U.S will become a majority-minority nation. Russia’s population on the other hand is still over 82% white– and not shrinking. And there is no immigration to Russia. As of January of 2018, Russia has granted only one Syrian national refugee status since the Syrian Civil War broke out in 2011. To quote HBO’s “Real Time” host Bill Maher, “Russia is a honky oasis and Republicans love it.”
Putin’s record on gay and abortion rights is similar. In advance of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia famously passed a law banning “the propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations,” and threatening stiff penalties for those who “promote homosexuality to anyone under 18.” Same-sex couples in Russia are ineligible for a number of legal protections available to heterosexual couples and there are no laws banning discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Finally, in the Russia republic of Chechnya in 2017, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov was accused of rounding up and detaining over 100 men suspected of being gay, three of whom were killed. In the aftermath Kadyrov denied the claims and Putin appeared to back him up.
Restrictions on abortion are similarly harsh. In 2011, the Russian Parliament passed a law banning abortions after the twelfth week of pregnancy and instituted a mandatory waiting period of two to seven days to allow the woman to “reconsider her decision.” Moreover, the law mandates that abortion providers devote “10 percent of any advertising to describing the dangers of abortion to a woman’s health” while making it illegal to “describe abortion as a safe medical procedure.”
With bans on public expressions of homosexuality and restrictive abortion laws, its no wonder Christian conservatives in the United States like Franklin Graham and Mike Pence find Vladimir Putin to be a strong and admirable leader. Many Republican voters overlooked Trump’s anti-democratic tendencies when voting for him in 2016 simply so they could finally overturn Roe v. Wade. It’s not a leap to say that those same Republicans could overlook Putin’s despotism for similar reasons.
The Republican base no longer views Russia as an “evil empire” but rather as the “leader of the free world” because the battle lines dividing our world are no longer ideological, but cultural. Communists and dictators are no longer the enemy, liberals are.
The consequences of viewing the world through a cultural lens rather than an ideological one are nothing short of profound. If the features that unite people with one another are their race or policies on abortion and gay marriage rather than their commitment to American values, then it’s no wonder Republicans view Russia, rather than Democrats, as a more natural ally.
At the summit meeting between Russia and the United States in Helsinki this past July, President Trump was asked whether or not he believed America’s intelligence agencies or Vladimir Putin when it came to Russian meddling in the 2016 election. He sided with Putin. While even GOP leaders chastised Trump for his comment and came to the defense of the FBI and CIA, his decision to believe and defend the Russians over fellow Americans is a sign of what’s to come if cultural values continue to supersede democratic ones. To avoid this fate, Americans must again find a way to replace partisanship with patriotism, and commitment to our causes with a commitment to our country.