By James Kirchick
“Would somebody please help me out here: I’m confused,” read the email to me from a conservative Republican activist and donor. “The Russians are alleged to have interfered in the 2016 election by hacking into Dem party servers that were inadequately protected, some being kept in Hillary’s basement and finding emails that were actually written by members of the Clinton campaign and releasing those emails so that they could be read by the American people who what, didn’t have the right to read these emails? And this is bad? Shouldn’t we be thanking the Russians for making the election more transparent?”
Put aside the factual inaccuracies in this missive (it was not Hillary Clinton’s controversial private server the Russians are alleged to have hacked, despite Donald Trump’s explicit pleading with them to do so, but rather those of the Democratic National Committee and her campaign chairman, John Podesta). Here, laid bare, are the impulses of a large swathe of today’s Republican Party. In any other era, our political leaders would be aghast at the rank opportunism, moral flippancy and borderline treasonous instincts on display.
Instead, we get this from the president of the United States, explaining away his son’s encounter with Russian operatives who were advertised as working on behalf of the Kremlin: “Most politicians would have gone to a meeting like the one Don Jr attended in order to get info on an opponent. That’s politics!” And from elected Republicans, we get mostly silence—or embarrassing excuses.
Never mind that Trump Jr. initially said the meeting was about adoption, not a Russian offer of “ultra sensitive” dirt on Hillary Clinton. We’ve gone from the Trump team saying they never even met with Russians to the president himself now essentially saying: So what if we did?
None of this should surprise anyone who paid attention during last year’s campaign. Trump Sr., after all, explicitly implored Russia to hack Clinton’s private email server. He ran as the most pro-Russian candidate for president since Henry Wallace helmed the Soviet fellow-traveling Progressive Party ticket in 1948, extolling Vladimir Putin’s manly virtues at every opportunity while bringing Kremlin-style moral relativism to the campaign trail. Worst of all, GOP voters never punished him for it. This is what they voted for.
Nor was Trump Jr. the only Republican to seek Russian assistance against Clinton. In May, the Wall Street Journal reported that a Florida Republican operative sought and received hacked Democratic Party voter-turnout analyses from “Guccifer 2.0,” a hacker the U.S. government has said is working for Russia’s intelligence services. The Journal has also reported that Republican operative Peter W. Smith, who is now deceased, “mounted an independent campaign to obtain emails he believed were stolen from Hillary Clinton’s private server, likely by Russian hackers.”
Amid a raft of congressional and law enforcement probes into Russian meddling during the 2016 presidential election, it’s still unclear whether members of Trump’s campaign actively colluded with Moscow. But we now know that they had no problem accepting the Kremlin’s help—in fact, Trump Jr. professes disappointment that his Russian interlocutors didn’t deliver the goods. Forty-eight percent of Republicans, meanwhile, think Don Jr. was right to take the meeting. During the campaign, as operatives linked to Russian intelligence dumped hacked emails onto the internet, few Republicans stood on principle, like Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and condemned their provenance. “I will not discuss any issue that has become public solely on the basis of WikiLeaks,” Rubio said at the time. And he issued a stark warning to members of his party who were looking to take advantage of Clinton’s misfortune: “Today it is the Democrats. Tomorrow it could be us.”
Unfortunately, the vast majority of Rubio’s GOP colleagues completely ignored his counsel. Suddenly, Republican leaders and conservative media figures who not long ago were demanding prison time (or worse) for Julian Assange were praising the Australian anarchist to the skies. Every morsel in the DNC and Podesta emails, no matter how innocuous, was pored over and exaggerated to maximum effect. Republican politicians and their allies in the conservative media behaved exactly as the Kremlin intended. The derivation of the emails (stolen by Russian hackers) and the purpose of their dissemination (to sow dissension among the American body politic) have either been ignored, or, in the case of my conservative interlocutor, ludicrously held up as an example of Russian altruism meant to save American democracy from the perfidious Clinton clan.
Contrast Rubio’s principled stand with that of current CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who, while now appropriately calling WikiLeaks a “hostile intelligence service” that “overwhelmingly focuses on the United States while seeking support from antidemocratic countries,” was more than happy to retail its ill-gotten gains during the campaign. Today, just one-third of Republican voters even believe the intelligence community findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, no doubt influenced by the president’s equivocations on the matter.
I was no fan of Barack Obama’s foreign policy. I criticized his Russian “reset,” his Iran nuclear deal, his opening to Cuba, even his handling of political conflict in Honduras. For the past four years, I worked at a think tank, the Foreign Policy Initiative, that was bankrolled by Republican donors and regularly criticized the Obama administration. Anyone who’s followed my writing knows I’ve infuriated liberals and Democrats plenty over the years, and I have the metaphorical scars to prove it.
What I never expected was that the Republican Party—which once stood for a muscular, moralistic approach to the world, and which helped bring down the Soviet Union—would become a willing accomplice of what the previous Republican presidential nominee rightly called our No. 1 geopolitical foe: Vladimir Putin’s Russia. My message for today’s GOP is to paraphrase Barack Obama when he mocked Romney for saying precisely that: 2012 called—it wants its foreign policy back.
I should not have been surprised. I’ve been following Russia’s cultivation of the American right for years, long before it became a popular subject, and I have been amazed at just how deep and effective the campaign to shift conservative views on Russia has been. Four years ago, I began writing a series of articles about the growing sympathy for Russia among some American conservatives. Back then, the Putin fan club was limited to seemingly fringe figures like Pat Buchanan (“Is Vladimir Putin a paleoconservative?” he asked, answering in the affirmative), a bunch of cranks organized around the Ron Paul Institute and some anti-gay marriage bitter-enders so resentful at their domestic political loss they would ally themselves with an authoritarian regime that not so long ago they would have condemned for exporting “godless communism.”
Today, these figures are no longer on the fringe of GOP politics. According to a Morning Consult-Politico poll from May, an astonishing 49 percent of Republicans consider Russia an ally. Favorable views of Putin – a career KGB officer who hates America – have nearly tripled among Republicans in the past two years, with 32 percent expressing a positive opinion.
It would be a mistake to attribute this shift solely to Trump and his odd solicitousness toward Moscow. Russia has been targeting the American right since at least 2013, the year Putin enacted a law targeting pro-gay rights organizing and delivered a state-of-the-nation address extolling Russia’s “traditional values” and assailing the West’s “genderless and infertile” liberalism. That same year, a Kremlin-connected think tank released a report entitled, “Putin: World Conservativism’s New Leader.” In 2015, Russia hosted a delegation from the National Rifle Association, one of America’s most influential conservative lobby groups, which included David Keene, then-president of the NRA and now editor of the Washington Times editorial page, which regularly features voices calling for a friendlier relationship with Moscow. (It should be noted here that Russia, a country run by its security services where the leader recently created a 400,000-strong praetorian guard, doesn’t exactly embrace the individual right to bear arms.) A recent investigation by Politico Magazine, meanwhile, revealed how Russian intelligence services have been using the internet and social networks to target another redoubt of American conservativism: the military community.
Today, it’s hard to judge this Russian effort as anything other than a smashing success. Turn on Fox News and you will come across the network’s most popular star, Sean Hannity, citing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as a reliable source of information or retailing Russian disinformation such as the conspiracy theory that murdered DNC staffer Seth Rich—who police say was killed during a robbery attempt—was the source of last summer’s leaks, not Russian hackers. Fox’s rising star Tucker Carlson regularly uses his time slot to ridicule the entire Russian meddling scandal and portray Putin critics as bloodthirsty warmongers. On Monday night, he went so far as to give a platform to fringe leftist Max Blumenthal — author of a book comparing Israel to the Third Reich and a vocal supporter of the Assad regime in Syria — to assail the “bootlicking press” for reporting on Trump’s Russia ties. (When Blumenthal alleged that the entire Russia scandal was really just a militarist pretext for NATO enlargement, Carlson flippantly raised the prospect of his son having to fight a war against Russia, as he did in a contentious exchange earlier this year with Russian dissident Garry Kasparov. At the time, I asked Carlson if his son serves in the military. He didn’t respond).
Meanwhile, the Heritage Foundation, one of Washington’s most influential conservative think tanks and a former bastion of Cold War hawkishness, has enlisted itself in the campaign against George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist whose work promoting democracy and good governance in the former Soviet space has made him one of the Kremlin’s main whipping boys.
And it’s not just conservative political operatives and media hacks who have come around on Russia. Pro-Putin feelings are now being elucidated by some conservative intellectuals as well. Echoing Kremlin complaints that Russia is a country which has been “frequently humiliated, robbed, and misled” – a self-pitying justification for Russian aggression throughout history – Weekly Standard senior editor Christopher Caldwell extolls Putin as “the pre-eminent statesman of our time.”
How did the party of Ronald Reagan’s moral clarity morph into that of Donald Trump’s moral vacuity? Russia’s intelligence operatives are among the world’s best. I believe they made a keen study of the American political scene and realized that, during the Obama years, the conservative movement had become ripe for manipulation. Long gone was its principled opposition to the “evil empire.” What was left was an intellectually and morally desiccated carcass populated by con artists, opportunists, entertainers and grifters operating massively profitable book publishers, radio empires, websites, and a TV network whose stock-in-trade are not ideas but resentments. If a political officer at the Russian Embassy in Washington visited the zoo that is the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, they’d see a “movement” that embraces a ludicrous performance artist like Milo Yiannopoulos as some sort of intellectual heavyweight. When conservative bloggers are willing to accept hundreds of thousands of dollars from Malaysia’s authoritarian government to launch a smear campaign against a democratic opposition leader they know nothing about, how much of a jump is it to line up and defend what at the very least was attempted collusion on the part of a brain-dead dauphin like Donald Trump Jr.?
Surveying this lamentable scene, why wouldn't Russia try to “turn” the American right, whose ethical rot necessarily precedes its rank unscrupulousness? It is this ethical rot that allows Dennis Prager, one of the right’s more unctuous professional moralists, to opine with a straight face that “The news media in the West pose a far greater danger to Western civilization than Russia does.” Why wouldn’t a “religious right” that embraced a boastfully immoral charlatan like Donald Trump not turn a blind eye toward—or, in the case of Franklin Graham, embrace—an oppressive regime like that ruling Russia? American conservatism is no better encapsulated today than by the self-satisfied, smirking mug of Carlson, the living embodiment of what Lionel Trilling meant when he wrote that the “conservative impulse” is defined by “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”
The entire Trump-Russia saga strikes at a deeper issue which most Republicans have shown little care in examining: What is it about Donald Trump that attracted the Kremlin so?
Such an effort would be like staging an intervention for a drunk and abusive family member: painful but necessary. One would have thought a U.S. intelligence community assessment concluding that the Russians preferred their party’s nominee over Hillary Clinton would have introduced a bit of introspection on the right. Moments for such soul-searching had arrived much earlier, however, like when Trump hired a former advisor to the corrupt, pro-Russian president of Ukraine as his campaign manager last summer. Or when he praised Putin on “Morning Joe” in December of 2015. Republicans ought to have considered how an “America First” foreign policy, despite its promises to build up the military and “bomb the shit out of” ISIS, might actually be more attractive to Moscow than the warts-and-all liberal internationalism of the Democratic nominee, who, whatever her faults, has never called into question the very existence of institutions like the European Union and NATO, pillars of the transatlantic democratic alliance. Now that he’s president, Trump’s fitful behavior, alienating close allies like Britain and Germany, ought give Republicans pause about how closely the president’s actions accord with Russian objectives.
But alas there has been no such reckoning within the party of Reagan. Instead, the Russia scandal has incurred a wrathful defensiveness among conservatives, who are reaching for anything – paranoid attacks on the so-called American “deep state,” allegations of conspiracy among Obama administration holdovers – to distract attention from the very grave reality of Russian active measures. To be sure, the Republican Congress, at least on paper, remains hawkish on the Kremlin, as evidenced by the recent 98-2 Senate vote to increase sanctions against Russia for its election meddling and other offenses. But in no way can they be said anymore to represent the GOP party base, which has been led to believe by the president and his allies in the pro-Trump media that “the Russia story” is a giant hoax. It wasn’t long ago that the GOP used to mock Democratic presidential candidates for supposedly winning “endorsements” from foreign adversaries, like when a Hamas official said he “liked” Barack Obama in 2008. Today, most Republicans evince no shame in the fact that their candidate was the clearly expressed preference of a murderous thug like Vladimir Putin.
If Republicans put country before party, they would want to know what the Russians did, why they did it and how to prevent it from happening again. But that, of course, would raise questions implicating Donald Trump and all those who have enabled him, questions that most Republicans prefer to remain unanswered.
The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age. This article is a co-publication with Eurozine.