Speaking at a Mar-a-Lago fundraiser shortly before Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Donald Trump heaped praise on the despot. Putin was “very smart,” Trump said with apparent admiration. “I mean, he’s taken over a country for $2 worth of sanctions. I’d say that’s pretty smart,” Trump said. “He’s taking over a country, literally, a vast, vast, location, a great piece of land with a lot of people, and just walking right in.”
Trump’s long-standing affection for Putin has hardly been the stuff of secrets. In the same speech, Trump bragged that he knows the Russian leader “very well … almost as well as anybody in this room,” suggesting that their very special relationship might have prevented war—this in spite of the evident pride that Trump took in Putin’s decision to launch an invasion that will likely lead to the deaths of thousands and the potential collapse of a nascent European democracy, flawed though it may be.
But Trump’s comments were arguably tame compared to those of many in the right-wing media. His suggestion that his cozy relations with Putin might have averted war was a dubious bit of magical thinking—one that ignored the many ways he either enabled Putin or undermined NATO—but at least the former president was willing to countenance the notion that peace was preferable. By contrast, on Fox News and in other corners of the right-wing media, hosts aggressively cheered Russia on, while using the invasion as a hackneyed and pathetic attempt to hype the culture war—and to continue to boost Putin as a natural ally while denigrating vulnerable democracies.
“Russia collusion and the tens of millions of dollars spent on that ridiculous Mueller investigation, we’re paying the price right now,” Fox News host Laura Ingraham said on Wednesday. “The world is paying the price right now.” Ingraham was touting Trump’s line, saying that she laid “the blame at the feet of the people who tried to hound him out of office.” The idea here was that Trump had a secret plan—no doubt involving more coddling of Putin—that might have halted the invasion, even though the former president had never previously shown an interest in protecting Ukrainian sovereignty or democracy. When Trump called in, later in the show, he suggested that war was the fault of the “rigged election.”
Candace Owens, one of the right’s rising stars, pointed her readers to a Putin speech that was chock full of lies—before suggesting that what America really should be doing is sending troops to Canada to protect a small number of truckers who are angry about vaccines. For Steve Bannon, the argument was even more explicit: Russians—and, in particular, their hypermacho leaders—are natural allies in the war against the woke left.
But no one has done more to hype Russia—and, by extension, been more indifferent to the people of Ukraine—than Fox News’s biggest star, Tucker Carlson. He has suggested that the invasion was the result of a mere “border dispute.” He has repeatedly echoed the Kremlin’s own talking points on the war, suggesting that the real issue was that Democrats don’t want Russia to succeed. “Their one and only goal is to hold back the development of Russia,” Carlson said on Monday, while also suggesting that Ukraine was effectively a client state: “a colony with a puppet regime.”
Carlson further characterized Ukrainians as warmongers, desperate to fulfill a blood feud with Putin that will jeopardize American lives—a particularly spurious claim given that Russia has unambiguously been the aggressor and is currently bombing sites all over the country. All of these, as Insider pointed out earlier this week, are the exact same points Moscow is using to sell the invasion as a necessity—indeed, Carlson’s segments have already shown up in Russian propaganda.
Carlson really hit his stride on Tuesday, during one of his a typically stern-faced monologues. “It may be worth asking yourself, since it is getting pretty serious, what is this really about?” he asked, rhetorically. “Why do I hate Putin so much?” he continued. “Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him?” To Carlson’s thinking, Putin’s cruelties can be dismissed as other people’s problems—or even assets: If Putin is against civil rights, social justice, and democracy, that makes him, broadly speaking, an ally.
Downplaying Putin’s wanton aggression is certainly a challenge, considering it is presently coursing across our screens. There’s no guarantee that Putin will stop with Ukraine, either: Further aggression toward the Baltics, in particular, but also in other parts of Europe and Central Asia remain the concerns of those not lost to far-right fantasia. Ukraine’s flawed democracy is on the verge of becoming a whole lot less democratic; the potential of wider war on the European continent is suddenly a pressing concern. But who cares? The only thing that matters is stopping the woke left; helping the people of Ukraine contributes nothing to that cause.
It’s an astonishingly naïve argument. It’s callous, as well; with a despicable Trumpian turn. The distinctions between America and Russia have been discarded; as has the legacy of the Cold War fight for a free Europe. The suffering of the people of Ukraine—and their actual wishes—are being erased from the conversation. This profoundly cynical display sums up the right’s approach to nearly every issue right now: Morality, decency, peace—none of these things matter. Ukraine is merely another cudgel with which to beat Joe Biden and the left. It’s something else entirely; certainly not “conservatism.”