Few foreign world leaders—let alone any murderous dictators—have received more solicitous treatment from the Republican Party during the last five years than Vladimir Putin. Imagine if Democrats so warmly and fulsomely embraced someone who now threatens to rain destruction down on our country (Osama Bin Laden comes to mind). Or if they had gleefully sent delegations to kowtow to that person’s criminal syndicate, thugs, and cronies (on the 4th of July, no less). Or what if they, along with their media mouthpieces, sung his praises and echoed his talking points for literally years, obsequiously groveling before him and marveling at his prowess and “toughness.” Well, you could expect that the Democratic Party would be awash in shame and humiliation right about now, pilloried at every turn for its treachery.
Brookings Institute fellow and author James Kirchick, writing for Politico in July 2017, accurately captured the bizarre nexus that had developed between the GOP and the Russian dictator: “In any other era, our political leaders would be aghast at the rank opportunism, moral flippancy and borderline treasonous instincts on display.”
But “borderline treasonous” doesn’t do justice to what actually occurred. The offender here was a major U.S. political party whose titular leader had, through his shadowy colleagues and family members, enlisted the assistance of Russian nationals and intelligence in order to help get himself elected. Those same Russian intelligence operatives reported to and were directly answerable to Vladimir Putin. The previously unimaginable, insidious scope of that effort aside, what was truly mind-boggling was its excusal by the political organization that spawned it. As Kirchick observed, “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.”
As Kirchick explains, Putin’s deliberate cultivation of the American right-wing—and ultimately most of the Republican Party—through the efforts of Russian intelligence, began in earnest in 2013:
[T]hey 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.
At that time the Russian leader’s tactic was to reinvent his corrupt, kleptocratic, mafia state’s image as a paragon of “traditional values.” Not coincidentally, these sentiments were highlighted in propaganda designed to target and cultivate the approval of right-wing organizations in this country. Anti-gay, pro-masculine, and pro-gun rhetoric proved to be catnip to an American right nurturing its grievances about cultural shifts occurring in the U.S., while Kremlin spies and propagandists carefully targeted and infiltrated American “institutions” like the NRA and the U.S. military.
The Kremlin’s influence was once again on display in the run-up to Trump’s 2016 victory. As pointed out by Mike Vasca for the Seattle Times:
Putin set out to turn the Republican Party before Trump was elected. Trump’s campaign led by Paul Manafort asked to delete from the party platform language that called for “lethal aid” for Ukraine. Manafort had been a political consultant to Putin stooge and former President Viktor Yanukovych, who was deposed by the Ukrainian people for his anti-Western views.
Vasca also reminds us that upon attaining the Oval Office, Trump, now fully indebted to Putin, repeatedly disparaged American intelligence in favor of Russian propaganda, siding “against his own U.S. intelligence agency findings that Russia had directed cyberattacks against members of the Democrat[ic] party, saying, “President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia. … I don’t see any reason why it would be.” If that wasn’t treachery nicely wrapped in a bow and ostentatiously placed before the Republican Party, it’s difficult to fathom what could be.
Fox News, of course, amplified Russian interests and propaganda, constantly minimizing accusations of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, and spinning disinformation and conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton and other Democrats through its willing tools, Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, the latter who instituted a (now familiar pattern) of supporting Russian interests by “ridicul[ing] the entire Russian meddling scandal and portray Putin critics as bloodthirsty warmongers.” The moral rot of supporting a proven, unquestionable enemy of our country was wholly disregarded, not only by the right’s media outlets but by its “think-tanks” such as the Heritage Foundation, which, as Kirchick notes, suddenly began to echo Putin’s and other autocrats’ talking points in their policy framing:
[T]he 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.
With Trump, Fox News, the NRA, and the Heritage Foundation safely turned, Putin’s oligarchs began to fund Republican campaigns. Republican operatives had already created opaque conduits to funnel Russian money to Trump for his 2016 election effort. By any objective measure, the interests of the Republican party and the Russian Federation (including, ultimately, Vladimir Putin) had become mutually supportive: “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”
The end results were as predictable as they were appalling, with seven GOP senators and a GOP congresswoman allowing themselves to be feted by Putin’s stooges in the Duma on July 4, 2018. Republican Sen. John Kennedy dutifully echoed Putin’s talking points on Ukraine in 2019. Former Republican Rep. Devin Nunes betrayed his loyalties by parroting the Kremlin’s false claims about Ukraine’s involvement in the 2016 election. Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell sided with Russian intelligence in refusing to condemn their interference in that election. Republican Senator and Russian tool Ron Johnson shared pro-Russia statements on Ukraine. And of course, there’s legislator dubbed “Putin’s best friend” in Congress, former Republican Rep. and Russian oligarch mouthpiece, Dana Rohrabacher. As the Washington Post’s Max Boot noted in 2018, “The party’s transformation into a Russian lickspittle makes me sick; “GOP” might as well stand for “Gang of Putin.” Meanwhile, as the Ukraine crisis became too visible to ignore, Carlson et al. practically led a cheering section for Putin, literally days before Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine.
Of course, like anyone caught in the act of committing treachery, Republicans and even their right-wing Wurlitzer have suddenly begun to distance themselves from their past acquiescence to Trump’s praise of Putin. But the one thing they cannot seem to explain is while all of this was going on—while Trump was denigrating U.S. intelligence and heaping praise on a murderous dictator now showing his true stripes—barely any of them stood up to denounce Putin (or Russia) for the enemies to our nation they actually are. Even today, in the wake of Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine—even with Putin’s not-so-veiled threats to unleash a nuclear horror on NATO and its allies freshly ringing in their ears—some of the GOP’s dimmest bulbs have yet to get the message.
Josh Marshall, writing for Talking Points Memo, asks (no doubt rhetorically) whether our media are prepared to impose some type of reckoning on Trump and his pro-Putin toadies in the Republican party.
I must say that I am looking forward to the raft of articles in the works from the Times, WaPo, Politico and above all Axios about the GOP’s reckoning with the fact that their party leader (and most of his party) has spent the last several years toadying and obsequiously embracing Vladimir Putin and Russia. I jest of course since I have little hope that any of these pieces will be written. But the leader of this party has spent the last seven years fawning over the increasingly dictatorial leader of the country who has now tipped the world into the biggest international crisis in a generation and I guess we’re somehow not going to talk about that. I mean, he actually got impeached over it and for participating in a scheme to make the country Russia just invaded easier to invade.
A reckoning from our media? For these folks who gave Putin the aid, comfort, and confidence that he could get away with invading Ukraine, all done in knowing betrayal of their nation’s own interests? Not likely.
No, by all means, let’s keep the focus on gas prices.