Understanding the American right’s Putinophilia

What does Russian strongman Vladimir Putin have in common with Western moralist icons ranging from John Winthrop to Joseph Smith to John Paul II to Billy Graham? Very little in fact, but you wouldn’t know it by listening to Putin himself, or his newfound useful idiots in the United States like Pat Buchanan.

Earlier this month, Putin addressed his rubber-stamp parliament with his annual message. Deep in his Castro-length speech, Putin touched upon cultural issues: “Today, many nations are revising their moral values and ethical norms, eroding ethnic traditions and differences between peoples and cultures. Society is now required not only to recognize everyone’s right to the freedom of consciousness, political views, and privacy, but also to accept without question the equality of good and evil, strange as it seems, concepts that are opposite in meaning.” Given the Russian government’s recent demonization of homosexuals, what Putin had in mind by “evil” was not hard to guess.

More ominously, Putin continued that, “We know there are more and more people in the world who support our position on defending traditional values that have made up the spiritual and moral foundation of civilization … Of course this is a conservative position.” This led to speculation that Putin has in mind a “Conservative International” of sorts — a global political axis of governments that reject cultural liberalization — especially regarding the treatment of gays.

What is Putin really up to? As a gay right-winger, former diplomat, and lifelong Republican for lack of a better option, I’ve always had a few questions about the dangerous, imperious Putin — not only his cunning and merciless approach to statecraft, but his amusing affinity for the masculine gesture. Being photographed bare-chested riding a horse, bare-chested fishing, bare-chested hunting, and, my favorite, bare-chested swimming with dolphins, is not the conduct of an ordinary guy or an ordinary politician. Do the men who pass judgment on whatever we’re calling Russia’s polity today really demand such a man’s man for the top job?

Certainly Russia is more culturally conservative than America or Europe, at least selectively. In the Soviet era, even as the Bolsheviks upended institution after institution, Russia’s cultural severity persisted. As it became obvious that communism was inferior to the Western economic model, Russia’s opposition to the West’s libertine ways — decried as “decadence” — became a point of Soviet pride. Much of this remains today, including the notion of a Russian Soul steeped in the hardships that Russians have endured through the ages. But attacks on homosexuals customarily have not been a part of this, and Russian morality doesn’t seem too concerned about a populace that imposes trademark cruelty on itself, consumes truly heroic amounts of vodka and heroin, and which indulges other life-shortening behavior. Is this really the foundation of some new, Moscow-led, global morality axis?

Not likely. Instead, Putin is doing two things strongmen often do when they run into political trouble: distract the domestic public with scapegoats and disrupt foreign antagonists with the help of useful idiots who do Moscow’s bidding in the West. Putin put out the bait and a junior varsity team of American social conservatives happily took a bite.

Pat Buchanan wrote of Putin: “While his stance as a defender of traditional values has drawn the mockery of Western media and cultural elites, Putin is not wrong in saying that he can speak for much of mankind.” There is nothing quite so disappointing and clarifying as seeing someone who is part of your political coalition romancing a foreign adversary in the hope of being able to treat you like an under-human. But it was useful of Buchanan to show his hand: a common desire with Putin to use the government’s coercive power to interfere in the lives of people even if they are harming no one.

Buchanan wasn’t alone. Writing for the American Conservative, Rod Dreher argued, “Putin may be a cold-eyed cynic, but he’s onto something.” Referencing an all-girl punk band tossed in prison for offending Putin, Dreher continued: “With the Pussy Riot case, I wouldn’t suppose that Putin was religiously offended by what those punks did, but rather he believes that Russia’s rebirth depends on its rediscovery of a life-giving Christianity, which depends on rebuilding a sense of social respect for and trust in the Orthodox Church and its teachings.”

So there you have it. The next time Putin’s thugs are assaulting some gays, the victims can take solace that those who claim to speak for the American social conservative movement see this all as “life-giving Christianity.” Shouldn’t the victims feel honored? Every blow to the skull is a new stride for the Prince of Peace! Can’t you just picture Jesus right there beside Putin’s boys with his sanctified jackboots and holy billy club?

Those who look a little deeper might suspect that Putin’s motives aren’t particularly Christian. Scapegoating is the politician’s trick from time immemorial, and all the more so for authoritarians like Putin. Russia’s economic growth stalled in 2013, with once-admirable GDP growth slowing to just over 1 percent. The Russian ruble has deteriorated throughout the year, and is off 7 percent against the greenback since last January. Many analysts project a further decline. Putin has acknowledged that Russia needs foreign capital to grow again, but past state-sanctioned theft of investments and breach of contracts have made this search difficult. Someone must take the blame, and it certainly won’t be Putin and the Russian elite. Putin and his tyrannical predecessors used up customary scapegoats like the kulaks, Jews, and Chechens; apparently gays are next on the list. Of course knowing this about Russia would mean having more than a bumper sticker’s worth of ideas about national security — something seemingly rare in Washington today.