Understanding the American right’s Putinophilia

Christian Whiton Christian Whiton was a senior adviser in the Donald Trump and George W. Bush administrations. He is a senior fellow at the Center for the National Interest.
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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.

In fairness to Buchanan and Dreher, they are not the only Americans who get Russia wrong. The Republican presidential candidate in 2012, Mitt Romney, remarkably asserted that Russia was “without question, our number one geopolitical foe.” Washington’s democracy and human rights “NGO community,” much of which feeds at the government trough, devotes as much attention to Putin’s Russia as far more serious illiberal threats to America posed by China, Iran, and Islamists. Unfortunately, Washington is still heavy on aging Europhile analysts who refuse to grasp Europe’s decreasing relevance. Those who see Putin’s Russia as more than a secondary threat to U.S. interests are as misguided as those who suddenly see it as an ally in the domestic culture wars.

As for those culture wars, is it not time to recognize that social conservatism has lost most of its marquee fights, totally and permanently? The grotesque reaction by some social conservatives to Putin’s grotesque actions present an opportunity for clarity — a chance to learn from mistakes by domestic political operatives who unfortunately have led conservatism to cultural and political bankruptcy.

Understandably frustrated by losses dealt by an imperious judiciary on abortion, immigration, and religion, and rightly concerned that progressives want to use government to force them to affirm that which they find alien, social conservatives decided in the previous decade to go to the mat to oppose gay marriage. They were goaded not only by the Democratic left, which exploits gays for its own power, but by big government Republicans like Karl Rove, who found it easier to incant “traditional marriage” than actually to reduce the reach of government and find new, more creative ways to advance positive culture. With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that opposing loving gay relationships in the supposed defense of long-gone traditional marriage was a serious error. It was wrong morally and it is a major reason many younger voters — even those increasingly skeptical of big government — reject labels like “conservative” or “Republican.”

Without formally surrendering the social battles of the past, conservatism writ large needs to find a way to dump sympathies that remain anti-gay and, for that matter, anti-intellectual. Moreover, conservatives need to do it without alienating Christians who will always be an indispensible part of any center-right coalition. A creative redirection is needed. This is not a call to accept the perennial advice of those who will never vote for us to become fiscally conservative and socially liberal or libertarian. Rather, it is a call to find a way around debates we have already lost and instead assault the left and its welfare state smartly and asymmetrically.

Getting to this moral and political point need not be so difficult. Like a great many Americans, the last ten years have taught me that much of our contemporary elite on the left and right — in big business, government, politics, media, and culture — is fundamentally corrupt, often inept, and undeniably fallible. Why would those whom we allowed to define morality, today or in times past, be any different?

As one of those annoying Christians who moseys into an Episcopal church on rare occasion and isn’t terribly fancy about religion yet still considers himself reasonably moral — at least when American common sense or the past obligations of statecraft haven’t interfered — I don’t see convincing Christian evidence against homosexuality. True, the Old Testament is unequivocal in its opposition to the gays. Zero shades of gray in that stout tome. But as a layman, admittedly ignorant of the technical doctrine of my religion, I can’t help but notice that many of the more arcane rules of the Old Testament are disregarded. Indeed, the flexibility of Christianity and the world’s other great monotheistic religions is what has enabled them to defeat the rest and thrive in the modern world. Let’s add proscription of homosexuality to the list of unworkable Old Testament rules to overlook. We already do so with inconvenient instances of marriage in the Old Testament, which is full of polygamy, for example.

As for the New Testament, Jesus famously said nothing about the gays. Nada. And having been to his part of the world, I can report to you that there is a solid chance he encountered some. To find condemnation of the gays, we must turn instead to that revered angry letter writer of biblical times, Paul the Apostle. Christians take on faith that a resurrected Jesus spoke to Paul on the road to Damascus, where Paul became that most fanatical type of advocate of any cause — a convert. The gays did not come up in the guidance Paul received that day. As such, Paul’s ruminations against homosexuality in his letters that sprinkle the New Testament were just that — his. Paul’s views were the interpretations of a man perhaps not as fallible as you or me, but nonetheless imperfect as is any mortal — whom also-fallible Christian clerics subsequently chose to emphasize. Put another way, condemnations of gays and gay marriage cannot be derived from the more first-hand information we have about Jesus; only from those who never met him in his mortal life — essentially photocopies of photocopies of photocopies, with all of their resulting and increasing inaccuracies.

Changing this anti-gay emphasis won’t be the end of Western Civilization, but conservative Christians are understandably wary. Many self-appointed gay advocates don’t simply want equality before the law and to be left alone — rather, they want to use the state to coerce affirmation from others. Furthermore, the religious left and its ‘spiritualist’ and atheist brethren, with their situational ethics, moral equivalence, love of socialism, and already tiresome overachiever of a new pope, would love to throw out the whole rulebook and say, “Jesus wants you to vote for Hillary.” Once you start down the road of changing doctrine and accommodating modern fads, isn’t that the ultimate destination?

It needn’t be in all circumstances — especially when the fads aren’t actually fads, but social changes that won’t be reversed — in this case coinciding first with the onset of the postmodern era and now the Information Age. And that gets to the reason an evolution from recent anti-gay, evangelical-driven, social conservatism is necessary if conservatives ever want to win a real political mandate. Times have changed permanently, and with them the American electorate.

Evangelical Christianity may be as alive and well as ever in real America; I’d be the last to know from my vantage in Los Angeles. But I do know that it is declining as a political force, along with the impact of other religious groups. Confirmation of this comes not from those who have always hated evangelicals, but from current practitioners themselves. As Neil King reported in October in the Wall Street Journal, Russell Moore, leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, recently admonished his members that gays “aren’t part of an evil conspiracy” — a dramatic turn from his predecessor’s views. Another evangelical theologian King cited observed that younger evangelicals have a “visceral recoil” reaction to the culture wars. The conclusion: evangelicals are either placing a lower priority on politics or looking for smarter strategies to bring about positive culture.

What this should mean is the end of the line for anti-gay, big government Republicans like Karl Rove, who in effect urge the avoidance of new ideas and new messages to inspire new audiences in favor of using hot-button wedge issues to divide the electorate and stimulate the Republican base. This was never a good strategy and it has become unworkable: the impressive Republican base of the 1980s, the remnants of which barely eked out a 48 percent victory in the 2000 election, is gone, and what’s left seems unresponsive to Rovian tactics.

More important still is the emergence of younger voters who don’t fit into the categories that analysts have previously used to project long-term political change.  In particular are those whom I call ‘techno-liberals.’ These are millennial-generation voters who eschew suburban life for cities and, whether they consciously know it or not, seem deeply invested in technology’s progressive role to shape humanity for the better. They often work in the tech industry or related businesses. Despite not seeking a life on the government dole, this group overwhelmingly supported Obama and his agenda. The subsequent failure of that agenda has created an opportunity to win over part of this group. But doing so — as well as attracting support from other demographic groups — will require refurbishing the conservative and Republican brands.

To do this, in additional to fundamental changes in strategy, conservatives need to get smarter about image. Take for example the recent controversy over Phil Robertson’s deprecation of gays. Yes, the “Duck Dynasty” star was quoted out of context by grievance traffickers like GLAAD. Yes, groups like GLAAD are nearly as politically obnoxious as the Putins of the world, as both want to use the power of the state for ruthless coercion — coercing affirmation in the case of GLAAD. Yes, A&E’s aborted decision to fire Robertson for his views was un-American. But can we not stand up for Robertson’s rights without making him our poster boy?

After all, this is a man who seems to think gays have made an error of preference due to a failure to appreciate female anatomy. Salt-of-the-earth guy though he may be, Robertson is not an image with which to lead a charge if conservatives want to attract new followers.

Put another way, just because progressives like to pretend to be intellectual does not mean conservatives and Republicans have to be anti-intellectual. New ideas and policies can attract new supporters in a way that celebrating “Duck Dynasty” will not. Let’s talk about creating a positive culture by freeing people from the government dole. Let’s talk about getting aggressive bums off the streets of our cities. Let’s talk about the chain gang for violent criminals, but reformed sentences for those who pose a lesser threat to society. Let’s talk about breaking up Democrat-run, government-guaranteed Wall Street — along with rent-seeking technology monopolies like Google and Microsoft. Let’s talk about driverless cars as an alternative to failed public transportation and jammed freeways, outlawing government employee unions, privatizing government-run schools, structuring healthcare to reward thrift and innovation, and dozens of other ideas that a decent political movement ought to have in its quiver, but which are absent today in idea-free Washington and the establishment GOP. This approach will appeal to far more people than lamenting gay rights and praying the Democrats continue to screw up so that we may gain power for the sake of power.

Is this a fool’s errand? Is it pointless to chase those techno-liberals and similar voters, a demographic that a Karl Rove type would presumably conclude is destined to be progressive forever? Why pursue those who may not even constitute great numbers of voters? Would it not be better to pander to Mitt Romney’s ‘binders of women’ and dream with RNC boss Reince Priebus for a magical convergence of big data and supposedly socially conservative Latinos?

The answer depends on whether you trust the people who have already wrecked the conservative movement, politically and intellectually, or whether you are willing to try something new. Despite being a democracy, American politics has relatively little to do with amassing the biggest number of supporters. What actually matters most in governance and electioneering is attracting the most energetic and influential groups. The rest will follow. For their own big government purposes, the Karl Roves of the world have already expended the finite political force of social conservatism as we have known it, especially its evangelical Christian base. Evangelicals themselves are now wising up to this trick, which has delivered them nothing in return for their support. Now, over the medium term, today’s younger voters, especially the techno-liberals among them, will drive trends in American politics, business, and culture far more than other groups. These are the people conservatives must win over if we ever want a real political mandate for social change and positive culture.

To do this, conservatives need not abandon their demands for limited, constitutional government, unalienable individual rights, a judiciary that interprets rather than writes the laws, and a moral society that respects God. But radical social and political change is already afoot, and conservatives can either lament it or soberly figure out how to shape it. Abandoning what we know does not work, selecting new tactics, and turning away from bumper stickers and unappealing icons to new ideas and voices is what is necessary. As Margaret Thatcher used to say, first you win the argument, then you win the vote. So let’s start arguing smartly.

Christian Whiton is president of the Hamilton Foundation and the author of “Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War.” He was a State Department senior advisor during the George W. Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter @ChristianWhiton