Putin’s Groupies Walk Back Their Praise—His Populist Supporters Are Running For the Hills

From a Wall Street Journal opinion column by William A. Galston headlined “Putin’s Groupies Walk Back Their Praise”:

Vladimir Putin’s populist supporters throughout the West are running for the hills.

Italian right-wing politician Matteo Salvini, an unabashed Putin fan, has condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine but cannot bring himself to criticize his hero by name. Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who palled around with Mr. Putin in Russia, professes not to see today’s Putin as the man he had previously known. France’s far-right presidential candidate Eric Zemmour admired Mr. Putin’s effort to restore “an empire in decline”—until his effort to rebuild that empire went too far. Another French far-right presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen, whose party received a large loan from a Russian bank, was forced to withdraw more than a million campaign leaflets that showed her shaking Mr. Putin’s hand. The Russian invasion has rendered Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban mute, a rare occurrence, and forced him to accept European Union sanctions against Russia.

America’s right-wing populists are twisting themselves into knots to reconcile their previous positions with their recent adjustments. In February, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley was arguing that we couldn’t afford to expand our security commitments in Europe. Now he is urging President Biden to send Ukraine more military backing, a task the president was carrying out already. Before the Russian invasion, J.D. Vance, an author and aspirant for the Republican senatorial nomination in Ohio, declared forthrightly that “I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or the other.” Now he calls Mr. Putin an “evil man” but blames the U.S. “foreign policy establishment” for leading Ukraine to the “slaughterhouse” and continues to reject getting further involved in Eastern Europe.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson spent weeks defending Vladimir Putin against his American critics until finally admitting March 3 that he had been wrong in his prediction that Mr. Putin would not mount an invasion. Previously, Mr. Carlson had urged Mr. Putin’s critics to ask themselves: “Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he ever threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him?”

I can think of a few other relevant questions Mr. Carlson might have posed: Did Mr. Putin ever throw his enemies in jail on trumped-up charges? Did he ever poison them? Did he ever crush the liberties of his people? Did he ever invade his neighbors? Did he ever level cities without regard for civilian populations? The answer to all these questions, of course, is yes. The answer was also yes years before the invasion of Ukraine.

I can think of two beliefs that may account for Mr. Carlson’s moral myopia: First, if it doesn’t happen to me or to people like me, it doesn’t matter. Second, there is nothing more important than the culture war….

This brings me to the most important speaker at CPAC, former President Donald Trump, who hailed Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as “savvy” and “genius” in a radio interview a few days before the conference. (He refrained from calling Mr. Putin “stable,” reserving that honorific for himself.) Mr. Trump explained why the invasion is a smart move to attendees at an event at Mar-a-Lago: “He’s taking over a country for $2 worth of sanctions. . . . He’s taking over a country—really a vast, vast location, a great piece of land with a lot of people, and just walking right in.”

This statement is representative of Mr. Trump’s distinctive contribution to contemporary populism: the worship of cleverness without decency and of strength without moral restraint. Judgments of good and evil are replaced by strong vs. weak and smart vs. dumb. As students of Europe’s past know, Mr. Trump’s sentiments have a dark history. The question is whether they have a future in the conservative movement and in the Republican Party.

In a speech to GOP donors in New Orleans last Friday, former Vice President Mike Pence declared bluntly that “there is no room in this party for apologists for Putin.” If the Republican Party again makes Donald Trump its presidential nominee in 2024, Mr. Pence will be proved wrong.

William A. Galston is the author of 10 books and more than 100 articles in the fields of political theory, public policy, and American politics. He writes the weekly Politics & Ideas column in the Wall Street Journal.


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