An uncomfortable question has been haunting conservative movements in the West for some years. It has become more urgent to try to answer, with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. How did this movement end up home to so many apologists for the Russian President? How did the side apparently most dedicated to patriotism and promoting western values attract so many with a sneaking sympathy for the West’s most brazen-faced adversary? And how did the party of Ronald Reagan and cold warrior bullishness produce a President whose admiration for Putin was scarcely concealed?
It is a problem particularly pronounced on the American right. Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News, a beacon of common sense on many issues, is now disgraced due to its channelling of this apologism. A leaked memo from the Kremlin has instructed Russian media outlets to play as much of Carlson as possible. As with many American political trends, this unwelcome infiltration of such rhetoric into conservative politics and punditry has crept into Europe. Nigel Farage, once asked which world leader he admired, chose Putin, whom he claimed to admire “as an operator”. Across the channel, similar sentiments are expressed on the French right, with Marine Le Pen having enjoyed financing from Russia, and Eric Zemmour similarly stating once that he “admired” Putin as a “patriot”.
Conservatives see in Putin nostalgia for the past
Such figures have since been forced to backtrack, albeit at the eleventh hour, but it remains a wonder how so many conservatives found themselves espousing such views, and how many of their voters tolerated or worse, welcomed it. One familiar explanation is the authoritarian right’s helpless love of a strongman, whether in the White House or the Kremlin. Others, such as Bill Maher, have theorised that the racist and nativist tendencies of Republicans have led them to look to Russia as a model of preserving racial purity, at a time when the West flirts with mass migration. Although this may hold true for some of the fringes, it seems a likelier explanation that conservatives see in Putin something they recognise: a nostalgia for the past.
The Russian President no longer makes a secret of his desire to restore a lost empire. In his rambling speech precluding the current carnage, he openly lamented the loss of the Soviet Union, stating, “The disintegration of our united country was brought about by the historic, strategic mistakes on the part of the Bolshevik leaders and the C.P.S.U. leadership… The collapse of the historical Russia known as the U.S.S.R. is on their conscience.” Few conservatives want to resurrect empires or reconquer lands, though it is true that the conservative tenet of staying closely in touch with the past can often make us lament bygone eras.
There is nothing wrong with this in principle. Nostalgia is a deeply human emotion. It is also a highly toxic one, if allowed to grow unmoderated. Conservatives are all too aware that the arc of history does not necessarily bend towards justice. It can just as easily bend towards murder and mayhem, whether by accident or design. Conservativism thus functions as a brake on the engine of Progressivism. Often, however, it can become more of a reverse gear, a force of regression rather than caution.
It is a short journey to nihilistic destructiveness
Much of Trump’s scorn for the problems of the present contained more than a trace of nostalgia for the 50s, a view he made explicit in an interview with the New York Times in 2016. Margret Thatcher similarly came to power with a yearning for the deferential and hierarchical social norms that characterised this period; a time when industry was undisrupted by globalised trade, factory jobs paid the bills, and the working man enjoyed a high living standard. It was also a time when restrictive religious attitudes dominated society, a time before women enjoyed the rights and freedoms they do now, and before renewable energy provided a viable alternative to polluting forms of energy like coal, which Republicans are strangely eager to revive. Such gains may have come with their instability, but they are gains nonetheless.
Staying in touch with the past is a cornerstone of conservative thought, and is still one of the most attractive things about it. There is much inspiration to be found in the past, much to learn from the way of our forebearers have done things. But conservatives must understand how to get value from the past, without becoming possessed by it. Scepticism of change is warranted, and necessary, but when this crosses into bitterness of what that change has brought to the present, the resulting ideology can rest too heavily on hatred and resentment. From there, it is a short journey to nihilistic destructiveness. Just ask Ukraine.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby reminds us of the perils of looking too fixedly backwards. Perhaps Putin’s obsessive nostalgia will lead him to a similar fate. Hopefully, he doesn’t take the world with him.
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