Commentary Magazine

Revisionism on Russia from the New York Times

Image by © Alexei Druzhinin/ITAR-TASS Photo/Corbis

At the root of the Democratic Party’s attacks on Donald Trump’s Russia policy is a crippling contradiction. The logic of their assault on Trump’s posture toward Moscow leads the observer to conclude that Democrats believe Trump should act more aggressively to avenge Vladimir Putin’s attack on American sovereignty in 2016. It follows, then, that the president’s predecessor failed in his most sacred charge: defending the United States from the designs of foreign adversaries.

If Trump’s most prominent liberal critics on the matter of Russia hope to maintain their credibility, they must cleanse themselves of their hypocrisy. In the pursuit of atonement, some prominent Democrats are starting to throw Barack Obama under the bus. “We Dems erred in ’12 by mocking Boot/Romney Russia worry,” declared Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary, Brian Fallon, last week. Jon Favreau, a former speechwriter for Barack Obama, agreed. “I’m willing to say that in 2012 when we all scoffed at Mitt for saying that, gee, Russia was our number one geopolitical foe, think we were a little off there.”

These cracks in the dam portend a torrent, and some liberal partisans won’t allow them to grow without mounting a response. It is through this lens that New York Times reporter Jeremy Peters’s effort to tar “the conservative movement” with the stain of pro-Putinism must be viewed.

Peters contends in the report—not an opinion piece—for the Times that pro-Russian “veneration” on the part of conservatives provides Donald Trump with the political cover he needs to avoid punishing Putin over Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 election. The reporter notes that, as far back as 2013, a handful of prominent conservatives delighted in contrasting Putin favorably with the Democratic president they opposed. By 2015, Peters asserts, such “fondness” for Putin “became a widely held sentiment inside the conservative movement.” “After years of admiring and fetishizing Putin, it should be no surprise why many conservatives keep making excuses,” the reporter asserted.

Peters cites by way of evidence reliably pro-Trump conservatives like Rush Limbaugh, Kimberly Guilfoyle, Rudy Giuliani, K.T. McFarland, Sarah Palin, and Pat Buchanan. Yet only Buchanan—the ur-figure of conservative “realism” who always saw Putin as a force for stability, tradition, and Christendom (all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding)—supports Peters’s theory. And not even Peters would go so far as to contend that Buchanan is a towering figure within the modern conservative movement.

The data do not support the notion that latent pro-Putin bias typified conservatism in the Obama era. Citing a February 2017 Gallup survey, the pollster Kristen Anderson observed that the GOP actually had a dimmer view of Putin in 2015 than did Democrats. Today, those roles are reversed. But even at the dawn of the Trump presidency, only 32 percent of self-identified Republicans reported having a favorable view of Putin. A June Gallup poll on the same question found that the number of Republicans with positive views toward the Russian leader fell from 32 to 24 percent in the space of just four months.

All this suggests that Republican voters and the popular right-wing pundits Peters cited are just playing follow the leader. That impression is reinforced by the fact that Donald Trump’s administration has not delivered on its promised rapprochement with Moscow—to the sound of deafening silence from his allegedly pro-Putin base.

Two weeks ago, Donald Trump delivered a passionate speech defending Western civilization for which he received glowing and near unanimous praise from the right. In that speech, Trump directly called on Moscow to abandon “destabilizing activities” in Europe and end its support for “hostile regimes” in the Middle East.

The administration has antagonized Moscow by defining the conflict in Ukraine as one between two sovereign powers (not the “civil war” fiction peddled by the Kremlin). The White House has coupled sanctions relief with the demand that Moscow withdraw from occupied Crimea, which will never happen. His United Nations ambassador has pulled no punches in calling Moscow out over its dangerous support for rogue regimes, also to the applause of the pro-and anti-Trump right. The president is pursuing a deal to provide Poland with anti-ballistic missile batteries, and he facilitated the sale of liquid natural gas to Warsaw, both over Russian objections.

Even a cursory review of Peters’s subjects indicates that their motivations are less pro-Putin and more anti-Obama. In 2008, for example, Palin criticized Obama’s display of “indecision and moral equivalence” following Moscow’s invasion of Georgia. She suggested that weakness in a president could lead Moscow to take more aggressive actions in places like Ukraine. Following the invasion of Crimea, Limbaugh advised the president to seek Russia’s expulsion from the G8 and the IMF, admitting that Obama would not pursue such an aggressive course. In 2014, K.T. McFarland recommended a series of steps Obama could take to punish Putin for his aggression in Ukraine. “Obama talks,” she wrote. “Putin takes.” That was not an expression of admiration. It was a statement of fact.

Conservatives who warn their ideological comrades of the dangers posed by a revanchist Russia and an authoritarian in the Kremlin do at times feel like they’re screaming into the void. It’s bad enough that some Republicans feel compelled to abandon their principles in deference to their party’s mercurial leader. That unprincipled behavior is disconcerting. It’s unnecessary to hype the danger here by mischaracterizing these views as genuine. If, however, the objective is to reinforce the bonds of tribal solidarity among Democrats before the chorus of “Romney was right” grows too loud, this New York Times report makes perfect sense.

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