It wasn't supposed to happen like this. When Russian dictator Vladimir Putin first sent troops to invade Ukraine, the assumption around the world — but especially among those on the right — was that Russia would enjoy a swift and brutal victory over the fledgling democracy. In the U.S., Republicans broke into two camps. Putin fanboys like Donald Trump, Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina, and Fox News' Tucker Carlson were practically drooling with glee, declaring Putin was a "genius" acting out of "love," and gearing up a narrative about how Russia's commanding victory was a blow against the decadence bred by democracy. Others were a little more squeamish about openly backing Putin but nonetheless backed the notion that his invasion was proof that authoritarian leaders are manlier, stronger and more effective leaders, especially compared to mewling wimps like President Joe Biden and the Democrats.
Then the unexpected happened: Russia did not conquer Ukraine in a weekend.
Ukrainians fought back — and defied the expectations of both Putin and his Republican supporters. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, for example, got so mad she openly started yelling at Ukraine to just give up. Then images started to pour in of the atrocities committed by Russian forces, really giving lie to authoritarian claims of Putin's moral superiority over the decadent West. It quickly became clear that the right was not as clever as they thought with their assumption that democracy is a house of cards.
Yet, as late as Thursday, Carlson was still at it on his prime time Fox News show in a segment where he brought on far-right British politician Nigel Farage to blame Russia's invasion on "the unnecessary provocation of Vladimir Putin" by American and European efforts to promote democracy in the region. Naturally, Carlson framed this argument as a strike against the elites who want to silence hard truths, because reframing reactionary drivel as rebellion is his one big rhetorical trick.
But then the weekend happened, and while no one should get in the prediction business on something as unstable as the invasion of Ukraine, there is now little doubt that Russia is facing major setbacks, especially in terms of being pushed back in Kyiv. The evidence clearly shows the violence Russian soldiers unleashed on the local population, including committing horrific massacres of civilians. President Joe Biden has declared that Putin is a "war criminal" and called for him to be tried for war crimes. Now even the biggest Putin apologists at home are struggling to argue back in the face of images of dead civilians with their hands tied behind their backs and laying in the mud in Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv. Just to underscore how Russia is very much the bad guy here, Putin's government is trying to claim that Ukrainians killed those people, which is easy to disprove and also preposterous.
"Putin is making it very hard for the American right these days."
Putin is making it very hard for the American right these days. Not just for the Putin fanboys, either. He's also making life harder for Republicans who merely want to portray him as stronger and more adept than Biden and the other supposed weaklings of liberal democracy.
So Carlson, as usual, decided to pivot. On Monday, he retreated from the Putin apologia back to his safe zone of hyping the "good news" that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was re-elected. Prior to the Ukrainian invasion, Carlson had been using Orbán as his avatar for his fascist longings. He's repeatedly run segments using Hungary as evidence to his aging right-wing audience that the white nationalist utopia of his dreams is there for the taking, at the low price of abandoning liberal democracy. For now, this fantasy version of the supposedly white idyllic Hungary will be dangled out in front of Fox News viewers as a distraction from the true nature of the ideology Carlson is peddling, visible in the dead bodies rotting in the streets of Bucha.
Still, this whole situation has done as much damage to the softer version of Putin apologia, the kind that doesn't try to defend him on moral grounds but still argues that he's "stronger" than Biden and other democratic leaders. As such, many of them — like Bret Stephens of the New York Times — are pivoting to an asinine claim that Putin "never intended to conquer all of Ukraine" and that this was just a play for the Eastern regions. It's a claim being taken up by Michael Brendan Dougherty of the National Review and, of course, former Intercept editor Glenn Greenwald, who is a primary cheerleader of the anti-anti-Putin camp.
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It's not hard to see the appeal of this narrative. If Putin's invasion was actually the behavior of a "canny fox, not a crazy fool," as Stephens argues, than that preserves the spine of the Republican argument that Putin — and authoritarians in general — are smarter, stronger, and more effective than liberal leaders of democratic nations. Republicans can maintain the pose of believing in the morality of democracy, while still advancing the idea that it's inherently weak as a system. Which, in turn, allows for a "more in sorrow than anger" pivot back to Donald Trump if and when he attempts another coup in the United States.
"But this whole situation has done as much damage to the softer version of Putin apologia"
And as Zack Beauchamp writes at Vox, these Republican "arguments do not stand up to even light scrutiny" when one looks at "the structure of Russia's military campaign, public statements by Russian authorities, or even a basic cost-benefit analysis." What happened with Putin isn't even that mysterious. As expert in authoritarianism Brian Klaas explained last month in The Atlantic, the "stubborn myth" of "the savvy strongman, the rational, calculating despot who can play the long game" doesn't hold up to reality. In truth, he writes, authoritarians often "make catastrophic short-term errors—the kinds of errors that would likely have been avoided in democratic systems," because they "hear only from sycophants" and end up making decisions with bad information, having long ago run off or killed anyone who would speak truths they don't want to hear. One only has to watch the video of Putin lashing out at a chief intelligence officer for very mild pushback to see that is almost certainly what's going on with him.
But the American right doesn't want to hear that, whether they are cheering for Putin's victory or not. To admit that he screwed up is to admit that the democracy might have hidden strengths, precisely because it allows liberal values to flourish. As Ezra Klein notes at the New York Times, the right has been exploiting a sense that liberal democracy is "exhausted, ground down, defined by the contradictions and broken promises." They've been using people's exhaustion to advance an anti-democratic argument that ideologies like Trumpism are a necessary alternative. But "Ukraine's refusal to bend the knee to Vladimir Putin" has been a reminder that "liberalism is a marvel of imagination and ambition," and that basic values like democracy and freedom are, in fact, worth fighting for.
Again, it would be unwise to make bold predictions about how this will ultimately play out. Putin is devious and unhinged, and there's no telling what he will do in the face of these setbacks in Ukraine. The right's hopes that this situation can be leveraged as propaganda for authoritarianism around the globe have also not been totally dashed, and could come roaring back if Russia regains ground. Still, it's heartening to see that neither Ukraine nor supporters of democracy around the world are cowed so easily. It appears that authoritarians both here and abroad started to buy their own propaganda about how liberal democracy is a paper tiger. Now they're finding out that it actually has teeth.