The Putin Fantasy

Trump and the Populist Imaginary

Conservatives often present a united front, but it’s an illusion.

Right-wing tableau.

The war in Ukraine has illuminated some of their differences, although there are notable consistencies.

One of the most remarkable developments has been the rise of the pro-Putin right.

In the US, this phenomenon emerged fully formed in the context of Trumpism.

Characteristic of fawning conservatives, Vladimir Putin became the figurehead for Donald Trump’s priorities: white superiority, heterosexuality and misogyny.

Conflated with fascism, such anxieties are not so much a reflection of a specific ideology as they are coordinates that broadly identify Trump as right-wing.

The Manhattan oligarch doesn’t have to be consistent. He has to periodically reiterate a related talking point so you know where he generally stands.

It’s a great recipe for Americans who know what they don’t like but can’t quite identify their politics other than that it’s on the right.

Besides, whatever Donald Trump says reflects a coherent worldview, even when he contradicts the fundamental tenets of American conservatism.

Take, for example, the Arizona Supreme Court’s upholding of an abortion law from the 1860s, requiring victims of rape and incest to carry the unborn to term.

After a Trumpist governor packed the state’s supreme court with paleo-conservatives, this outcome was as predictable as sunrise.

Yet Trump professed shock that such a thing could happen and said it would get “sorted out”.

Perhaps this was meant to appease Democratic women voters considering switching to Trump. But it’s hard to imagine him worrying about that.

Putin would have approved.

The Russian leader has thus far resisted banning abortion, whereas Trump has otherwise said he’d leave it up to states to decide.

That, of course, is not the case in Arizona.

Still, whatever Trump says goes. MAGA Americans trust him to deliver on the big picture, even when he fails on the details.

Somehow, these imperfections align with ending aid for Ukraine and exchanging NATO for Russia, even if Putin isn’t the pinnacle of family values he’s made out to be.

This is not your grandparents’ conservatism. But this is American thinking today in all of its reactionary glory.

Ironically, since the 1970s, the dominant mode of conservatism in the Anglo-American world has been a European spinoff.

While the thinkers of the Mont Pelerin Society got their start in prewar Europe, their fanatic commitment to unconstrained markets found its greatest resonance with the American right.

Their obsessions, the power of unions and the state to distort market processes achieved the most traction in the United States, where these forces were relatively weak.

But that was then, and this is now.

The USSR is dead. Communism has gone from a political system to a subversive force lurking in the corners of Western culture, in academia, the mainstream media, and liberalism itself.

Pro-Putin sentiment in Europe results from a slightly different dynamic, although with some notable recurring elements.

The conservatism found in the French Nouvelle Droite and its identitarian progeny, as well as in Germany’s Thule Seminar and numerous other groupings of the European far right, is more sceptical of the market but also more consistently focused on a common identity.

Much of this goes back to the work of Alain de Benoist in the 1970s.

The first volume of his View from the Right, published in 1977, contains a number of interesting essays in which he engages with a range of scholarship on European prehistory to make the case for a European ethnic identity.

Some of the work that de Benoist writes about is reputable, but it is worth noting that he also makes a case for the existence of Atlantis and its location (before its sinking) near Heligoland.

For de Benoist, as for other writers along these lines (Guillaume Faye, Pierre Krebs, Charles Champetier), the enemies are both socialism and liberalism in that both wish to impose egalitarianism on fundamentally different and unequal species of humanity.

Here, the reference points are not Ludwig von Mises or Murray Rothbard (objects of fascination for modern anarchist libertarians) but Carl Schmitt, Oswald Spengler, and Vilfredo Pareto.

What does Putin have to offer this mode of political thought? He certainly seems to understand Schmitt’s friend/foe distinction and does not make any concessions to the European Union.

But the connection goes deeper.

In Putin’s racist obsessions, European identitarians find support for their anxiety over ethnic purity, which they regard as the basis of culture. And in some ill-defined way, also their freedom.

Here is the connection between the identity politics of the American populist right and its European fellow travellers.

Putin opposes much that is anathema to both North American populists and European identitarians.

Despite his predilection for Eurasianism, the Russian leader believes strongly in the cultural and racial commonality of Russians with white Europeans.

Unsurprisingly, Putin has made explicit moves against the LGBTQ+, and there is a strong element of patriarchalism in his politics.

Having said that, Vladimir Putin’s politics are driven by a personalistic nationalism that is hard to square with the populist aspirations of his Euro-American fan base. He epitomises the elite.

The fantasy that he is friendly to the United States has much to do with Donald Trump’s belief that he and Putin have common enemies, like the EU and Joseph Biden.

Putin’s attitude toward Europe is motivated by a desire to reassert the influence sought by the Romanov dynasty and the USSR, histories lost on Trump and his transactional camaraderie.

Vladimir Putin’s preferred scenario would be to reconfigure politics in Europe and North America to mirror those of the Russian klepto-state.

An essential element of this project is to let his supporters see their political goals reflected in him, irrespective of whether this conforms to the reality of Putin’s state or his politics.

This is the ultimate point in the ironism of postmodern politics.

Conservatism, which had spent much of the 20th century demonising Russia, is now allowing itself to reimagine the Russian polity in ways that seem to reflect its ideological ends.

These illusions may collide with Putin’s political aims. But in the meantime, they create a fascinating case study of how political fantasies can become real.

Photograph courtesy of Antonio Marín Segovia. Published under a Creative Commons license.