Argument

The Tea Party Comes to Moscow

Putin enthusiasts and the Republican Party’s libertarian fringe make for strange but oddly appropriate bedfellows.

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A year ago, well before U.S.-Russia relations began their precipitous unraveling, conservative pundit Pat Buchanan set right-wing circles in the United States abuzz by suggesting that Russian President Vladimir Putin is “one of us” — a paleoconservative defender of traditional Christian values and a foe to “homosexual marriage, pornography, promiscuity, and the whole panoply of Hollywood values” personified by Barack Obama’s America.
Even while opposing Moscow’s subsequent annexation of Crimea and its strong-arm tactics in eastern Ukraine, prominent far-right voices — from Sen. Ted Cruz and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to many at Fox News — gleefully lauded Putin’s strength and decisiveness as hallmarks of a “real leader.”* Other pundits, meanwhile, pontificate over what this apparent paradox says about the Tea Party, the libertarian movement that has arguably consumed the Republican agenda.

But no one has considered what the comparison says about Putin’s Russia. Both Tea Party America and Putin’s Russia share patriotic and ultraconservative Christian worldviews, which each fears is under threat from liberal forces both at home and abroad. This fear — even among a passionate, educated, and politically savvy population — is reinforced by partisan media outlets that fundamentally recast history to confirm rather than challenge preconceptions and that spin outlandish conspiracy theories in the process.

Like American political analysts grappling with the Tea Party phenomenon, Russia-watchers face similar challenges in assessing whether broad support for Putin is genuine or the product of government-sanctioned media narratives propagated by pro-Kremlin magnates. In the United States, the 18 percent of Americans who identify as Tea Partiers (as of 2010) tend to be older, Republican, evangelical white men. By contrast, in Russia — where even amid biting sanctions over Ukraine, a collapsing ruble, and a tanking economy, Putin still enjoys a healthy 88 percent approval rating — those who don’t support the president are young, liberal, cosmopolitan members of the emerging middle class.

What shapes these conservative worldviews? In their objective 2012 study, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, Harvard University political scientists Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson exploded the liberal myth that Tea Partiers are simple pawns of special interests. Instead, the authors found them to be earnest and passionate organizers, increasingly well-versed in the political process, but largely reliant on Fox News and conservative blogs for their information. Consequently, they are receptive to anti-liberal fear-mongering and derision toward minorities, gays, undocumented immigrants, Muslims, and “entitled” young people. They also tend to embrace conspiracy theories: birtherism, Obamacare “death panels,” rampant voter fraud, Benghazi, Ebola-as-secret Obama plot.

In Russia, Putin’s conservative base also gets its news from a singular partisan perspective: broadcasts on state-run television. With a near-total monopoly on the airwaves, pro-Kremlin TV is like Fox on steroids. Since 2011, attacks on independent publishing, television, radio, print, and even social media have dramatically narrowed the space for independent journalism and debate. From its dominant perch, pro-Kremlin media has dramatically shaped public opinion with its omnipresent, fear-laced narrative of a Russia besieged politically by the United States, culturally by liberal European values, and demographically by darker-skinned immigrants crossing the porous southern border — themes no doubt familiar to American conservatives.

Unsurprisingly, Russian perceptions toward the United States have worsened dramatically, with 76 percent expressing a negative view of President Obama in October 2014, up from only 12 percent in 2009. Russia has also seen a backlash against European multiculturalism, a surge in homophobic violence, and anti-immigrant pogroms by emboldened nationalists. Thanks, mostly, to the state media.

In his engrossing new book, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, Russian television producer Peter Pomerantsev addresses how a state-run media machine that would make even Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly blush puts these xenophobic themes to work. The state media’s task “is to synthesize Soviet control with Western entertainment,” Pomerantsev argues, by mixing show business with nationalist propaganda and thereby valorizing Putin as the heroic defender of a besieged Russia. But as Kremlin paranoia escalated following Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, “the need to incite panic and fear [became] ever more urgent; rationality was tuned out, and Kremlin-friendly cults and hate-mongers were put on prime time to keep the nation entranced [and] distracted.” And they are.

What has resulted is a stream of elaborate, unsourced conspiracies so widely shared that their merits go virtually unchallenged by the public: Obama’s former ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, is a scheming subversive; Ukraine’s Euromaidan movement was the handiwork of the United States, European gays, Ukrainian Jews, Nazis, or Satanists intent on destroying Russian civilization; Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was brought down by anybody except the pro-Russian rebels who had been successfully shooting down Ukrainian planes for months.

Certainly, not everyone in Russia bought into recent broadcasts of a blatantly photoshopped Ukrainian jet allegedly shooting down MH17. Nor does everyone believe the mind-warping, Russian-media tale that MH17 was actually MH370, which apparently wasn’t lost over the Indian Ocean, but was diverted by the United States to the Netherlands, loaded with corpses, and intentionally bombed over Donetsk — all to make Putin and the pro-Russian rebels look bad. However, the fact that 86 percent of Russians fault either Ukraine’s leaders or soldiers for the downing of the plane, 22 percent hold the United States responsible, and only 3 percent blame the pro-Russian separatists (survey respondents were allowed to choose multiple answers) illuminates just how effective the disinformation campaign has been.

Finally, there’s the problem of basing the politics of the present on a stilted and whitewashed view of the past. Within the Tea Party, the U.S. Constitution is often portrayed not as a secular Enlightenment document, but as a religious, biblical one; the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery, which some claim was actually good for African-Americans, and has nothing to do with present-day racial tensions anyway. In Russia, a similarly selective reading of history has been drafted into service of Putin’s new nationalist agenda, one that invokes the glory of Russia’s tsarist and Soviet empires while reimagining its darker, totalitarian chapters as something altogether benign.

Take, for instance, descriptions of the rebel-held areas of eastern Ukraine as Novorossiya, or “New Russia.” Until last year, Novorossiya was a long-forgotten 18th-century term for what is today southern Ukraine. That is, until state-run media went spelunking deep into Novorossiya’s lost history and geography, returning with new flags, symbols, and political institutions repurposed to serve Putin’s irredentist aspirations — thus reifying this Russian fiction as political reality.

Still, it would be wrong to write off Putin’s supporters as mere unwitting sheep, obediently lapping up state propaganda. Like their Tea Party counterparts — libertarian and anti-establishment in spirit, but, I would argue, fundamentally reactionary and nationalist in reality — most Russians understand the intricacies and shortcomings of their political system. Notably, they understand the divergence between formal governmental institutions and the informal networks of Kremlin crony capitalists who wield the real power.

What’s more, given the Soviet tradition of state censorship and propaganda, according to renowned history professor Boris Kolonitskii, Russians have developed a “highly refined ability to read between the lines of any media report.” Yet it is this deeply ingrained skepticism that there is no truth, only PR, that, Pomerantsev says, has produced a generation of gullible cynics primed to buy into patriotism-infused untruths, half-truths, and conspiracies that serve the interests of the state. And statist propagandizing comes easy when you’re telling people exactly what they want to hear.

Still, the most fundamental difference between the Tea Party’s nationalism and Putin’s conservatism is the context of political institutions in each country. Political science tells us that any extreme movement — far left or far right — is largely constrained by a country’s electoral institutions. Many European countries have proportional-representation systems in which a party earns legislative seats in proportion to the number of votes it receives in a nationwide election. If the United States used such a system, it would be far easier for the Tea Party to split from the Republicans and become its own small yet vocal force like the Danish People’s Party, Hungary’s Jobbik, or France’s National Front. For all their nationalist vitriol and media bombast, the actual influence of these nationalist parties is inherently limited by their minority positions at the extreme-right tail of the ideological distribution.

Tea Partiers may not know Duverger’s law — which states that plurality elections in single-member districts generate two-party systems — but they do understand that a Tea Party that wrests itself free of the Republican Party would split the conservative vote and ensure Democratic victory. For them, it makes more sense to stay within the GOP and drag it further rightward in hopes of enacting their preferred anti-immigrant, anti-redistributive, anti-liberal policies. Consequently, Skocpol and Williamson argue, even if the Tea Party brand eventually loses its cachet, the legacy of an active, extreme-right camp within the Republican Party will endure for years, with the big winners being the conservative “super-rich fat cats” — in Russia they’d be called “oligarchs” — who stoked Tea Party activism for their own financial gains.

Russia’s right turn is different. It is not rooted in a fringe party like in Europe, nor is it pulling one major political party rightward as in the United States. Instead, it is afflicting the hegemonic party, United Russia, in an autocratic system with few electoral mechanisms to check its continued drift into right-wing extremism. This Russian veer to the right has been partly orchestrated by the Kremlin and its loyal oligarch backers, many of whom — like their corporate American counterparts — profit handsomely from nationalist political cover for the raiding of state coffers to bail out Putin’s friends rocked by Western sanctions.

Without the institutional brakes and moderating forces of the American and European democratic systems, Russia’s lurch to the right threatens to spin dangerously out of the Kremlin’s control. Putin has very few instruments to dampen the nationalist fire over Ukraine, which his media continues to stoke. The calls for further intervention may go well beyond the policies even Putin is willing to consider. At that point, Tea Party Putin may have a severe legitimacy crisis on his hands and no political room left to maneuver.

*Clarification: While both Cruz and Huckabee have compared President Barack Obama unfavorably to Putin, only Fox News analyst Lt. Col. Ralph Peters has referred to him as a leader. (Return to reading.)

Photo by KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV / Staff

Mark Lawrence Schrad, Ph.D., is associate professor of political science at Villanova University. A newly revised and expanded paperback version of his Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State was published by Oxford University Press in 2016. Twitter: @VodkaPolitics. @vodkapolitics

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