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The Russification of the American conservative movement

There has emerged among the media establishment a fear of calling out connections between the conservative rhetoric in America and Russian propaganda. This may be a result of the extraordinarily effective “Russia, Russia, Russia!” slogan embraced by the Republican Party and their media allies throughout the Trump presidency, which, through sheer power of repetition, somehow discredited legitimate criticisms of Trump’s many documented connections to Russia.

To be clear, I don’t know or really care whether Trump is actively engaging with the Russian government. Whether or not he is, it’s abundantly clear he is attracted to Russia’s approach to political and state power. Trump wishes, as he has said many times, he could deploy the same tactics Putin and Xi use to silence critics. Unfortunately, so much attention has been focused on Donald Trump that the establishment media has ignored the increasing, and much broader, Russification of the American conservative movement.

This is an alarming development in our present moment. This drift toward authoritarianism includes Fox News personalities, like Tucker Carlson, and the alternative podcast commentators, like Tim Pool and Steven Crowder. On their own, these individuals are not interesting and the rhetoric they deploy seems benign, especially given the sheer amount they produce and just how boring they are as personalities. But, the endless hose of new outrage-inducing narratives helps ensure you don’t notice the broader picture. And that’s what’s both interesting and concerning about our present moment. The rhetoric deployed by conservative commentators in the United States aligns closely with a global narrative being propped up by Russian state television and other authoritarian leaders.

Of course, there remains a small faction of American conservatives like Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger who still believe in neoliberal institutions and the current global stability. While they disagree with Democrats on policy, they’re not willing to abandon basic democratic principles, which is increasingly rare in the mainstream Republican Party. Given their clarity, Cheney and Kinzinger correctly identify both threats posed by Russia and threats posed by the radicalization of the far right. In this particular case, when it comes to the question of liberalism versus authoritarianism, I’m with Cheney, Kinzinger, and liberalism. Authoritarianism is never the answer.

When examining the Russo-American conservative media ecosystem, it’s hard to determine whether one actor is actually influencing the other. It’s possible, for example, that the Russians have looked at how Tucker Carlson communicates to his audience and have, to some extent, replicated that approach. But there have been increasing instances where alignment of their messaging is alarming given the specific rhetoric and how similar rhetoric has been used in the past to justify atrocities.

There are even times when Russian state television airs clips of Tucker Carlson without the need to add any additional context, because it is the same message the Russians ultimately want delivered.

One such example of the alignment between Russian propaganda and American conservative rhetoric is the increasingly common demonization of political opponents. And by demonizing political opponents, I don’t mean criticizing them or vilifying them in a traditionally acceptable way for political purposes. I mean literal demonization. Like, religious demonization.

Whether it’s declaring that Democrats are a child sacrifice cult or suggesting drag queens should be put in woodchippers, this rhetoric has become increasingly common, especially with the explosion of Christian white nationalism in the United States. Similar demonization is also occurring on Russian state television. Just this week, Russian commentators debated whether Zelensky was the literal Antichrist. Obviously, the demonization of Zelensky is much more dangerous and concerning given the current situation in Europe, but the threat is becoming more and more real for minority groups in America.

Which brings us to another quick and funny example of shared rhetorical approach between the American conservative movement and Russian state television: criticism of “woke” Western culture. Aside from the expected death-of-masculinity outrage and performative confusion over pronouns, Vladimir Putin even referenced criticism of J.K. Rowling as proof the West engages in “cancel culture.”

With the sheer amount of information we consume, it is difficult to convincingly draw connections between global forces across political and social movements. Clear connections can be easily overwhelmed by counter-narratives, as has always been the case in information warfare. What’s more, the prominent (and correct) shaming of the QAnon conspiracy by the establishment media has, I believe, made the same establishment media less likely to seriously consider the possibility of a global alignment between authoritarian regimes which are seeking to undermine global stability, including but not limited to attempting to undermine American democracy.

Proclaiming a connection between Russian propaganda and American conservatism risks being an incorrect assessment, alarmist, and worse of all, such a proclamation could face ridicule from the conservatives, who will be very sad indeed, and decry being compared to the likes of Vladimir Putin while conveniently ignoring Donald Trump’s dinner with a neo-Nazi where he declared, “I really like this guy, he gets me.

In the context of the present moment, this global alignment across political rhetoric on the right is concerning. This far right authoritarian movement is now shifting toward rhetorical devices which have, in the past, been used by tyrants to justify atrocities.

We have to think about the present moment outside of the American establishment perspective that “history is over,” an idea declared in the 1990s that Western liberal democracy was the final form of human government. But history is not over. That is naive. As we have each learned over the past three years, plagues and wars are not just concepts from history class. No, history is not over. We’re living through history.

We have to think of the incredible shift in wealth which has occurred in the past 10, 20, and 50 years, especially toward technological innovators like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk who, it sure seems, wish to reduce individual human value in pursuit of improved efficiencies and increased profits. 

We have to consider just how fundamentally human communication has changed since the introduction of the internet. 

We have to consider what has, in the past, happened to human civilization when a new form of mass communication is introduced. 

It is also time that people recognize that the internet is an extension of an individual’s reality. It is not separate. The online content an individual consumes informs their reality. For most people, this is not deeply problematic, aside from suffering the consequences of an algorithm which favors content promoting negative reacitons over positive reactions. For some people, however, the algorithm takes a darker turn. They end up “redpilled.”

Understanding how these people view the world is challenging to anyone who does not understand how their individual realities are informed.

For many people, the internet tells them that Donald Trump is destined by God to save our great country, which is being stolen by the satanist Democrats. There are millions of people who believe this, and millions more willing to go along with it for other self-interested reasons. In many parts of the country, entire identities are built around this reality. Entire churches have been built around this message. Militias have been formed. This reality is how you end up with a mob storming the Capitol to hang the Vice President of the United States and stop the certification of an American presidential election. 

The United States is in decline and we’re about to enter an intense competition to explain that decline and determine how we move forward as a nation and and as a people. The fascists see that, and they have for some time. We’re seeing an alignment across global right-leaning movements, from the top down and bottom up. This includes the most malicious actors, like Vladimir Putin and (to a lesser extent) Donald Trump, along with propagandists, like Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon, and grifters, like Jordan Peterson and Tucker Carlson, and opportunists, like Elon Musk. It also includes bots, trolls, useful idiots, and wealthy collaborators. All of these forces combined, given the rhetoric being openly deployed by the American conservative movement, are an ongoing threat to American democracy.

There are plenty of connections to explore when examining Russia and the conservative movement. The next several months and years will begin to unravel this complicated picture. Conservatives who have been radicalized in the United States are consuming propaganda across media platforms and nationstates. They see what Tucker Carlson is saying, and what Donald Trump is saying, and what a blank egg on Twitter is saying, and what Vladimir Putin is saying. Together, they have one united voice. Together, they view the global right as a legitimate force for change.

It’s time to take them seriously.

Nick Butler

Washington, D.C.
December 2022

There have been many plagues in the world as there have been wars, yet plagues and wars always find people equally unprepared. When a war breaks out people say: ‘It won’t last, it’s too stupid.’ And war is certainly too stupid, but that doesn’t prevent it from lasting. Stupidity always carries doggedly on, as people would notice if they were not always thinking about themselves. People tell themselves that it is unreal, that it is a bad dream which will end. But it does not always end and, from one bad dream to the next, it is people who end, humanists first of all because they have not prepared themselves.

Albert Camus

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