Trump, Putin, Carlson and the shifting sands of American politics today

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The idea was to isolate him, to make him a pariah, to box him in as punishment for flagrant violations of international law. They kicked him out of the club of world leaders, shut down his country’s economy, and even issued a warrant for his arrest for war crimes.

But Vladimir V. Putin doesn’t seem so isolated these days. Mr. Putin, the tsar-jealous Russian president who invaded neighboring Ukraine without provocation, killing or injuring hundreds of thousands, is having a tough time in the United States.

With the help of a populist former Fox News star and the richest man in America, Mr. Putin has won a platform to justify its actions even as Russian and American journalists languish in its prisons. His preferred candidate is poised to win the Republican presidential nomination. Congress considers abandoning Ukraine at the tender mercy of the Russian invaders.

Mr. Putin’s appearance with Tucker Carlson on Elon Musk’s social media platform, amid the debate over Capitol security aid led by Donald J. Trump, offers a moment of reflection on the dizzying transformation of American politics in recent years. A Republican Party that was once defined by muscular resistance to Russia is increasingly turning toward a form of neo-isolationism with, in some quarters, strains of sympathy for Moscow.

Instead of being a ruthless autocrat seeking to conquer territory through Europe’s most violent war since the fall of Nazism, Mr. Putin has made himself a sort of like-minded ally with certain right-wing forces in the United States, notably Mr. Trump, who hailed his aggression as “genius” just before Russian forces cross the Ukrainian border in 2022. And Mr. Putin appears to be asserting himself in the American capital in a way that would have once been unthinkable, with the help of a party that still pays tribute to Ronald Reagan.

“For Putin, this is a manifestation of American weakness,” said Evgenia Albats, an independent Russian journalist who moved to the United States last year after being threatened with prosecution. For Mr. Putin, she said, the Carlson interview proved that “the Americans realized they had lost the war with him” and were “sending him an envoy close to the next president to confirm his success.” It also serves a national purpose for Mr. Putin, she added. “This is a message to the elites who defend the ceasefire: you see, the Americans blinked. »

American politics did not need Mr. Putin to shake it up. The rise of nativism, populism and polarization are local phenomena with historical roots. After decades of uneasy bipartisan consensus on America’s role in the world, globalization, mass immigration and foreign wars have discredited old ideas for many and opened the door to figures like Mr. Trump, whose the promise to put America first resonated. in large areas of the country.

The change, nonetheless, has hardly been more surprising than when it comes to Mr. Putin, whose government has spent years spreading disinformation on American social media. Presenting himself as a defender of traditional civilization against moral decadence in the West, a place of “outright Satanism” with “various supposed genres,” Mr. Putin has built some popularity in the United States.

More than one in four Americans, or 26%, have a favorable opinion of the Russian leader, according to a YouGov survey, compared to just 15% in early 2021 before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine a year later. Although this figure is an outlier compared to other surveys, it suggests that there is a certain audience for the master of the Kremlin.

Mr. Carlson is among those who have become more willing to listen and deliver Russia’s message to Americans. As others have noted, Mr. Carlson used to call Mr. Putin a “Russian dictator” who is “in cahoots with our enemies,” but he now claims that Moscow has been misunderstood, or at least not heard. His comments attacking Ukraine were gleefully echoed in Russian state media.

In a video Explaining his decision to interview Mr. Putin, Mr. Carlson said Americans and other English speakers were unaware of what was really happening regarding the war in Ukraine. “No one told them the truth,” he said. “Their media is corrupt. They lie to their readers and viewers.

Never mind that even the Kremlin said Mr. Carlson was not telling the truth when he said he was giving Mr. Putin a platform because “not a single Western journalist bothered to interview him “. Many Western news agencies have requested interviews since the 2022 invasion, as Dmitry S. Peskov, Mr. Putin’s spokesman, confirmed, but the Kremlin chose Mr. Carlson because it considered him more open than “the traditional Anglo-Saxon media”.

THE two hour interview posted online Thursday evening wasn’t exactly a compelling video. Mr. Putin breezed past Mr. Carlson’s opening questions to give a nearly half-hour lecture on the history of Russia and Ukraine dating back to the year 832, followed by his typical litany grievances against the West. Mr Carlson pressed Mr Putin to release Evan Gershkovitchthe Wall Street Journal reporter arrested in Russia a year ago on espionage charges that he and his employer vehemently denied, but he barely challenged the Russian leader and let him speak at length without interruption.

His decision to offer Mr. Putin such a venue sparked a predictable wave of indignation. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Mr. Carlson a “useful idiot,” borrowing Lenin’s term for Western stooges, and former Representative Adam Kinzinger, Republican of Illinois, called him “a traitor.”

Mrs. Clinton went on to suggest that the interview highlighted a larger, worrying phenomenon in the United States. “This is a sign that there are currently people in this country who constitute a fifth column for Vladimir Putin” she said on MSNBC this week.

Among the most frustrated are mainstream Republicans like Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the party’s leader in the Senate, who faces growing skepticism about aid to Ukraine at his own conference.

While 11 Republican senators voted against aid to Ukraine in May 2022, shortly after the invasion, 31 voted not to advance aid Thursday and it remains unclear whether House Republicans will allow a vote on the package.

Mr. Kinzinger, who broke with Mr. Trump and became one of his most vocal critics, recalled that Republicans used to attack President Barack Obama for not doing more to help the Ukraine when Russia seized Crimea in 2014. In contrast, Mr Kinzinger wrote on social media Thursday, “Today, the Republican Party would have attacked Obama in 2014 for doing too much for Ukraine. »

Mr. Trump waits in the wings, determined to win back his old job. While Robert S. Mueller’s investigators in 2019 found no criminal conspiracy between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin’s Russia during the 2016 campaign, the former president’s enigmatic affinity with the Russian leader remains pronounced and, for many, still disconcerting.

Even in a recent campaign speech, Mr. Trump cited with approval Mr. Putin’s opinion to claim the Justice Department was prosecuting him unfairly, quoting the Russian as saying the case against the former president “shows the rottenness of the American political system.”

At other times, Mr. Trump has refused to say whether he hopes Russia or Ukraine will win the war and indicated that he would happily trade Ukrainian territory to entice Russia to end the conflict.

Mr. Putin took note. As he spreads his message on social media, watches American lawmakers balk at arming the victims of his aggression, and awaits the outcome of the presidential race, the Russian leader sees a way out of the penalty box.



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