Politics

How the Most Russia-Friendly Corners of American Punditry Are Coping With the Ukraine Crisis

A banner of Fox News host Tucker Carlson on the side of a building, partially in shadow
Reuters

On the orders of President Vladimir Putin, Russia launched an unprovoked air and ground attack against Ukraine last week. The latter country has (so far) resisted the attack more successfully than many interested parties expected, and the international backlash against Putin has been significant and largely unified. Early polling shows that large majorities of United States residents, including Republicans, believe that Russia should be punished with economic sanctions and isolation for its belligerence. Elected Republicans have for the most part taken this position as well.

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This presents a challenge for partisan right-wing media figures whose highest priority remains the support and promotion of Donald Trump.

The former president and Apprentice host has praised Putin’s approach to leadership many times, and while certain sensational theories about the pair’s relationship have been debunked (or never proved), Russia did support Trump’s candidacy by, among other things, releasing politically damaging emails that had been hacked from the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party. (This was a rational choice from its perspective: Candidate Trump said that the U.S. should be friendlier with autocratic regimes and had a professional history of willingness to work with oligarchs and organized crime figures that persisted during his presidency). Thus, much right-wing rhetoric in recent years has echoed Trump’s admiring claims about Putin’s toughness and nationalist orientation.

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The situation is also a challenge to navigate for a tougher-to-categorize but increasingly popular type of writer often described as anti-anti-Trump. These journalists are exemplified by former Guardian and Intercept reporter Glenn Greenwald, whose stance one might define as … contrarian anti-woke civil libertarianism?

These commentators believe that “elite” circles in American society are dominated by a destructive conformity on questions of cultural politics (racial diversity, LGBTQ inclusion, etc.) as well as foreign policy. They view the American government and military as an engine for international oppression and exploitation that is fueled by surveillance and propaganda. They are sickened by the hypocrisy of the elites who operate this imperialist machine while purporting to believe in enlightened values of tolerance and freedom, and believe that much of the opposition to Trump is the result of cultural snobbery and groupthink rather than substantive consideration.

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Because much of what they perceive as brainless anti-Trump tribalism revolves around overheated “Russian asset” conspiracy theories, Greenwald and others like former Rolling Stone staffer Matt Taibbi have found themselves purportedly carrying out a project of opposition to criminal imperialism by arguing that Russia—the world’s most brazenly criminal imperialist state—isn’t as much of a problem as hysterical anti-Trump liberals claim it is. But now here (in March 2022) is Russia engaging in some transparently criminal imperialism.

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A short-term immersion in this corner of the media shows that the run-up to Russia’s aggressive move was characterized by a few themes.

Before the Invasion

1. Ukraine isn’t a real country or, at the least, one that anyone should care about. This was Tucker Carlson’s argument on his highly rated prime-time Fox News show: that the Ukraine crisis was a “border dispute” in an “obscure” part of the world (he specifically belittled the idea that Americans should care what happens to people in Moldova) and that the country’s government is a sham administration that only exists to perpetuate Biden family corruption. (There’s more in this Washington Post story about the impeachment-related background to the latter claim.)

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“The main thing to know about Ukraine for our purposes is that its leaders once sent millions of dollars to Joe Biden’s family. Not surprisingly, Ukraine is now one of Biden’s favorite countries,“ Carlson said in a Feb. 22 monologue. “The administration assures us that this has nothing at all to do with repaying Joe Biden’s personal debts to Ukrainian oligarchs. Not at all. It’s completely and totally unrelated. The point here is to defend democracy. Not that Ukraine is a democracy. It is not a democracy.” (The country does have problems with corruption, but President Volodymyr Zelensky’s election in 2019 was generally seen as legitimate.)

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2. U.S. liberals are hostile toward Russia because it isn’t “woke.” In one well-circulated clip, Trump adviser Steve Bannon and Blackwater founder Erik Prince bantered appreciatively on Bannon’s podcast about how “the Russian people know which bathroom to use” and don’t put LGBTQ flags in their yards. For what it’s worth, the clip is misleadingly described in the linked viral tweet—neither of the men says the U.S. should support Russia in the current conflict, only that they like the way Russia owns American libs.

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On the other hand, Carlson said outright in a 2019 Fox appearance that he took Russia’s side in its dispute with Ukraine. (His exact words, a bit garbled because they were delivered midconversation, were “Why do I care what is going on in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia? And I’m serious. Why do I care? Why shouldn’t I root for Russia? Which I am.”)

He also delivered a monologue last week in which he implied regular Americans should consider Putin a more sympathetic figure than elite leftist figures in their own country because the Russian leader had never called them racist, shipped their jobs overseas, or tried to eradicate Christianity. (The “shipping jobs overseas” part of that is included because Carlson is one of the ascendant figures on the right who believe that American corporations are too woke. This line of argument interprets vaguely progressive human resources policies and public statements as signs of a totalitarian interest in imposing leftist cultural norms rather than precautions being taken to avoid being sued for employment discrimination or losing younger and more liberal customers.)

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3. The threat of invasion was overstated by hysterical NATO imperialists. A conclusion that follows from beliefs 1 and 2 is that the idea that Russia would invade Ukraine was being hyped by liberals/the left/elites in order to advance their own agenda, which, to recapitulate, is to perpetuate a trans-friendly iteration of the military-industrial complex.

In January, right-wing social media content farmer Candace Owens wrote that “there is quite literally no Russian threat.” Taibbi wrote on Feb. 20 that predictions of an imminent invasion had been proved “baseless and embarrassingly incorrect.” Last Wednesday, as military conflict appeared more likely, Greenwald retweeted a claim that the definition of the word invasion would be “muddled” in order to retroactively justify U.S. intelligence warnings. “The problem is that the CIA told the US media to tell everyone that they knew exactly what Putin was saying and deciding, and that he had decided on a full invasion of Ukraine,” Greenwald wrote in addition, “so they have to call it an ‘invasion’ otherwise this whole media/government act will seem like a fraud.” (Update, March 16, 2022: Greenwald, contacted via direct message for another story, argues that his “invasion” claim was not in error because the tweet was sent Feb. 23, before Russia actually invaded on Feb. 24.)

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In Taibbi’s and Greenwald’s defense, the claims and predictions that the U.S. government and its intelligence agencies make are often extremely mega wrong. In this case, they weren’t. Russia has invaded Ukraine, in anyone’s sense of the word. What happened next? A few tactics emerged:

After the Invasion

1. Admitting to having been wrong (only one guy did this). Taibbi conceded that he had not expected a Russian action of this magnitude. “My mistake was more like reverse chauvinism, being so fixated on Western misbehavior that I didn’t bother to take this possibility seriously enough,” he wrote. He has since pointed out (fairly, IMO) that the media and national security establishment could stand to do some introspection of its own about how Putin got to power in the first place. (It happened after several years of shattering economic turmoil during the 1990s while centrist U.S. national security officials and think tank fellows of the sort who are now calling for regime change in Russia were going back and forth to Russia for the ostensible purpose of teaching Russians how to operate a free-market democracy.)

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2. Admitting that this is embarrassing … for Joe Biden! There’s a case to be made that Biden has handled the crisis well by leading the North American and European effort to support Ukraine’s military and corner Russia diplomatically and economically without provoking World War III (knock on wood).

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What Carlson and fellow Fox News prime-time host Laura Ingraham have gone with is that while they don’t approve of what Putin is doing, the invasion would never have taken place at all if Biden hadn’t been so weak. (Ingraham is further claiming that China is using Russia as a puppet and making it invade Ukraine so that China can assess whether the U.S. is strong enough to stop it from invading Taiwan. Interesting theory!)

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The opposite of being weak, though, is being tough. Which means that the new Fox prime-time take on Biden is that he should have been much tougher on Russia even though, until four or five days ago, its hosts were arguing that the amount of diplomatic pressure he was putting on the state and its leader was a fraud, a distraction, and possibly even a corrupt renewable-energy conspiracy. Hell, Carlson was outraged a week ago that people were criticizing Putin, with words! This Monday, he played a clip of a Democratic congressman saying that Carlson was “rooting for Russians,” then asked, as if deeply wounded, why anyone would ever say such an “awful” thing about him, despite those being almost verbatim his words from 2019.

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3. Whatever Glenn Greenwald is doing. Greenwald is a Hall of Fame social media entrepreneur. He is always, always, posting a scorched-earth take in a state of excitement and outrage, whether or not it’s justified by the facts or contradicted by his own previous assertions. Over the weekend and on Monday morning, he tweeted multiple times about the “mandated consensus,” “united trans-ideological consensus,” and “lockstep messaging” that is purportedly being enforced by the U.S. political and media establishment regarding Ukraine policy. Anyone who disagrees with this consensus, he says, “instantly gets smeared as a Russian agent or apologist.”

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But on Monday afternoon he posted a screenshot of former Obama administration official turned podcast host Tommy Vietor disagreeing vehemently with NBC foreign correspondent Richard Engel about the potential price of U.S. military involvement in the conflict. Greenwald called this a “clear and full microcosm of the most bizarre aspect of US discourse,” namely the purported disagreement between “journalists” and “U.S. officials” over whether to intervene on the ground, a prospect that Greenwald (and Vietor) believes would be (in Greenwald’s words) “insane.”

So is it unprecedented trans-ideological consensus or a gripping battle of opposed positions so high-stakes that the outcome could change the course of human history? Who knows! Check back in tomorrow for a just-as-passionate-and-accusatory take on … something!

Anyway, the point is that Greenwald has not addressed (so far as I can parse—like I said, there’s a lot going on on the timeline) his claim that there wouldn’t be a real invasion of Ukraine. Neither is Carlson likely to explain how what he really meant when he belittled the idea of defending Ukraine from Putin was that Biden needed to crack down on Putin to protect Ukraine. The only thing that we can really say for certain is that whatever noises these guys make next, they’ll be very loud.

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