Russia's escalating, unprovoked assaults on Ukraine have drawn worldwide condemnation and rare, if fractured, accord from Democrats and Republicans alike. But Donald Trump and his base should be doing a bit of soul-searching about their own embrace of Russia's autocratic leader and the climate that built him up.
It's one that also threatens us here at home.
Since the 45th U.S. president began cozying up to and praising President Vladimir Putin, that admiration for the Russian strongman has trickled down to other Republican politicians and citizens. Between July 2014 and December 2016, Putin’s favorability with Republicans went up from 10% to 37%, according to polls by The Economist and YouGov.
That's especially alarming considering Republicans' extreme disapproval of former U.S. President Barack Obama. While only 14% of Republicans viewed Putin very unfavorably in December 2016, 63% of them viewed Obama very unfavorably. That's despite evidence, as the CIA determined, that Putin had interfered to help Trump win the 2016 election against Hillary Clinton.
So much for the rule of law and America First.
Most alarming, though, are the reasons for the right's embrace of a devious leader credited with returning Russia to its Soviet-era authoritarianism.
Blame it on the culture wars.
Many members of the American right, emboldened by Trump, are on a rampage against those who don't look or act just like them, or conform to their notion of "traditional" or conservative values. White nationalists admire Putin for enforcing uniformity and not tolerating factionalism. They resent groups of minority Americans — African American, Latinx, gay or transgender people, among others — for expressing pride in their respective identities.
Take it from conservative Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson, who declared Feb. 22 that Americans who reject Putin should ask themselves, "Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him?" Carlson flip-flopped a few days later.
Trump ally Steve Bannon has praised Putin as "anti-woke." The religious right's agenda would strip marriage rights from same-sex couples, eliminate legal abortion and legislate against transgender people. Just look at the bills coming out of this session of the Iowa Legislature. Transgender girls and women are now barred from participating on girls and women's sports teams.
In Russia, Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, bolstering "his eroding popular support by turning toward the Russian Orthodox Church and integrating its rhetoric of traditional value," reported the Telegraph, noting that the Kremlin regards the West as decadent.
He hired a "morality crusader" to limit gay rights, punish online cursing and tax divorces, among other things. Yelena Mizulina, as head of Russia's Committee on Family, Women and Children, banned homosexual "propaganda" as of 2013. Russian transgender people are classified as mentally ill and are not even allowed to drive, according to a September 2020 piece in the Moscow Times, which identifies itself as offering independent news from Russia.
CBS News recently interviewed a 31-year-old transgender woman, Zi Faámelu, in Ukraine's capital city, Kyiv, currently under siege by Russia. She's from Crimea, a part of Ukraine that was invaded by Russia in 2014 and which has been under its control since.
She's fearful of the discriminatory laws against transgender people there. Living without food or water, she's fearful of leaving her home because of what could happen to her because of her gender identity.
The network also interviewed an 18-year-law student in Kharkiv, identified only as Iulia, who expressed terror at the prospect of Russia taking over Ukraine.
"In Russia, LGBTQ people are persecuted," she told a CBS News reporter. "If we imagine that Russia occupies all of the Ukraine or just a big part of the country, they won't allow us to exist peacefully and to fight for our rights, as we are able to do that in Ukraine right now."
And Trump, who stopped short of praising Putin's invasion of Ukraine (which he claimed wouldn't have happened if he were still president) nonetheless called Putin's rhetoric on it "pretty savvy" on "The Clay Travis & Buck Sexton Show" on Feb. 22.
Said Trump: "But here’s a guy that says, you know, 'I’m going to declare a big portion of Ukraine independent,' he used the word 'independent,' and 'we’re going to go out and we’re going to go in and we’re going to help keep peace.'"
"I got along with him great," said the former U.S. president. "He liked me. I liked him. I mean, you know, he’s a tough cookie, got a lot of the great charm and a lot of pride. But the way he — and he loves his country, you know? He loves his country."
It's alarming and astounding that these attitudes and rhetoric are on the rise after all those years of anti-communist fervor kept us in proxy wars against the Soviet Union and former Soviet states, championing our democratic values and citizens' rights.
Yes, politicians on the left and right are now condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine, though on political talk shows, Republican politicians refuse to condemn Trump's embrace of Putin.
But the attitudes underlying that embrace are integral to Republican philosophy these days: an antipathy to minority groups expressing their cultural identities. Backlash at same-sex marriage rights and a push to put legal sanctions on being transgender.
This is real and it's scary.