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The Republican Party has grown much more supportive of Russia in recent years


Let's consider for a moment the narrative built over many years of the Cold War of Russia as the bad guy, as America's enemy. Then consider widespread Republican resistance to sending more money to Ukraine to fight Russia. Or consider Tucker Carlson, who just flew to Moscow to sit down with Vladimir Putin for more than two hours of mostly softball questions. Consider Donald Trump, who says he would encourage Russia to do, quote, "whatever the hell they want" to NATO members that Trump believes aren't spending enough on defense. So what gives? Why the romance between the American right and Russia? Well, we're going to put that now to Anne Applebaum. She's written about this in a piece for The Atlantic headlined "The False Romance Of Russia." Anne Applebaum, welcome.


KELLY: I want to begin by noting that this piece you wrote - it's coming up on five years old. It's from 2019. Have you, as a longtime Russia watcher, tracked any diminishment in the intervening years in American conservative admiration for Russia?

APPLEBAUM: No. On the contrary, I think the conservative party's romance with Russia has grown quite a bit deeper. This is now a party that is profoundly critical of the United States. It doesn't like the diverse society that we've become. It doesn't like immigration. It doesn't like the kind of national conversation we have. And ironically, like the left of a previous generation, they've imagined that a better, ideal version of our society exists in Russia - a kind of white, Christian nation, you know, unified beneath a single leader without all this messy, ugly democracy and all these different kinds of people. And that's, I think, one of the roots of their admiration.

KELLY: So if I'm hearing you right, you're saying the answer to, what is Russia's appeal to the American right, is that Russia more closely resembles the country that some conservatives here in the U.S. wish we were living in, wish the United States were.

APPLEBAUM: Yes, I think that's right, the irony being, of course, that Russia isn't like that at all. Russia is, if anything, more diverse than the U.S. Russia has a very large Muslim population. It's also a country that persecutes Protestant religions. Any religion other than two or three that are recognized - Judaism, Orthodoxy and Catholicism - count as sects and cults and can be - people can be arrested. So the irony is that the nation that they imagined it to be is, of course, quite a long way from what it is.

KELLY: How much of this is personality-driven? Like, how much is about Vladimir Putin?

APPLEBAUM: Some of it's about Putin. I mean, I think more of it is really about Donald Trump. In a way, he made it OK to admire Russia because he admires Russia. He said flattering things about Putin, incidentally has said very flattering things about other autocrats. He admires Xi Jinping. He admires the leader of North Korea. As he uses that language - he was using it when he was president - you know, that, I think, has had a pretty transformative impact on the party. So a party that thought of itself as, you know, a leading voice for the promotion of democracy around the world now is very much in the thrall of autocracy. And I think that's Trump.

KELLY: Let me push you on this a little bit and ask, is some of the resistance, for example, to sending more military aid to Ukraine - is some of this practical? I'm thinking of a comment that Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio - something he said, which is basically, why keep throwing money at a war in Ukraine that Vladimir Putin appears committed to fighting for years?


J D VANCE: It is shameful to conduct foreign policy through blank-check writing to never-ending war. And it is extra shameful to do it while ignoring the problems of your own country.

APPLEBAUM: The answer to that is that you have to look at what happens if we don't do that, if Putin wins, if he takes over all of Ukraine, which is still his goal and which he's stated very recently in his conversation with Tucker Carlson is still his goal. Then the military problem and the challenge to American allies and, ultimately, America itself becomes worse. So what we're paying now is a fraction of what we will pay and the price that we will be forced to pay if Putin wins.

You know, I should also say I'm not sure Americans realize the degree to which the role of America as the security provider in Europe, in Asia and elsewhere opens up other kinds of economic opportunities. Why do people buy American products? Why do they buy American energy equipment? Some of that big American investment - some of that is because it's felt in particularly smaller countries that, you know, we need to make some gesture in the direction of the United States. I mean, all that is - sounds a little fuzzy, but there is a very real economic advantage that we have from playing the role that we do. And it is amazing that so many senior politicians are so willing to give it up that quickly.

KELLY: I want to ask about one other part of this, and you nodded to it. But the role of American culture wars and how those are being projected in this conversation - the belief among conservative circles, some conservative circles, that America is too woke, that progressives have lost their mind and that Vladimir Putin - whatever you make of his policy in Ukraine or anywhere else, he doesn't abide that stuff in Russia. He wins elections. He doesn't tolerate dissent. He's photographed, you know, bare chested, riding great steeds through the fields, all of that.

APPLEBAUM: So he actually goes even a bit farther than that. So Putin intervenes very directly in American culture war. So he talks about America having all these many different genders and America being degenerate. He talks about, you know, how homosexuality and trans people are making - you know, bringing down Europe and the United States. That's a big theme on Russian television. Sometimes Putin talks about it in public. He's talked about the U.S. as a satanic culture, you know, an anti-religious culture. And some of that is - he may believe. And some of that is absolutely designed to appeal to the American right, the European right and indeed traditionalist, you know, people and cultures around the world.

I mean, as I say, a lot of it's a fiction. I mean, there's no evidence that Russia is particularly strong on family values when you look closely at statistics and how people live. But it does have an appeal in a world where, you know, social norms are changing very fast, where there's demographic change, there's economic change. And Putin uses this traditionalist language as a way of, you know, creating the impression that he's the leader of some kind of alternate civilization where things are more stable. And that's had - that's been very successful.

KELLY: Anne Applebaum is a staff writer for The Atlantic. Thank you.

APPLEBAUM: Thank you.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.