WASHINGTON DC – There is broad support from both parties for working with America’s allies and partners in response to Russia’s war on Ukraine. Most Democrats and Republicans, for all of their disagreements, agree on this. And yet one corner of the American right continues to support Russia, or at least Russian talking points, despite the lack of any clear political reason for it to do so.
Republican congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, for instance, has accused the US government of funding neo-Nazis in Ukraine. This is an apparent reference to fears that foreign funding would get into the hands of Ukraine’s far-right militia the Azov Battalion, and echoes Russian president Vladimir Putin’s claims that he is seeking to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, a country run by a Jewish president, and where Ukrainian Jews are currently under siege from Russia’s war.
Madison Cawthorn, a Republican congressman from North Carolina, has called Zelensky, a “thug”, adding, “Remember that the Ukrainian government is incredibly corrupt and it is incredibly evil and it has been pushing woke ideologies.” Former president Donald Trump, a long-time Putin admirer, said on 13 March that the Russian president probably felt “cornered” and was trying to rebuild the Soviet Union, which was, according to Trump, “full of love”. Other right-wing figures have taken a less pro-Russia but still anti-Ukraine approach, insisting that they supported neither side, but instead stood with “civilians” and against “politicians and their media” who are playing “war games”. One hopes that everyone sympathises with civilians, but there is no equivalence between Ukrainian politicians and Russian politicians in this war; the Biden administration, for its part, has stressed repeatedly that it will not get involved militarily in Ukraine.
Why are these figures persisting in what are, at least for now, genuinely politically unpopular beliefs?
For one thing, there are a host of right-wing figures for whom politics are primarily understood through their grievances. Consider, for example, how much of the 2020 Republican National Convention was about cancel culture. Cawthorn’s rant about woke ideologies does not make sense in the context of the war in Ukraine, but it does when considering his own place in the American political landscape. For years, his part of the American right has viewed Russia as a white Christian bastion of traditional values. The Russian leadership plays into this narrative, too; Sergei Naryshkin, Russia’s intelligence chief, said this month that the West was trying to “cancel” his country. If you see Russia merely as an extension of yourself and your political project in the United States, then it is difficult to part with it.
But there is another element: the far right – or at least the Trump-aligned far right – is already too deep into conspiracy theories to break with Russia, or at least to side cleanly with Ukraine, which was the site of Trump’s conspiracies about a US ambassador aligned with George Soros, the bogeyman of the international authoritarian right.
It was Zelensky whom Trump tried to extort to open an investigation into Joe Biden, his domestic political opponent, in exchange for military aid.
Greene stuck with a classic line and blamed “globalists” – a term that many consider to have anti-Semitic connotations – for “beating the drums of war”. Robert Regan, a Republican politician in Michigan, would not say whether he condemned Russia’s invasion, but did say on Twitter, “If evil George is supporting U then the opposite is the right thing to do.” “George” appeared to be a reference to George Soros, and “U” to “Ukraine”, as Regan continued, “Massive corruption, bio labs and money laundering is being taken out by Putin; WEF [World Economic Forum, Davos], Soros and Clintons are none to [sic] happy about it.”
The “bio labs” mentioned in Regan’s tweet are a notion that have picked up particular steam on the far right. The conspiracy theory is that the United States was planning to release a bio-weapon from a biological research lab in Ukraine and Russia invaded to stop it from doing so. The theory has been pushed by far-right internet users and eventually made its way to Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who said on air that the “Biden administration was funding secret bio-labs in Ukraine”. Russian officials have also boosted the theory.
Carlson, who, mere days before Russia attacked Ukraine, asked his viewers to consider why they should hate Putin – “Why do I hate Putin so much? Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him?” – has been particularly committed to Russian talking points. According to a Mother Jones report, the Kremlin sent out a memo to government-aligned Russia media outlets asking them to highlight Carlson’s broadcasts, as he “sharply criticises the actions of the United States [and] Nato, their negative role in unleashing the conflict in Ukraine, [and] the defiantly provocative behaviour from the leadership of the Western countries”. Carlson has also said that the war in Ukraine is being used to “purge the country of the Democratic Party’s political opponents”. This is not happening, either. (Carlson, for his part, has argued that he is not parroting Russian propaganda, and is merely trying to push back against “total war”.)
But this is what happens when one is unconcerned with truth. The farther one travels into the realm of “alternative facts”, to borrow from Trump’s former counsellor Kellyanne Conway, the farther one must go. The war in Ukraine isn’t about George Soros, or bio labs. Putin did not invade to end corruption or money laundering. There is a clear aggressor. But to admit any of that would be to risk returning to fact-based discourse, and so those pushing these theories must stay far away.