The GOP’s Putin lovers can’t cheer him publicly, so watch out Beijing

(Originally published here on May 24, 2022 in the South China Morning Post.)

The oil might be flowing from Russia to China, but Vladimir Putin should take note that the lifelines he was counting on from the US, arguably as valuable, are disintegrating. And the implications for Beijing are more serious than they might first appear.

“I want to reinforce with the Europeans after some loose talk during the [Donald] Trump years about whether Nato is important, that at least at the moment, the most important Republican we currently have in Congress has a different point of view,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in an interview with Politico after his chamber passed a US$40 billion aid package for Ukraine.

Just as Russia’s military failures in Ukraine have become apparent to the world, Putin is facing losses on the far Western front, where his years-long effort to support US political leaders aligned with his ultranationalist, populist, hyper-Christian vision – well documented by the country’s intelligence community – seemed to be paying dividends.

Like Beijing, Trump’s support for Putin has no limits. The former president has never uttered a negative comment about Putin, has failed to speak out against the Russian leader’s brutal treatment of Russia’s most prominent opposition figure Alexei Navalny, and his secretary of state Mike Pompeo – a likely contender for the White House in 2024 – waited a week to condemn Navalny’s poisoning in 2020.

Beijing may be parroting Kremlin talking points about the war in Ukraine, but some Trump allies, like Fox News firebrand Tucker Carlson, have been going further by actually generating them.

Cynics out there might question the timing of McConnell’s stand, the strongest intraparty defiance yet of folks like Pompeo, who said just days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that he has “enormous respect” for the Russian leader, and Senator Josh Hawley, who argued against US support for Ukraine’s Nato membership bid in a lengthy letter to Biden’s administration on February 1, as Russia’s military massed along the country’s border.

It has taken more than two months of humiliating setbacks for Putin’s Ukraine plan for Trump, Pompeo and the Russian leader’s other Washington cheerleaders to cloak their admiration. These losses are a setback to the ideological war they are fighting against Western liberalism along with Hungarian Prime Minister, and noted holdout against the EU’s efforts to embargo Russian oil, Viktor Orban.

We would be right to wonder whether McConnell would have pushed back on the Trump world’s appeasement of the Kremlin had Putin managed to swallow Ukraine in a matter of days. If the world reacted to Ukraine’s annexation the way it did to Russia’s takeover of Crimea in 2014 – with denunciations and weak sanctions that only emboldened Putin – we might have seen Republicans fall more in line with Russia, strengthening a geopolitical alignment of the party and the Kremlin against Nato.

That never came to pass. A majority of Americans support sanctions against Russia. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has brought the rationale for the Nato-protected democratic rules-based international order back into clear focus after years of attempts by the American far right and other populist movements throughout the West to end it.

But, given the progress that the country’s right-wing has made in their fight against liberalism, most recently apparent in the leaked Supreme Court draft majority opinion that would revoke America’s federally mandated right to abortion, McConnell’s victory against the Russia-loving wing of the Republican Party is far from assured.

The sponsors of this movement continue to flood all channels available to them with misinformation meant to whip up resentment against immigrants, minorities, feminists and the LGBTQ community to divert attention from Putin’s bloody actions.

The extent of their determination was on display in Orban’s country last week, when notorious racist Zsolt Bayer – who has called Jews “stinking excrement” and used the n-word to describe Black people – was a featured speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where Trump and Carlson were featured speakers.

Anyone disagreeing with this crowd is branded a paedophile, a communist, a traitor, or some such abominable combination. These are the rhetorical extremes that are needed to defend positions so far beyond the pale.

As Putin’s admirers in the Republican Party try to cover up their devotion to Putin, they will default to even sharper anti-China rhetoric and legislation than we’ve already seen. Biden’s efforts to isolate China through multilateral initiatives like Aukus, the Quad and his Indo-Pacific Economic Framework means that Trump, Pompeo, Hawley, Carlson et al will need to outflank the president on this front.

With such ideological overlap between the Republicans that McConnell is trying to face down and illiberal autocrats like Putin and Orban, the party’s dominant right-wing will need more of a diversion than their usual obsession with what goes on in the nation’s bedrooms and bathrooms. “Communist” is already in the name of the party that rules China, so we should soon expect allegations of paedophilia.

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