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There was a brief moment, when Russia first launched its invasion of Ukraine, that the GOP wasn’t shopping Kremlin talking points. A few weeks ago at CPAC, the right was divided over how to message Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The right has been full of Vladimir Putin fanboys going back to the Trump administration, but here was their favorite authoritarian just cruising into Ukraine bombing hospitals and killing children. It was hard to imagine how the far right could twist itself into a pro-Putin stance when what Putin was doing was completely indefensible by any human. What I failed to imagine was the anti–anti-Putin movement.
A person does not need to be pro-Putin to be anti–anti-Putin. Pro-Putinism is, after all, completely untenable. Instead, one merely asks questions about anti-Putinism. Or if you’re Tucker Carlson, you deliver a bizarre monologue attacking those who oppose Putin, as he did in late February: “Democrats in Washington have told you you have a patriotic duty to hate Vladimir Putin. … Anything less than hatred of Putin is treason … hating Putin has become the central purpose of America’s foreign policy.” Tucker can defend himself by saying he’s not for anything. He’s just asking questions about why the rest of the world recoils at hospital bombings.
On Monday, two of Fox News’s own were killed in Ukraine: cameraman Pierre Zakrzewski and Ukrainian journalist Oleksandra Kuvshynova, who was working with Fox reporters. On Tuesday, Carlson did devote a segment to Zakrzewski and Kuvshynova. And yet he also pressed on with his usual routine, saying:
“Masks were a training exercise. Mandatory masking was a shock collar designed to teach Americans unquestioning obedience and, of course, it worked because shock collars do work. In a single day last month we watched, for example, our entire professional class dutifully changed their Twitter avatars from mask up to the now mandatory Ukrainian flag. There was no debate about doing this, no reflection. There was not even a real conversation. They just did it. Millions of people simply assumed reflexively a partisan position in a highly complicated foreign crisis, the next crisis, and as they did it, they moved in perfect lockstep.”
Rhetoric like this has won Carlson friends at the Kremlin. David Corn reported on a memo, titled “For Media and Commentators (recommendations for coverage of events as of 03.03),” from Russia’s Department of Information and Telecommunications Support. In the document, the Russian media regulators noted that “it is essential to use as much as possible fragments of broadcasts of the popular Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who sharply criticizes the actions of the United States [and] NATO, their negative role in unleashing the conflict in Ukraine, [and] the defiantly provocative behavior from the leadership of the Western countries and NATO towards the Russian Federation and towards President Putin, personally.” Here’s a question: Does one really want a Kremlin endorsement at this moment in history?
On the flip side, there’s Maria Bartiromo of Fox Business—once a respected journalist, now a Lou Dobbs stand-in—who on Sunday related how “some people have told” her “that they feel that, at the end of the day, this administration does not see Putin as the enemy. They see him as a partner!” Are Democrats unfairly demonizing Putin or buddying up to him? Both story lines play on Fox because both story lines are completely disconnected from reality.
But it’s the anti–anti-Putin rhetoric we’ll be seeing more of, now that the far right has decided how to message this invasion. The conspiracy theory justifying it is as stupid as you might expect, involving Anthony Fauci, bioweapons, and, of course, the Bidens. NBC reporter Ben Collins explained it to me this way: “[QAnon] and anti-vaxx accounts trial-ballooned a new narrative—that Fauci and the Bidens were funding bioweapons in what are really research facilities [in Ukraine]—and it stuck with the broader far right … It doesn’t matter that it’s so ludicrous, not even the Russians thought to create this propaganda until after they learned about it from the English-speaking global far right. It just matters that the bad guys are the same bad guys as the ones from the Facebook memes from the last five years. And since those bad guys are fighting with Putin, Putin must be the good guy. Just ignore the dead children in the street.”
In short, “biolabs” is the new “Hillary’s health” or “crack pipes for racial equity” or, well, name your favorite far-right dog whistle. “Biolabs” sounds serious, but it’s a silly composite of many different right-wing boogeymen. There are no Ukrainian scientific facilities that are owned by Fauci, the Bidens, or the Clinton Foundation. Sometimes, a lab is just a lab.
Unless, of course, you’re watching Fox News—or Russian propaganda, as The Daily Beast’s Julia Davis made clear with her summary of a segment from Russian state-sponsored TV, tweeting: “#Russia’s state TV showcases clips of Tucker Carlson and Tulsi Gabbard, helping to perpetuate the myth of dangerous ‘bio-weapons’ in Ukraine. This conspiracy theory is being spread by Russia’s state TV with special zeal.”
Then there are, inevitably, the Republican electeds pushing the Kremlin party line. “I would think the most telling example in recent days would be [Representative] Madison Cawthorn,” The Daily Beast’s Justin Baragona told me. He “fired off a brain-poisoned, buzzword-laden rant straight from the fever swamps that frames Ukraine as evil and ‘woke.’ ‘Remember that [Volodymyr] Zelensky is a thug,’ Cawthorn ranted. ‘Remember that the Ukrainian government is incredibly corrupt and it is incredibly evil and it has been pushing woke ideologies.’”
Why this convergence of Russian propaganda and the right-wing media? Putin’s ideological alignment with the far right makes him impossible to reject, no matter how heinous his possible crimes. And the right wing was probably never going to support Zelensky, a Jewish leader who is committed to democracy. Maybe the saddest part of all is that I thought such a thing might be possible.