Republicans Side with Team Putin
Make no mistake, Putin adoration is a danger to America (first published 3/22/21)
Author’s note: This was originally published on March 22, 2021. This is the last in a series of essays that I’m sharing over the holidays that we published since our February 28 launch.
It’s possible you missed last week the delight of Fox News and its accomplices in pitting Joe Biden against Vladimir Putin. It fit the usual pattern of an amusing media dust-up, complete with shallow speculation on a likely winner and loser, in this case over who’s really a killer.
It may have started with President Biden telling ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that he thinks Putin is a killer, then escalated when the Russian President responded with the trite “It takes one to know one” and his taunting proposal for a live debate. This was all that Fox and its friends needed to choose their side.
“Putin and Biden, it would not end like 'Rocky IV’—I don't think the American would prevail,” Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz , obviously pleased with himself, told Sean Hannity. For his part, Hannity was more than happy to pile on about Biden’s mental readiness: “Why would Vladimir Putin immediately call for a debate with Joe Biden with no time to prepare? What have I been saying?”
After four years of never a negative word about Putin from Trump—not after the interference in our election, not after the killings of Russian journalists and political opponents in Russia and on foreign soil, not after it was revealed the Russians put bounties on American soldiers—this cute interplay may have sounded like no big deal. Just more fun and games from among the same bunch who’ve perpetrated the Big Lie of election fraud and are determined to gloss over and move on from the deadly insurrection.
Who would be surprised they weren’t rooting for the American President? Who would be surprised they used the moment to claim Biden isn’t up to the job?
But make no mistake: The continuing adoration of Putin represents the embrace of autocracy over democracy—indeed, the dark desire to learn from the anti-democratic tactics of a murderous autocrat.
There is plenty that they haven’t said out loud, at least not yet. But they’re proffering a clear message that they prefer a leader like Putin, one who employs assassination as a frequent tool to hold onto power over one who believes in values like equality and the right of every citizen to vote.
It doesn’t matter that Putin-obedient Trump has been evicted from our house. In fact, rather than insist it’s still Trump’s party, rule in exile from Mar-a-Lago, it might be more accurate to say the GOP has morphed into the anti-democratic Putin Party.
This is not a brand-new phenomenon, of course. The egregious decision of eight members of Congress to celebrate their 2018 Fourth of July in Moscow—optics? what optics?—was an earlier reminder that they were all-in on maximizing their Putin connections. Among the Republicans who lamely claimed that the purpose of their trip was “engagement” and they told their Russian friends not to interfere in our elections: Senators Ron Johnson (of course), Richard Shelby, John Neely Kennedy, Steve Daines, John Hoeven, Jerry Moran and John Thune, plus Texas Representative Kay Granger.
While they failed to meet with Putin on this Russian adventure, they did enjoy the company of former foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and former US Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. You remember them: The two Russians who privately yukked it up with Trump in the Oval Office, the day we later came to learn Trump shared secret intel with them.
That meeting—we only learned about it because there was a Russian photographer in attendance and no US press—still sticks in my craw:
But let’s take a moment to reflect more on this continuing alliance between the GOP and Vladimir Putin, who came up through the Soviet ranks as a KGB operative beginning in 1975 (age 23). It’s hard to overstate the depths of depravity, brutality and bloody murder that defines the history of the KGB and its predecessors, Cheka and the NKVD. Between 1921 and 1953, 3.8 million people were convicted of political crimes and about 700,000 of these were sentenced to death.
The extent of the bloodshed and the numbers sent off to the Gulag prison camps decreased after Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953 and particularly after Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev turned against Stalin and the Stalinist purges. Yet Putin’s two-decades-long, post-Soviet rule demonstrates that he learned the tools of the terrorizing trade. Putin critics and political opponents such as Boris Nemtsov (shot four times), Boris Berezovsky (hanged), Sergei Magnitsky (beaten and died in police custody), Alexander Litvinenko (poisoned) and journalist Anna Politkovskaya (shot at point-blank range) are just some of the Russians who paid with their lives for speaking out against him.
And then there’s the most recent case of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was poisoned and escaped with his life after medical treatment in a Berlin hospital (only to be arrested and sentenced to a prison camp upon his return). Putin had this to say about questions of his own culpability and his claims that Navalny was linked to US intelligence: “But that absolutely does not mean he needs to be poisoned. Who needs him? If somebody had wanted to poison him, they would have finished him off.” Notice the callous indifference to life and death.
Never forget that it was Donald J. Trump who not only refused to hold Putin accountable, he made excuses for him from the beginning, preferring to sow doubts about America instead. Asked in 2017 by Bill O’Reilly if he thinks that Putin is a killer, he quickly answered: “There are a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers. Well, you think our country is so innocent?”
Trump’s betrayal in Helsinki, siding with Putin over American intelligence concerning Russia’s attack on our 2016 election, also must never be forgotten—an event that failed to shift his party’s obeisance to both men.
If the current configuration of the Republican Party continues on its present path, they will keep sowing doubt about the country they swore an oath to protect while looking fondly at the strongman in the Kremlin. Time will tell if they’ve done it more for love or money, but in either case we’ll have that much more work to repair the damage to our democracy that they have wrought.