Call it Putin envy.
Whatever their differences, the one thing the new wave of right-wing populist politicians now emerging from the fringes of the Western democracies have in common—from America’s Donald Trump to France’s Francois Fillon and Marine Le Pen, from Italy’s Beppe Grillo to Austria’s Norbert Hofer and Hungary’s Viktor Orban—is admiration for Russia’s autocratic strongman Vladimir Putin.
You’d probably have to go back to the heyday of the Comintern to find an eastern leader who enjoyed the sort of regard with which Putin is held by leading figures of the democracies’ populist right. In fact, the Slavic caudillo has managed to achieve what no Soviet leader ever enjoyed, even when idealistic Communism was widespread in the West—the influence of soft power based on his personality, political style and social values.
That unexpected soft power is crucial. Putin’s Russia remains a major military force because of the nuclear arsenal it inherited from the old Soviet Union, but an economic pygmy, utterly dependent on oil and gas revenue with a gross national product smaller than India, Canada or South Korea. After a period of petro-fueled prosperity, Russia’s poor are again suffering Soviet-era privation and its new middle class is seeing its hard-won affluence wither in an economy that shrank by 3.7% in 2015 and is contracting at almost that rate this year. Meanwhile, the president and his inner circle have amassed almost unbelievable wealth; the strongman—who came from modest beginnings in St. Petersburg and had a mid-level career in the KGB’s foreign directorate—now is thought to be the world’s wealthiest man with an estimated fortune of $200 billion. So what, beyond a spectacular talent for looting, is it about Putin and his kleptocratic cronies that appeals to the new generation of wanna-be autocrats coming to or edging toward power in the West?
Partly, it has to do with the Russian president’s reimposition of reactionary social norms on his people and rejection of the Western economic system. As French analyst Benjamin Haddad said this week, “All over Europe, Putinism has emerged as an ideological alternative to globalism and the EU. . .a bulwark for conservative values—a strongman against gay marriage, immigration, Islam.”
In larger part, Putin’s admirers esteem what Trump has called his “strong” leadership and defense of tradition—like homophobia. Apparently, America’s president-elect and the others are unbothered by the reality that Putin’s “strength” manifests itself in the murder of political opponents and honest journalists, the jailing of businessmen unwilling to play ball, war crimes against Syria’s civilian populace and the wholesale repression of domestic Russian dissenters. In other words, good old-fashioned fascist style authoritarianism. (Le Pen and Grillo may have other reasons for their admiration, as well, since Kremlin-connected Russian financial institutions have funneled money to fuel their electoral efforts.)
This widespread flirtation with the authoritarian and the most vulgar traditionalist impulses comes at a particularly perilous time for America and the West. Apart from the widespread disenchantment with global free trade—now the lynchpin of the international economy—confidence in democracy itself appears to be plummeting across what we used to call the free world. Harvard lecturer Yascha Mounk and Australian political scientist Roberto Stephan Foa have been studying what is called “democratic consolidation,” the complex of attitudes and institutions that bind a nation to liberal democratic government.
As we know from numerous studies, popular confidence in most of contemporary society’s civil institutions—churches, professional associations, the news media and unions, for example—has been in a virtual free fall for some time. Who can forget the sentiment frequently expressed during the Brexit campaign, when voters in favor of leaving the EU simply said, “We’re tired of listening to experts.” In the new populist West, willful ignorance is bliss. Mounk and Foa have found that confidence in democracy itself now is suffering a similar decline—not just in newly democratic countries, like increasingly nationalist and authoritarian nations like Poland—which is shielded from Putinism, at least, by historic antipathy toward Russia—and Hungary, but also in some of its heretofore strongest bastions. They’ve found that in nations including the United States, Britain, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand and Sweden the percentage of people who deem it “essential” to live in a democracy and gone into precipitous decline; that’s particularly true among the young.
Simultaneously, a tolerance for authoritarianism is rising across the democracies. In 1995, for example, just 1 in 16 Americans said it would be “good” or “very good” to live under military rule. In 2014, that ratio had climbed to 1 in 6. The trend toward acceptance of authoritarianism is particularly strong among the young: While 43% of older Americans feel it would be “illegitimate” for the military to take over from an “incompetent’ government, only 19% of millennials thought that was true. (That majorities in both age groups can envision approving a coup is alarming and appalling almost beyond words.) Among Europeans, a majority of older people—53%–would oppose a military takeover, while just 36% of millennials would.
No wonder Putin envy suffuses the West’s nationalist and populist right.
France’s Fillon, now probably the favorite to become France’s president, has a long-standing and admiring friendship with the Russian strongman. His success, according to former Le Monde editor Natalie Nougayréde owes itself to French voters’ “white Christian anger.” The success of his Les Républicains party is a reminder that, alongside the admired secular French social democracy, there also persists the conservative Catholic rural and small town nation of Vichy and Action Francaise. Fillon opposes same sex marriage and abortion and argues that “Russia poses no threat to the West.” For that reason, he hopes to see Western sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Crimea and covert invasion of Ukraine lifted.
So, too, does Grillo, whose Five Star party will edge even closer to power, if Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi’s constitutional referendum fails Sunday. “It’s the risk-takers, the stubborn, the barbarians who will carry the world forward. We will end up in government,” Grillo echoing a sentiment that would have been familiar to Mussolini’s Black Shirts.
In Hungary, Orban promotes what he calls “illiberal democracy,” while Austria’s Hofer no longer sees a “reason to favor the US over Russia”—or over EU partner Germany for that matter. In the Netherlands, meanwhile, Geert Wilders, currently on trial for hate speech and a Putin admirer for his anti-Islamic stance, is leading in the polls leading up to the next election. The leaders of the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Bulgaria also have been forthright in their admiration for Putin and frank about their preference for his style of government over that of the liberal democracies.
Even Angela Merkel seems likely to confront a strong challenge from the right in the next round of German elections. Then there’s Turkish strongman Recep Erdogan, who moves ever further from the West with each passing week and whose post-coup purgeg is the sort of draconian crackdown that Putin only can admire.
That brings us back to America’s president-elect, who may or may not have received cybernetic and propaganda help from an unprecedented Russian intervention into this country’s electoral politics. His business dealings with Russian financiers and banks, though still hazy, appear to be extensive. His newly named national security adviser, Gen. Mike Flynn has dined on friendly terms with Putin and been a paid commentator on Russia’s propaganda TV channel. Paul Manafort, the political consultant with deep and long-standing ties to Russia and pro-Kremlin Ukrainian politicians is once again active in Trump’s inner circles.
The president-elect’s bullying disrespect for constitutional freedoms and incipient authoritarian impulses ought to sober anyone who understands that, even our centuries-old democracy, is more fragile than is usually reckoned. Of all the things that anxious civil libertarians might have anticipated, Putin envy is somewhere off the curve.
For freedom’s friends across the West, the next four years will have to be a period of watchfulness and resistance.