Opinion – Gideon Rachman: Putin merges cultural war with geopolitics and finds peers in leaders like Orbán and Bolsonaro


I’ve been watching the culture wars from a safe distance for some time now. Sometimes the issues involved are interesting. But the virulent nature of the discussions, which can end professional careers, dissuaded me from participating in them.

So instead I’ve been sticking to my geopolitical corner, avoiding explosive topics like transgender bathrooms and opting for relatively non-controversial topics like brexit or nuclear war.

I am now grudgingly concluding that my geopolitical safe space is merging into the culture wars. See speeches by Vladimir Putin. The arguments that the Russian leader presents to justify the invasion of Ukraine are not based only on security or history. Increasingly, Putin has characterized the Ukraine War as part of the culture wars.

In his September 30 speech in which he celebrated Russia’s annexation of four regions of Ukraine, Putin accused the West of “moving towards Satanism” and “teaching sexual deviations to children”. He stated, “We are fighting to protect our children and grandchildren from this experiment that aims to transform their souls.”

These arguments are not just aimed at the Russian people, who may not even be their primary target. Putin is flirting with an important section of the West: cultural conservatives so disgusted by the alleged decay of their own societies that they are attracted to Putin’s Russia.

On the eve of the war in Ukraine, Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, remarked on his podcast: “Putin is not woke. He is anti-woke.” His interviewee, Erik Prince, replied: “Russians still know which toilet to use.”

At about the same time, Tucker Carlson, arguably the most influential pro-Trump TV host in America, asked his listeners to ask themselves: “Has Putin ever called me a racist? Is he trying to crush Christianity? ?”

The so-called “war on woke thought” is now absolutely fundamental to Republican Party politics. On these issues, many Republicans feel more kinship with Putin than they do with Democrats. As Jacob Heilbrunn, an astute analyst for conservative America, recently explained to me, the Republican far right “sees Putin as a champion of traditional Christian values ​​and an opponent of LGBT+, transgender, and the undermining of masculine values ​​that were responsible for the rise of the West.”

In 2021, Ted Cruz reposted a video on Twitter that contrasted a Russian TV ad calling for recruits in the Armed Forces, full of muscular soldiers with shaved heads, with a similar American ad highlighting a female soldier, daughter of a lesbian couple. The Republican senator speculated, “Maybe a woken and emasculated Armed Forces isn’t the best idea.”

The disastrous performance of Russian forces in Ukraine suggests one possible response to Cruz: brutalizing its soldiers and treating them like cannon fodder is perhaps not the best idea. But while it is no longer fashionable to praise Putin’s Russia, the US right has identified other foreign authoritarian leaders as their allies in the culture wars.

Last May, the Hungarian leader, Viktor Orbán, addressed the US Conservative Political Action Conference and urged participants to wage a common struggle against “progressive liberals, against neo-Marxists intoxicated with the woke dream, against those who are at the service of George Soros. They want to abolish the Western way of life.” Orbán is widely seen as the EU leader most close to Putin.

The overlap between nationalism and the anti-woke crusade is no coincidence. The two things have in common the nostalgia for a mythologized past of national greatness and cultural homogeneity, a time when “men were men” and women and minorities were aware of their “proper place”. It is not surprising that Trumpist nationalists, adherents of “America First” thinking, feel kinship with nationalists in Hungary or Russia.

But while the issues at stake in the Ukraine War and the War on Wakes overlap, they are far from identical. The Polish government has a similar view to Orbán on LGBT+ issues, but very different when it comes to Ukraine and Russia.

Some of Putin’s efforts to reach out to supposed allies in the West have been inept to say the least. He once tried to compare Russia’s fate to that of JK Rowling, arguing that her country was being “cancelled” like the British writer. Rowling responded sharply that “criticism of Western cancel culture must not come from those who are massacring civilians”.

Israel is an interesting example of a country that has avoided division, leaning to the left on issues of the culture war and to the uncompromising right on nationalism. Israelis have been accused of “pinkwashing”—using their liberalism on LGBT+ issues to cover up their harsh policy toward Palestinians. The approach could be summed up as: “Ignore the Gaza Strip. See our Pride Parade!”

But the current coalition government headed by Binyamin Netanyahu is jeopardizing this delicate position. The coalition includes ministers from religious right parties who have already suggested that doctors should be allowed to refuse to treat gay patients. Netanyahu has cultivated close ties with Orbán, Putin and Jair Bolsonaro, the former Brazilian president known for attacking gays. But he also knows he needs to maintain a working relationship with a White House where the much-feared woke liberals are very much in the spotlight.

Culture wars have become part of today’s geopolitical struggles. But the mixed alliances in these conflicts are creating odd collaborations.

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