Sanity vs. Sickness: the Conservative Movement’s Dueling Reactions to Putin’s War on Ukraine

The confusion and bitterness that have entangled conservatives over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are the inevitable consequences of a festering problem I’ve been watching and dreading for a decade now: a long train of mistaken foreign policy decisions—and equally mistaken reactions to those decisions—that the American Right has never properly adjudicated.

There is a widespread consensus (with which I concur) that George W. Bush made a series of extremely costly and tragic mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan, but our movement never really had a sober, nuanced accounting of what those mistakes were and were not. Instead, in the absence of serious Republican leadership, the predominantly (and understandably) emotional reaction to those years of excessive bloodshed for seemingly little return grew and hardened over the years into an overcorrection in the opposite direction, taking the form of a false choice: we either bomb and invade and nation-build everywhere, or we withdraw America from the world and steer clear of any foreign conflict.

For some on the Right (mostly its populist, paleoconservative, or “New Right/post-liberal” factions), a disposition toward the latter extreme has made washing their hands of conflict so important, even in cases where nobody of consequence is seriously pushing for American military intervention, that they have adopted logical and sometimes even moral contortions to sustain it. From the uncritical recitation of Kremlin justifications for the invasion, to the presumption that Vladimir Putin is somehow more trustworthy or less objectionable than Volodymyr Zelensky, to the idea of some correlation between American concern for the outcome and negligence toward our domestic problems (an ironic flip side to Joe Biden’s attempts to scapegoat the conflict for the crushing gas prices his own policies have caused), to the simply obscene notion that a murderous KGB thug like Putin is some kind of Christian bulwark against wokeness, post-hoc rationalization is the only explanation I can think of for why anyone not actually devoted to the Kremlin would twist themselves into these knots.

The moral relativism associated with that last contortion deserves special focus. As sick as American culture and corrupt as the federal government currently are, morally there’s still no contest between us and the Kremlin, from their rigged elections, to the laundry list of political enemies Putin has had killed, to their persecution of Baptists and Evangelicals, to their torture of Jehovah’s Witnesses (on top of Putin’s support for legal abortion and the rampancy of Russia’s surrogacy industry). While the American Democrat Party is absolutely evil, and I have no doubt they would emulate the Kremlin a lot more if they could get away with it (we’ve seen signs of that in their abuse of the Justice Department and support of vote fraud, for starters), the fact remains that they have yet to even attempt to cross most of the lines that Putin not only crossed a long time ago, but can no longer see in the rearview mirror—not out of the goodness of their hearts, mind you, but because our people and institutions, deeply flawed though they are, still would make those things much, much harder to get away with here.

The “Christian Putin” meme seems to mostly originate with his regime’s hardline stance against homosexuality. But even there we should be very careful — pandering to prominent social mores is one of tyrants’ classic tools to stay on a population’s good side. And while I don’t presume to have complete knowledge of everything Putin has done on the issue, given his broader human rights record it would be beyond foolish to trust him to model proper Christian treatment of people in sin, and monumentally irresponsible to give the public the slightest impression that he might be a model for what conservatives would do if we had our way. When an evil, murderous tyrant supposedly uses a few good values for his own ends, he ultimately undermines those values by wrongly associating them with evil, murder, and tyranny in the eyes of onlookers in the rest of the world.

Further, I’m sorry to say, the rise of much of the above has correlated with, and no doubt been informed substantially by, a deterioration of far too many conservatives’ ability to discern the credibility of claims or the trustworthiness of sources, a forgetting of Chesterton’s advice that the purpose of an open mind is to eventually close it on something solid. Far too many minds (at least online) have instead closed on a Ron Paul, Pat Buchanan, Alex Jones-style view of the world filled with conspiracy theories in which world events are dictated by shadowy globalist cabals and bloodthirsty defense contractors, narratives that are right at home alongside the Code Pink/Howard Zinn/Noam Chomsky talking points and historical revisionism of the Bush years.

Unlike David French, I’m not about to pretend this reflexive contrarianism came from nowhere (or that it applies to unrelated issues on which the contrarians happen to be correct, but I digress). Nothing fuels contrarianism more than the chronic refusal of establishmentarians to admit or correct any of their mistakes, which drives people to look elsewhere for guidance—and sometimes find it in figures who merely trade one form of awfulness for another. But the fact that establishmentarians provoked the initial distrust doesn’t excuse contrarians for blindly trusting their new friends and thought leaders. You’re still functioning human beings with the ability and responsibility to apply morality, evidence, and common sense to the stories you’re told. Act like it.

That applies tenfold for anyone in the public eye. It is of the utmost importance that conservatives in government, punditry, journalism, or advocacy not give the slightest indulgence to crackpots, conspiracy theorists, or demagogues, especially at a time when crying “misinformation” is one of our enemies’ most potent weapons. It would be the height of political malpractice to give leftists an opening to legitimately apply the label to us, to give either current followers or persuadable newcomers a reason to distrust us, or to lead followers astray by giving excessive credit to a crank like Paul, Buchanan, or Jones for something they might coincidentally get right, inadvertently leading the uninitiated to be less skeptical of the mountain of things they don’t.

If there’s any silver lining to this grotesque situation, it’s that the pro-Putin sentiment is, near as I can tell, all-but nonexistent among Republicans in Congress, except for the occasional idiot freshman House gadfly (this lack of elected support, naturally, has provoked all sorts of ranting on social media about the “neocon” boogeyman). Of course, aside from a few radio hosts like Dennis Prager and Mark Levin, there’s also no real concerted effort to stand up to this poison, untangle the years of confusion and negligence that led up to it, and reassert a sane, conservative approach to foreign policy.

Sadly, history suggests that paradigm shifts in how we approach the world beyond our borders tend not to come unless forced by dramatic tragedies. I pray that is not the case this time.

David French Unwittingly Demonstrates Why Conservatism Has Conserved So Little

Whether one considers Donald Trump a flawed partner or existential threat to conservatism depends largely on how one saw our situation before he came along. Most Trump voters were under no illusions about pre-Trump Republicans being honorable men or effective conservatives, while most NeverTrumpers cast 45 as deviating from a principled, competent—and fictitious—national GOP tradition.

National Review’s David French perfectly demonstrated that disconnect last month with a less-than-reassuring attempt to answer, “Before Trump, What Did Conservatism Conserve?” He opens by sharing a tweet he wrote the week before:

Scratch the surface, and this isn’t much of a comparison—the 2002 born-alive law sailed through Congress unopposed in a very different time, the partial-birth abortion ban stops less than 1% of annual abortions, Bush-appointed judges are hardly guaranteed to be originalists (Exhibit A: the disgraceful John Roberts), and Trump reinstated Mexico City too. Bush also made no serious effort to defund Planned Parenthood domestically.

Yes, state-level heroes have meaningfully reduced abortions. But national Republicans clearly don’t share their commitment, states can only do so much under Roe v. Wade, and for all our efforts, public opinion remains roughly tied between “pro-life” and “pro-choice” (with infanticide in the news, Marist did find an encouraging spike towards life, but whether it represents a lasting change remains to be seen).

Bush’s abortion record—delivering easy stuff, resisting some leftist extremes, but doing almost nothing to advance the main objective—is the same pattern we see on issue after issue, despite French’s efforts to convince us otherwise.

He shows impressive progress on gun laws, right to work, charter school attendance, homeschooling, judicial wins on free speech and religious liberty, and various leftist policies Barack Obama didn’t enact. But behind each example lies a deeper, unaddressed threat.

Policy wins can be reversed by a judiciary we’ve done nothing to rein in. Conservatives’ kids exiting public schools doesn’t address the indoctrination of the millions who stay, then go to even worse college (especially when people like French attack those conservatives who are working to expose fanatical leftist professors). The primary threat to free speech today isn’t government; it’s tech companies stacking debates and suppressing ideas. Preventing bad legislation is small comfort as Democrats increasingly turn to courts and bureaucracy to achieve their ends.

And looming over all of it is how little we’ve done to get immigration under control and stop Democrats from using it to permanently transform the electorate.

But foreign policy is where French’s straw-grasping is most obvious:

Has there ever been a great-power conflict whose end was handled as deftly as the Cold War’s? And as for all the hate piled on George W. Bush, his critics ignore two huge accomplishments: a foreign-aid program to combat AIDS in Africa that may be one of the most life-saving foreign-policy initiatives in all of human history, and an effective post-9/11 defense of America from large-scale jihadist attack.

I don’t know what’s sadder: French suggesting that most dissatisfied conservatives include Ronald Reagan (amnesty mistake aside) in their indictment of the GOP, or resorting to citing foreign-aid spending in what started out as a showcase of conservatism. (Whatever one thinks of Bush’s AIDS program, it’s no more indicative of a specifically-conservative agenda than presidents declaring holidays or dispatching disaster-relief efforts.)

More importantly, while French is right about post-9/11 terror prevention, that’s only half of Bush’s foreign policy legacy.

43 was right to topple Saddam Hussein, but by failing to clearly articulate the occupation’s purpose and refusing to commit enough troops until death tolls forced the 2007 surge (among other misjudgments), Bush did more than just preside over needless loss of life, provoke a Democrat congressional sweep, and pave Obama’s path to the White House. He left the Right more fractured and confused than on any other issue, torn between hawks putting too little thought into our “allies” and objectives in the Middle East, and reflexive non-interventionists echoing Code Pink-esque “warmonger” rhetoric.

We know the GOP isn’t a conservative party, but the problem runs so much deeper than that. By and large, conservative thought leaders and activists have neglected to hold Republicans accountable for failure and betrayal, treated candidate selection and vetting like a game, let countless maladies fester while doing little more than complaining in echo chambers, and repeatedly defined down expectations for what we can achieve.

Alas, Donald Trump isn’t the answer to those problems, but he’s not the source, either. Trump never would’ve become president if conservatism had been successfully conserving life, liberty, and prosperity, and until elites can be honest about that, the base will keep searching for champions beyond the “respectable” bench that swampcons keep asking us to settle for.