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.

Goldberg & Hayes Dispatch Any Pretense of Taking Swamp Conservatives Seriously

NOTE: The following was originally written for publication at another website. As such some of the particular examples may no longer be timely, but I am presenting it here in its original, uncut form because its arguments remain relevant and its information remains useful.

In October, nominally-conservative media veterans Jonah Goldberg and Steve Hayes relieved months of mild curiosity by unveiling The Dispatch, a new media venture that bills itself as an alternative to a “conservative media complex increasingly invested in a strategy of polarization and demonization of Blue America” – or, as Goldberg said in March, a right-of-center information source readers “won’t be embarrassed to invoke when speaking to liberal relatives around the dinner table.”

Not exactly standing athwart history yelling “stop,” is it?

It’s still unclear how many paying customers they expect to attract to what sounds essentially like a Diet Bulwark (perhaps they instead plan to survive on periodic $6 million infusions of swamp welfare), but the announcement takes pains to profess The Dispatch’s commitment to “honesty and charity” in “fact-based commentary” characterized by “more deliberation.” That sounds nice; too bad they don’t mean it.

Previously one half of the leadership team that destroyed The Weekly Standard (partly by playing Captain Ahab to Donald Trump’s Moby Dick), Hayes is hardly a stickler for journalistic integrity, as demonstrated when TWS ran a falsehood-ridden piece on FISAgate written by a former attorney for Senate Democrats—without identifying her as such. A few weeks back, Hayes helpfully gave readers another example of what passes for “principled journalis[m]” in his eyes when he applied the label to former Fox anchor Shepard Smith—a smarmy liberal known for spouting demagoguery on everything from Chick-fil-A to voter ID, last seen throwing a hissy fit over a Fox guest who didn’t think much of 9/11 Truther Andrew Napolitano’s legal analysis (the fiction of Smith’s “commitment to facts” also made The Dispatch’s October 14 edition).

Nor are “honesty and charity” serious priorities for David French, who surprisingly decided to leave behind the absolute job security of National Review (where Rich Lowry looked the other way no matter how many Christians he demonized, lies he pushed, and columns of his Andy McCarthy had to correct) for this ultra-niche vanity project of questionable viability. Also onboard are Andrew Egger and Rachael Larimore, two Weekly Standard survivors who followed Bill Kristol to The Bulwark, and who’ve also displayed a striking indifference toward the accuracy of what they write.

And then there’s Goldberg, who never met an argument he couldn’t straw-man. Those who’ve been paying attention know that Jonah’s toxic brew of thin skin, intellectual dishonesty, and simple laziness are less-than-ideal qualities for an editor-in-chief, with his October 4 column perfectly encapsulating his trademark unseriousness for the uninitiated.

After nearly 400 words about blind devotion to Soviet dictators (because padding his work with historical or philosophical asides is how he tricks rubes into thinking they’re reading something deep), Goldberg argues that Trump has a similar “cult of personality,” complete with its own “doctrine of infallibility.”

Certainly, there are plenty of hacks who blame others for Trump’s failures, insist his screw-ups are secretly-brilliant chess moves, and so on. But contrary to the impression #NeverTrumpers constantly paint, the existence of fanboys and apologists is hardly a new or distinctly Trumpian phenomenon (a lesson I learned the first time I saw someone unironically wear a “Trent Lott for President” T-shirt, many moons ago).

As would be unnecessary to explain in a conversation consisting of competent adults acting in good faith, the battle lines in the Right’s Trump debates are far more complicated than sycophants vs. haters. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Jim Jordan, and Josh Hawley have all dissented from Trump on policy. The Federalist’s Sean Davis speaks out as harshly as anyone when Trump crosses the Second Amendment. Conservative Review regularly eviscerates Trump’s failures on spending, crime, and more. Hell, Ann Coulter is the country’s most relentless critic of Trump’s mishandling of his central campaign promise.

So when pundits and politicians defend Trump on particular questions, it simply doesn’t cut it to respond by snarking that they’ve “bent the knee” or want every conservative to become a “throne-sniffer.” Nor should Goldberg get away with using the specter of hero-worship as a pretext to straw-man the entire Ukraine debate:

Just this week, the same people who insisted that Trump would never collude with a foreign nation for his political interest are now defending collusion with a foreign nation for his political interest.

I don’t know who said “Trump would never collude,” but there’s obviously no contradiction between rejecting the false claim that Trump conspired with the Kremlin to win an election, and belief that the Ukraine call isn’t worth the hysteria that followed it. Goldberg handles a lot of the heavy lifting here by playing fast and loose with the word “collusion,” but as Andy McCarthy explained to him over a year ago(!), collusion in the context of Russiagate referred to a theoretical “agreement between two or more people to commit a crime,” not merely to seeking information or cooperation (or even to a dreaded “quid pro quo”).

The people who turn crimson with rage when you point out Trump’s decades of corrupt business practices now insist his only interest in the Bidens is his concern about corruption.

Hunter Biden’s gig and his father’s actions are so obviously suspicious that #NeverTrumpers know they’d have an uphill battle trying to sell normal people on the idea that it was unreasonable to ask about them. So they instead hope to coast on general distaste for Trump’s character—without even trying to explain why it isn’t also in the nation’s interests to confirm whether a potential future president is the type to abuse government power to shield relatives from the law.

They say it’s outrageous that Biden’s son sat on the board of a Ukrainian company when Biden was vice president, but they also say it’s fine to have a daughter and son-in-law duo running vast swaths of foreign and domestic policy while also making a fortune from their business interests around the world.

More observant readers than The Dispatch’s target audience may find themselves asking, hold on, when was the Trump administration accused of trying to oust a prosecutor looking at Trump’s kids? That’s a good question; an even better one is how Goldberg justifies pretending not to know that vast swaths of the MAGA Right absolutely detest Ivanka and Jared as blights on Trump’s presidency they’d jettison in a heartbeat.

Enemies are sinful or decadent when they lie or cheat on their wives, but who are you to judge Comrade Trump?

Note well how the peddlers of this double-standard—and every other argument Goldberg attributes to Trumpists—are neither named nor quoted anywhere in his column. Those who paid attention in their high-school writing classes or debate clubs likely remember that supporting one’s claims with examples and engaging the strongest version of the actual argument on the table are fairly basic concepts…but that sort of thing takes effort, and Goldberg tends to find generalities and caricature more conducive to his favored narratives anyway. That way he can string together versions of things different people are saying to cast some monolithic group as mindless, partisan hypocrites, with various outright misrepresentations sprinkled throughout.

That’s great for feeding preexisting distaste of a particular out-group among one’s clique, but fails to meet any minimum threshold of credible argument. Of course, that’s only a problem if you’re actually trying to win arguments, whereas Goldberg—just like scores of writers at The Bulwark, National Review, Commentary, the Washington Examiner, and elsewhere—is simply out to reinforce a like-minded audience’s shared biases (all without so much as a twinge of irony to interfere with his periodic lectures on the perils of tribalism).

So it’s no surprise that, despite Hayes originally pitching The Dispatch as “more ‘beyond Trump’ than ‘anti-Trump,’” the publication’s first month was defined largely by impeachment-mania, salivating over various prepared statements released by Democrats while displaying far less curiosity about the dissection of those statements behind closed doors.

Nor should we be shocked by its more cavalier approach to questions of integrity and seriousness not related to Trump, from a Republican senator’s use of a fake online persona not only to promote himself but to endorse personal attacks he’d never make under his own name (just “something fun”), to a basketball star complaining that an associate “harmed” safe, comfortable athletes by speaking out for human rights in Hong Kong (not even worth a mention as French gushes over the “great athleticism” of “the GOAT”), to the farce of putting forth ex-Paul Ryan personnel as any sort of authority on “thoughtful legislating.”

If “character is destiny,” then no amount of swamp welfare will be enough to secure Team Dispatch’s future.