The Danger of Our Idiocy
What happens when the culture war collides with real war.
The right-wing provocateur Candace Owens recently tweeted to her three million followers that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was “a very bad character who is working with globalists against the interest of his own people.” Tucker Carlson, the most influential conservative in America, has been called “essential” viewing material by Russian propagandists. Republican Rep. Madison Cawthorn, from North Carolina, called the Ukrainian government “evil.” And Donald Trump praised Vladimir Putin’s “genius” and “savvy.”
Meanwhile, the ladies of The View called on the Justice Department to investigate Carlson and former Democratic congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard for pushing Kremlin “propaganda” about the United States building bio labs in Ukraine. Keith Olbermann dubbed Carlson and Gabbard “Russian assets”—and suggested they be arrested. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, who runs the House Democrats’ reelection committee, said this month, “‘We’re Zelensky Democrats. And they’re Putin Republicans’ would be my bumper sticker.”
None of this was an argument about Russia or Ukraine or what the United States should do to stop the bloodshed or further the national interest. It was a match of molten word-bombs in which everyone spoke in tongues. It was unbelievably stupid.
You could trace the stupid to the former Soviet Union, which I’d spent much of the first decade of this century living in and reporting on. There was something about Russia that resonated with the American right. They thought it was the last redoubt of white, Christian civilization, which was a joke. As the novelist Vladimir Voinovich once told me: “During Soviet times, everyone was a communist, and there were no communists. Today, everyone is a Christian, and there are no Christians.” That didn’t matter. It was a powerful myth.
One story: In December 2007, I spent three days in Kiev—at the time, pretty much everyone spelled it Kiev—with several American men looking for Russian brides. Technically, they were looking for Ukrainian brides, but it was all the same to the Americans, who included three Larry’s, a Jack, a James and a guy named Ty Cobb who told me he’d been a professional football player. (That was a lie.) I told them I was with GQ, and I wanted to write an article about them. (That was not a lie.) They were with a tour group called First Dream, which was led by another Jack, Jack Bragg, a large, garrulous man from Dallas who was “on his third or fourth Natasha,” as his translator put it.
The reason they had come to Kiev, Bragg said, was that the women in Moscow and St. Petersburg had gotten uppity. If you wanted to find love, you had to go where the girls were still really poor. They weren’t that poor in Kiev, but they were poor-adjacent. The next stop on the tour was a village an hour south of the capital. “That’s where they get pretty desperate,” Jack explained.
Most of the Americans had never been to the former Soviet Union, but they seemed to know a lot about it: They thought that the men were manly and that the women were beautiful—submissive. Everyone was white. Everyone believed in God. The president was tough. They had all seen the photo of him, shirtless, fishing in a river in Siberia. They liked that he spoke in short, brusque, sentences, even if they didn’t know what they meant. He rarely smiled. He never hugged. He knew how to handle “his black people,” which was how one of the Larry’s described the Chechens.
They owned small businesses (a car wash, a tractor-repair company), they belonged to mega-churches, and they wore a great deal of cologne. They were lukewarm on W. They had a dim view of Hillary Clinton and no view of Barack Obama. They were Trump voters before there were Trump voters. They had become convinced that America was rotten, that the media, even Fox, were all liars, that you had to go far away to find a wife because American women hated makeup and were faithless sluts, which sounded like a riff on the old Catskills joke: The food is awful—and such small portions!
Mostly, they were in love with Russia. The idea of it. They had little desire to explore since they preferred the cartoon, which was like a nostalgic dreamscape sense of a place that had never existed. So when, in 2015, Donald Trump descended his gilded escalator with his Slovenian wife—again, what’s the difference?—it was like coming home. Trump was a man who didn’t hide his vulgarity. He embraced it. Like wife-hunting in Kiev.
What was impossible to see back then was that the American left would morph into the yin to this right-wing yang. That it would permit itself to become co-opted by the stupid. An equal and opposite stupid. Like a Newtonian law.
Another story, this one from my hometown: In April 2019, I was at the Paramount lot in Los Angeles to listen in on a panel discussion featuring freshmen House Democrats. A few hundred Hollywood people showed up to hear what the Democrats in D.C. were doing to save the world from imminent destruction. They mostly came in Teslas and Ubers and Tesla Ubers, and they waved at each other and texted and smiled and doomscrolled Rachel Maddow’s and Adam Schiff’s Twitter feeds. Many, not all, felt like they were on the inside, like they knew what was up. They had Nancy (Pelosi’s) cell in their cell. And they, like, knew Ted (Sarandos), the head of Netflix, and Bob (Iger), the head of Disney, and they’d chatted with Bill (Clinton) so many times. Also Hillary. Also Joe and Barack and Michelle—omg was she not The. Best?
The House Democrats came from swing districts in the middle of the country—they had flown out to raise money, to build their networks, to hobnob. They wanted to talk about healthcare and jobs and college tuition, the issues they had pounded away at on the campaign trail, the issues that had led to the Democrats’ 2018 takeover of the House. The audience, which included several fundraisers, preferred to focus on trans rights and the climate apocalypse. And Russia. There was a lot of talk about Russia.
They were convinced that Robert Mueller was wrong, or that he was lying, because Putin had obviously helped Trump. “How is this not obvious?” a woman sitting next to me said. “The Russians want Trump, which is like—Manchurian Candidate anyone?”
The Russia haters, like the Russia lovers I’d met, did not care to know much about Russia. They just knew that they hated it, and especially Putin. If it hadn’t been for Putin, everything wouldn’t be going to shit.
There was a tension in their logic: On one hand, they thought America was irredeemably racist, because it had elected Trump. On the other hand, they thought Russia was responsible for electing Trump.
Then came February 2022. The Russia haters claimed that they hated Russia because Russia had attacked Ukraine, but that was incorrect. In 2014, the last time Russia invaded Ukraine, the Russia haters were silent. In 2004, during the Orange Revolution, when Ukrainians revolted against the Russian-backed puppet regime in Kyiv—same thing. The important thing was what came in between now and eight years ago: the 2016 election. The Russophobia was an extension of our domestic politics. It was not a thoughtful hate but an automatic reaction to whatever one’s political foe said or did.
In early 2022, hating Russia, which is the flip side of loving Ukraine, is like brandishing one’s pronouns and triple-masking: it has become a way of signaling that one believed whatever one was supposed to believe right now. Tim Cook sporting the correct colors. Russian pianists barred from competition. McDonald’s pulling out of Russia. Ditto Ikea. Ditto Starbucks. Last week, an old college friend who routinely shares his favorite porno clips, blast-emailed a movie of a threesome that included a large-breasted Brazilian with a blue and gold dildo.