Russia Is White, Right? Why Some Republicans Are Obsessed With the Kremlin

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Ann Coulter addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, February 12, 2011. Robert Reich writes that free speech is what universities are all about. If universities don’t do everything possible to foster and protect it, they aren’t universities. They’re playpens. Jonathan Ernst/reuters

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” Four years later, he stood in Berlin and thundered at Mikhail Gorbachev: “Tear down this wall!” Of the many reasons Reagan has become a hero of the Republican Party, his willingness to face down the USSR may have been most responsible in the creation of that myth.

Thirty years later, however, the malignant vestiges of that empire—that is, Russia presided over by former KGB operative Vladimir V. Putin and his kleptocratic cronies—have become an object of profound and inexplicable affection for the Republican Party.

Or maybe not so inexplicable. A pithy exchange on Twitter (where else?) between right-wing provocateur Ann Coulter and Jason Kander, a Democratic politician from Missouri, may have explained in all of 16 words exactly why so many Republicans would look longingly toward a despotic nation beset by a lackluster mono-resource economy, an ill and aging population, a rampant heroin epidemic and a deteriorating infrastructure, not to mention opprobrium from much of the West for its human rights violations at home and support of despots abroad.

The notion that the right’s love affair with Russia is predicated on a racial fantasy is not exactly new, though it has rarely been so succinctly expressed.  Earlier this year, Casey Michel explained in Politico how Russia’s strategic support of nationalist and Christian fundamentalist movements had put it at “the helm of the global Christian right”:

Not only have Russian banks funded groups like France’s National Front, but Moscow has hosted international conferences on everything from neo-Nazi networking to domestic secessionists attempting to rupture the U.S. Meanwhile, American fundamentalists bent on unwinding minority protections in the U.S. have increasingly leaned on Russia for support—and for a model they’d bring to bear back home, from targeting LGBT communities to undoing abortion rights throughout the country.

Whiteness, then, is not merely a description of skin color, though it is certainly that. Rather, it is a broader vision of a theocratic society that shuns political correctness, rejects inclusivity in all its forms, erases the separation between church and state, favors expressions of corporate and military might, shuns environmentalist policies, and tolerates no dissent, especially from a limp-wristed press.

It’s no surprise that, during his campaign for president, Donald J. Trump frequently praised Putin. In 2014, he tweeted, “I believe Putin will continue to re-build the Russian Empire. He has zero respect for Obama or the U.S.!” That same year, he said that “Russia is, like, I mean, they’re really hot stuff” at an event in New Hampshire. During the presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly praised Putin’s supposed toughness, which he contrasted to the “weakness” of President Barack Obama, whom he frequently branded the laughingstock of the Kremlin.

More remarkable than Trump’s embrace of Russia is the fact that so many Republicans have decided to mimic his approach. Earlier this year, a Gallup poll found that the share of Republicans who had a favorable view of Putin was “up sharply” from 2015, nearly tripling from 12 percent to 32 percent. By contrast, Democrats, who’d never liked the glum Russian leader much to begin with, liked him even less in 2017 (10 percent favorability) than they did in 2015 (15 percent).

How much does the vision of a nationalist, autocratic state have to do with this affection? Well, it’s simply hard to see any other reason for the American right to embrace a longstanding adversary that shares virtually none of the values outlined by the U.S. Constitution. Not only that, but the Russian economy is based on resource extraction, petroleum especially, and has an astonishing lack of innovation. Its life expectancy is only 70, in good part because alcoholism remains rampant, especially among men. This path is plainly not where American greatness lies.  

Not only that, but Coulter’s vision of a white Russia is predicated on myth, perhaps stemming from Putin’s vicious approach to Chechnya and its Muslim population or his cynical embrace of the Russian Orthodox Church. The irony is that Russia is not nearly as white as Coulter apparently wanted her Twitter followers to believe. Its ethnic population is 81 percent Russian; in comparison, Germany, the Western country that has been most open to welcoming refugees from Syria and elsewhere, is 91 percent German.

Russia’s relative diversity should not be not surprising, given that the nation is generally considered Eurasian, not European, as it straddles both Asia and Europe, bordering both Japan and Finland. It is possible Coulter was not aware of that distinction when she sent her tweet.

Moreover, demographics actually point to Russia becoming less white, not more. The Russia expert Paul Goble recently wrote that “the share of ethnic Russians in the population, as a result of falling birthrates and still high death rates among working age males, will continue to fall, changing the country’s ethnic mix significantly, especially in some important regions.” If the population of Russia remains stable or grows, it will be because, Goble posits, “of massive immigration from Central Asia and the Caucasus and still high birthrates and relatively low death rates among the traditionally Muslim nationalities of Russia itself.”

In other words, Coulter’s tweet wasn’t just subtly racist but certifiably untrue. That, of course, is unlikely to change the mind of the right-wing flame-thrower, who has known to take an especially hard-line stance on immigration, in particular from Latin America. Earlier this spring, when Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico was on the cusp of becoming just another abandoned campaign promise, Coulter wrote on Breitbart, “Not only Trump, but also the entire GOP, is dead if he doesn’t build a wall.”