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Why Putin keeps winning the ideological war

16 December 2016

8:26 AM

16 December 2016

8:26 AM

I have no idea whether Russia successfully interfered in the US election; I imagine it’s one of those situations where everyone is lying but the Russians are lying twice as much. But there are a couple of questions that no one seems to be asking, which makes me curious.

Firstly, how could America have got to a stage where an outside, not very friendly power could influence the course of an election? Would this have been possible in the 1950s or 1980s, for example? It seems extremely unlikely.

America’s founding fathers were quite vehement on the subject of foreign influence in US politics, which they thought would lead to corruption – and with good reason. It’s why Hilary Clinton’s links to oil-rich Gulf states such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia rightly made her seem untrustworthy to American voters. Those countries are at best America’s frenemies, and though that part of the Arabian world is slowly moving in the right direction (while the Levant burns) their interests are not the same as the American people’s.

But what about Russia, which is hardly a friend either? I’m slightly sceptical about some of the claims made about their influence, which suggest an almost supernatural ability to direct western voters; we seem to be venturing into the realm of conspiracy theory here. But who knows anymore?

It’s more plausible that Russian hackers helped the Republican party win last month’s election, but Russia’s influence would be minimal without the tacit support or sympathy of one US party.

That in itself is surely a warning light, since outside forces are only able to interfere in critically divided political systems; look at the poor Syrians for an extreme example. Hostile foreign intervention just would not have been possible in the post-war period, because the things that united Americans were far stronger than party politics. Isn’t it possible that America’s growing partisan divide makes foreign influence far easier and more likely in future?

Another question no one seems to ask is that, if Putin is nefariously getting involved in western politics, why do the pro-Putin candidates always seem to win? Open hostility to Russia seems to be politically damaging right now, and this despite the Putin regime conducting a war in a European country, not to mention various human rights abuses at home.

I have to say I’m baffled by the hard Left’s support for Russia, which seems entirely motivated by the idea that my nation’s enemy is my friend; reactionary sympathy at least makes logical sense, since Russia has historically been a force for reaction, with 1917-2000 being a blip. But when so much of the western political class is hostile to the country, and see it as a sort of existential enemy, it’s curious that this gathers so little support from the population. I suspect it’s partly that some see this as a sort of cold war between multiculturalism and sovereignty, in which case Russia’s political barbarism is not much worse than the west’s decadence. (Sure, decadence is a lot nicer to live under, but it’s not something our grandchildren will thank us for.)

I also suspect that Putin grasps an essential part of human nature better than his western opponents, namely the need for a heroic narrative. Fifty years ago the leader of a much stronger United States demanded that people ask not what their country does for them but what they can do for their country; now politicians talk only in the language of equality on the left or ‘hard-working families’ on the right. It’s dreary, and people, especially men, need to believe their life has some sort of greater meaning. To westerners, who have gone through Freud and irony, Putin’s macho poses look intrinsically ridiculous, but maybe on an underlying level his appeal to heroism works; in particular Russian talk of a crusade to destroy Islamism, when the US president can barely admit Islamism exists.

Until westerners understand why Putin keeps on winning, they are surely going to search for ever more complex and unlikely explanations, which strikes me as something of a psychological victory for the Russians.

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