“He’s a Kremlin puppet!” has been a clarion call for those rallying to stop U.S. presidential hopeful Donald Trump.
But his public pro-Putin positions, and a few unfounded Kremlin links thrown in by his detractors, haven’t hurt Trump in the polls. And he’s not alone. Similar charges have been thrown at the successful campaign to leave the European Union and at right-wing movements gaining traction in Europe.
So is accusing your opponent of being Putin’s pal a good strategy? What if accusing someone of colluding with the Kremlin actually helps their cause?
Imagine, for a moment, you are the leader of an “anti-establishment” political movement. You thrill your followers by sticking it to the “liberal elites” and the “global order.” There’s nothing more “anti-establishment” than showing two fingers to such elite, aloof projects as NATO or the EU, and giving props to the man who wants to undermine them — Vladimir Putin.
What better way to milk the outrage of the “liberal” media than by siding with a Kremlin that has made attacking “liberal values” its motto? And wouldn’t you welcome attacks from liberal elites for associating you with the sort of disruption you wish to emulate?
For the “anti-establishment” Right, giving Putin the thumbs-up has become the equivalent of what pulling on a Che T-shirt has long meant for the Left.
In April’s Dutch referendum on the EU’s association agreement with Ukraine, leaders of the anti-immigrant, anti-EU movement gleefully used Kremlin disinformation to smear Ukraine as “fascist” and downplay Russia’s role in the Ukrainian conflict. Liberals accused them of being the Kremlin’s useful idiots — and lost. Voters didn’t care about Putin. They were concerned about immigration and the economy. If anything, they saw the Russian leader’s anti-EU stance as an echo of their own.
In the U.K. referendum on leaving the EU, the Remain campaign played up how delighted Putin would be by an Out vote. Brexiteers portrayed the effort as part of the global elite’s’ attempt to distract the electorate from Brexiteers’ real concerns — again, immigration and the economy.
Arron Banks, the millionaire funder of the Leave campaign, and former UKIP Leader Nigel Farage have been out and proud in their admiration for Putin and his foreign policies.
When Donald Trump was attacked for being too close to Putin, his response was to ask the Kremlin to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails. He doesn’t hide his admiration of Putin; he advertises it. His bet seems to be that because Russia doesn’t take away American jobs, and because his supporters aren’t as viscerally threatened by Russia as they are by Islamic terrorism or immigration from Mexico, playing footsie with the Kremlin won’t feel like betraying America.
Being pro-Moscow, or at least deviating strongly from the establishment in his attitude to Moscow, is a fantastic raspberry to blow at the Beltway. For a candidate whose tactic is to be outrageous and break taboos, here is another one.
No new right-wing politician has been quite as brazen in her backing of Putin as Marine Le Pen, leader of the anti-immigrant National Front in France. When it first transpired two years ago that the National Front was funded to the tune of €11 million by a small Russian bank close to Putin’s closest allies, you would be excused for thinking it would spell the end of Le Pen’s career. She is still soaring in the polls.
Le Pen has openly supported ending sanctions against Russia. National Front delegates monitor and applaud Putin’s referendums — referendums rejected by global institutions — that validate his foreign conquests. Le Pen has asked Russia for another €27 million. Her voters just don’t care.
There is nothing particularly “covert” in these relationships: They appear to work best if they are brazenly overt. The very point is to advertise your Putin sympathies.
The 20th century language of secrets, spies, agents and conspiracies worked when the Kremlin was the official enemy and it was considered treachery to get in bed with it. But in our highly networked era, simple notions of “ally” and “enemy” are being replaced with weird webs of non-linear interconnections.
In these looking glass games, those who try to undermine the Trumps and Le Pens of this world by accusing them of being too close to the Kremlin risk merely doing them a favor.