If there is but one lone favor Vladimir Putin is doing for the world, it’s that he’s setting an excellent bad example.
He is now the poster boy for the very worst humankind has to offer. No matter who or where you are, Putin presents you with a bright moral line, separating two crystal clear worldviews. Democracy or Autocracy.
There are no shades of gray here. You can no longer look at Putin and not know which side of the line you’re on.
Which is why it says a lot that so many Republicans can’t seem to decide.
While they might secretly cheer the wanton slaughter of entire cities, they also understand that endorsing so much carnage and death might be politically awkward, even for them.
The same conundrum is forcing them to defend democracy, which they’ve otherwise abandoned as not compatible with their ambitions, let alone those of their donors. And since the whole idea of democracy is now inextricably linked to Ukraine and the atrocities being endured there, Republicans are reluctantly sitting on their hands, afraid to say what they really think.
But make no mistake, they are smitten with the Putin model. Think of them as Putin Lite.
They love the idea of total control, of the power of life and death over other people. They dream of a world where cruelty and ruthlessness are state assets. Where there’s a brisk market for torturers and con artists. Where prisons are kept constantly filled with Blacks, immigrants, and Democrats.
They share the same basic values as Putin and, of course, Trump — male dominance, white supremacy, grand larceny — and they see Putin as the apotheosis of those values.
But more than that, Putin’s actions are showing them what’s possible. Not so much by what he’s doing to Ukraine, as what he’s doing to his own people.
They look on in envy at a Russian populace enthusiastically complicit in its own impoverishment, one that applauds its own exploitation and can be reprogrammed to applaud anything else at the flip of a switch.
They look longingly on a propaganda machine that allows no truth or factual content to intrude on any chosen narrative. They marvel at the swift and brutal retribution leveled at any form of dissent. They pray for a real police state they can call their own, a state where everyone can be kept ignorant, angry, and infinitely malleable.
These are all ideas today’s Republican party could easily stand for, if only the optics of smoldering cities and dead bodies didn't give people the wrong idea.
But this is exactly what they’ve been working toward for several decades. They’ve mercilessly hammered at the free press, and gotten only weak pushback for it. Which has let them build a propaganda platform with arguably 76 million Trump voters totally in thrall to a worldview that rewards lies and violence.
With the help of this platform, Putin wannabes are now flexing their muscles in virtually every red state. Greg Abbott in Texas. Ron DeSantis in Florida. Kristi Noem in South Dakota. Brian Kemp in Georgia. All the unbranded minor leaguers in Missouri, Tennessee, Alabama, Oklahoma, Idaho. We all have our favorites.
These are the people intent on imposing a Putinesque worldview on their constituencies. They’re particularly big on bans at the moment. Bans on books they don’t like. Bans on ideas they don’t want taught. Bans on immigrants, abortions, contraception, gay marriage, and crucial medical treatments for trans kids who have enough on their plate without their states trying to kill them.
The point of it all seems to be cruelty. They can couch it in pseudo-religious dogma or free-market ideology, but it really comes down to cruelty for its own sake.
And they have a reasonable chance of getting their way.
As hard as that would be on this country, it would be a disaster for the countries of the Atlantic alliance, which is still the only viable counterweight to Putin’s aggression. Even as it’s been reinvigorated by the invasion of Ukraine, the alliance remains heavily dependent on American power and finance to underwrite its defense.
If Trump had won in 2020, there is little doubt he’d have pulled the U.S. out of NATO and reveled in the televised destruction of Ukraine. The possibility that Putin Lite Republicans could take over Congress in ‘22 or even the presidency in ‘24, has dire implications for the alliance, and, by extension, the future of the free world.
The social democracies of Europe were rattled by four years of Trump, and they remain deeply suspicious of a country that could elect such a monster. The return to power of criminally irresponsible people with Putin-like agendas would be, to them, a horrifying betrayal.
To be fair — which they themselves never are — not all of the GOP drinks Putin Lite. Some Republican officeholders — not all, but some — were brought up to love NATO and hate Russia.
They too were offended by Trump’s belligerent ignorance of foreign affairs. They hated his tariffs. They hated his trashing of NATO and his brown-nosing of Putin. They even hated his impeachable offenses in Ukraine. They just didn’t hate those things as much as they loved his tax cuts. So much for principles.
Meanwhile, the Trump wing of the party is fully on board with all those things, and more. Trump’s “America First” crowd would gleefully tear up all our treaties, seal off the country, and watch Europe burn from an ocean away. The more cruelty the better.
To these Republicans, the Putin Lite model works brilliantly, and is in full keeping with their own worldview. Putin has done us the service of shining a bright light on them, showing us exactly who they really are, what they really stand for, and what they’re really planning.
The thought of them returning to office is nauseating at best, deadly at worst.