Why conservatives have split on Russia

Partly, they’re aping Trump. But there’s something deeper at work. Ideological conservatives loathe Putin because he represents an authoritarian challenge to the American-backed order in Europe and the Middle East. But many civilizational conservatives, who once opposed the Soviet Union because of its atheism, now view Putin’s Russia as Christianity’s front line against the new civilizational enemy: Islam. Among the alt-right, Putin is a very popular man. He’s popular because he resists the liberal, cosmopolitan values that Muslims supposedly exploit to undermine the West. Richard Spencer, who was until recently married to a pro-Putin Russian writer, has called Russia the “sole white power in the world.” Matthew Heimbach, another prominent figure in the alt-right, recently told Business Insider that “Russia is the leader of the free world.” In 2013, Pat Buchanan penned a column entitled, “Is Vladimir Putin a paleoconservative? In the culture war for mankind’s future, is he one of us?”

Trump is building on this shift to recast GOP foreign policy. He’s moving it away from an ideological confrontation with authoritarian Russia and toward a civilizational conflict with Islam. Trump’s choice for National Security Advisor, General Michael Flynn, has tweeted that “fear of Muslims is rational” and that Islam is “like cancer” When asked in August about Putin, he explained that America “beat Hitler because of our relationship with the Russians” and we should renew that partnership in the new world war against “radical Islamism.” Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, likes to talk about the “long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam … a war of immense proportions” that continues to this day. And in that struggle, he’s argued, “we the Judeo-Christian West really have to look at what he’s [Putin] talking about as far as traditionalism goes—particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism.” Unlike the globalists of the European Union, Bannon argues, Putin believes in “sovereignty,” which makes him a valuable ally in America’s civilizational fight.