American conservatism has fragmented since 1991. It now looks very little like the movement presided over by Ronald Reagan.
One of these factions seems to be pro-Russian and views Russian President Vladimir Putin favorably. You can see this in Donald Trump’s speech on national security. He explicitly invited Russia to fight Islamist terrorism together. This is a shift.
Today this faction does not see Russia as a strategic or moral threat to the US, but rather as a potential ally.
Terrorism fears have replaced the threat of Russia
There is a saying: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. For conservatives, the threat of Russian power seems distant. But, the threat of Islamic terrorism seems near. As such, their moral objection to communism has shifted to the Islamic world.
These conservatives see Russia as a nation that faced the Islamic threat inside its own borders. The Russians fought Muslim separatists in Chechnya years before 9/11.
They see Putin a man who has already fought the enemy. When he came to power in 2000, he ruthlessly renewed that war and mostly brought peace to the region. Him being an authoritarian who restrains freedom is seen as a mark of his strength.
For this faction, the world is a dangerous place. Strength is the core of doing the right thing.If that means fewer freedoms, then it is the price that has to be paid for safety.
Conservatives’ nationalism attracts them to Putin
These conservatives are nationalists. What matters to them is protecting the US and its obvious interests, like safety and jobs. Like Trump, they can see Russia as a friend and oppose NATO or NAFTA. This group rejects the internationalist faction in both parties that would give up national interests.
A “Nationalist International” is emerging around the globe. It is made up of nations that are not ashamed of putting the interests of their own countries above others. These countries see international cooperation as a tool, not a principle. This is true for Russia. And it is what attracts conservatives to Putin.
Putin is neither a communist nor a liberal. He is a nationalist who restored Russia from the disaster of Boris Yeltsin. He brought back its pride. This faction respects him for that and long for someone as clear as they think he is.
The problem with this view is obvious. A Nationalist International is a contradiction in terms. Putin is certainly a nationalist. But that does not mean he defines the national interest of Russia without seeing the US as a threat.
This movement might signal a shift in the US’ foreign policy
As long as there is a clear enemy, this conservative movement is coherent. The enemy defines it. How would this faction define the national interest without an enemy?
There are contradictions and ambiguities in this faction’s views. This is quite reasonable. I don’t know of any political movement built around ideology that doesn’t have this issue. The nationalist conservatives are no more confused than any of us.
And, they are a significant faction in the United States. This is actually the old Reagan coalition.
If this were a more coherent time, this faction could gather a large following. It would range from unionists (scared that their jobs might go to China) to people afraid of terror and the perceived weakness of liberalism.
But this is a time of fragmentation where the presidential candidates are disliked by most. Coalitions don’t form in these times.
We can see some elements of future coalitions, though. The affection of some conservatives for Vladimir Putin is of great note. It is not because much will come of it, but because it points to the direction that the US might move in the coming decade.
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