Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has destroyed entire cities, ripped almost five million refugees from their homes, killed tens of thousands of people, fundamentally reoriented Europe’s security architecture, and revealed that the era of great power competition isn’t just still with us – it continues to pose an existential threat to millions of people.
But despite the tectonic implications of the war, many American commentators on the populist right have been busily figuring out ways to filter their analysis of the conflict through their own petty, personal and provincial political fixations.
"Has Putin ever called me a racist?" Tucker Carlson asked on the eve of the most devastating conflict in Europe since World War II. "Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him?"
This isn’t just a symptom of the mindless polarization that continues to warp our politics – it’s a disturbing reminder that the commitment to basic liberal democratic principles is increasingly tenuous (or nonexistent) among powerful political factions in the United States.
Carlson is the most popular cable news host in America, and he has spent years using his massive platform to flatter autocratic governments like Russia while expressing bitter contempt for democracies like Ukraine. "Why do I care what’s going on in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia?" Carlson demanded to know during a segment in 2019. "I’m serious. And why shouldn’t I root for Russia? Which I am."
On March 21, Carlson described Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who was elected with 73 percent of the vote in 2019, as a "dictator." On February 23, in response to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s observation that Russian aggression toward Ukraine is "our Sudetenland," he informed viewers that "technically, it was Russia that fought the Nazis and, more than any other country, beat them. Just saying. While it was Ukraine that collaborated with the Nazis." There’s a reason Carlson’s nightly rants have become a fixture on Russian propaganda outlets.
Carlson occasionally offers perfunctory criticism of the invasion, but the broad sweep of his narrative couldn’t be clearer: the United States’ high-minded notions about defending democracy in Ukraine amount to little more than warmongering propaganda. And personally, he’s happy to express his perfect indifference. Carlson says he isn’t "anti-Ukraine or pro-Russia." Rather, he’s "agnostic on both – don’t live in either country, don’t plan to, don’t care to. So it’s not a matter of preferring one over the other."
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As Russian artillery levels Ukrainian cities and the evidence of atrocities in places like Bucha accumulates, is there any point at which Carlson would consider tilting his "preference" toward Ukraine’s fight for survival over Putin’s imperial invasion? What will he say if even greater horrors are uncovered in Mariupol or visited upon Ukraine in the future?
In his last monologue before the full invasion began (Putin had already declared Donetsk and Luhansk "independent" and deployed forces to Eastern Ukraine), Carlson insisted that Americans share his apathy about the Ukraine’s fate:
"If you listen to Mitch McConnell, the leader of the Republicans in the Senate, you would think that what the average, say, welder back in his home state of Kentucky really wants, more than a pay raise or an affordable vacation or decent schools for his children…is an end to Russian aggression against the brave people of Eastern Ukraine. And that’s why if you go to any dollar store in the state…you’ll find what they used to call regular folks muttering bitterly about that damn Vladimir Putin."
Carlson added that "regular" Kentucky folks are unmoved by lofty nonsense about defending democracy in Ukraine: "Of course it’s possible – we haven’t run a poll or anything – that some in Kentucky, and in fact about 49 other states, might be wondering tonight about gas prices."
Perhaps Carlson should go ahead and run that poll – if he did, he would discover that his condescending lecture about the insularity and ignorance of "average" Americans hasn’t aged well.
According to a recent survey conducted by CBS News and YouGov, 72 percent of Americans say the United States should send weapons to Ukraine, three-quarters percent want to maintain or increase economic sanctions on Russia , and 63 percent believe U.S. troops should be deployed to protect NATO allies. Significant majorities would even support direct American military action in Ukraine if Russia attacked a NATO country (69 percent), used nuclear weapons (68 percent), or used chemical weapons (61 percent).
Carlson may want to note that respondents who describe themselves as conservatives are broadly in favor of supporting Ukraine as well: 72 percent say the U.S. should send weapons and supplies, while 77 percent believe in sanctions. Among the conservatives who believe Ukraine matters to American interests, more than 80 percent say it’s necessary to stop Russian aggression, protect the lives of the Ukrainian people, and defend America's NATO allies.
Like the rest of the country, substantial majorities of conservatives think the U.S. should take direct military action if Russia attacks a NATO country (70 percent), uses nuclear weapons (69 percent), or uses chemical weapons (61 percent).
But no matter to Carlson, self-appointed spokesman for millions of silent Americans, who mocks the idea that U.S. assistance to Ukraine defends democracy, arguing it "subverts" the meaning of the word – after all, he believes the country isn’t a democracy at all. When he isn’t describing Ukraine as a dictatorship, he’s dismissing it as a "State Department client state."
With Russia's invasion imminent, Carlson lamented the fact that "not a single Republican leader has stood up to point out how insane all of this is and how completely divorced it is from anything that American voters actually care about." But it turns out that American voters do, in fact, care about helping a besieged democracy defend itself from the most horrifying episode of imperial violence this century.
Indeed, despite the sneering obscurantism and apologetics of "populists" like Carlson, most Americans have the moral clarity and common sense to recognize what’s happening in Ukraine: a sustained assault on democracy prosecuted by a resentful and retrograde autocracy.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a hinge moment for the liberal democratic world, and has triggered a once-in-a-generation unity around the principles of democracy and self-determination, and the punishment of Russia's infractions. But there is also a parallel axis of nationalist authoritarians who are sympathetic to Putin and eager to undermine the democratic solidarity that has solidified since the invasion of Ukraine.
Carlson is an isolationist demagogue who doesn’t believe the United States has any business supporting Ukraine. In fact, he doesn’t even believe Washington should support its NATO allies: "Why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack?" he asked President Trump in July 2018, to which Trump responded: "I understand what you’re saying. I’ve asked the same question." Trump has never understood the point of NATO, and he even told aides that he wanted to take the U.S. out.
Trump remains the frontrunner for the 2024 GOP nomination: He will always be an "America First" nationalist and self-obsessed opportunist who’s more concerned about his own political prospects than the maintenance of democratic alliances in the face of authoritarian aggression. And let's not forget, his first impeachment was for withholding military assistance, authorized by Congress, to Ukraine.
Trump’s indiscretions aside, the real threat he poses (along Carlson and other media enablers) is ideological. Trump wanted to exit NATO because he has bottomless contempt for the postwar international order that liberal democratic countries have built and maintained since WWII.
That's why earlier this year he endorsed Viktor Orbán, a fellow nationalist authoritarian who proudly describes his vision for Hungary as an "illiberal" democracy. Carlson, too, is obsessed with Hungary, from where he has taken to broadcasting and about which he has produced a hagiographic documentary presenting it as the defender of Western civilization against marauding "globalists" like George Soros.
As in 2014, when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, Hungary has only grudgingly signed onto sanctions against Moscow under overwhelming pressure from the EU, refuses to arm Ukraine or block Russian oil and gas exports.
When Orbán won a fourth term, he criticized the EU and Zelenskyy in his acceptance speech while Putin congratulated him, saying he looked forward to the "further development of bilateral ties of partnership." If Trump is elected in 2024, Orban won’t have to worry about what Brussels thinks – he’ll be free to resume his attacks on NATO and reaffirm his place in the transatlantic pro-Putin populist posse.
At a time when Americans, including conservatives, can see the global struggle between autocracy and democracy so clearly, it is both perverse and perilous that the country's most influential media figures and politicians are demagogues who have always been on the wrong side of that struggle.
Matt Johnson has written for Stanford Social Innovation Review, Quillette, The Bulwark, RealClearDefense, and many other outlets. Twitter: @mattjj89