As Russia batters Ukraine, U.S. should worry about its own religion-imbued impulses toward authoritarianism.
In certain respects, many United States’ political and opinion leaders today are more apologists for Russian authoritarianism than defenders of American democracy.
Elite right-wing icons of both nations, emulating past fascist dictators, fetishize and selfishly wield power, ruthlessly lie to their constituencies, and hypocritically feign religious piety.
Poster children of authoritarianism: Putin and Trump
In Russia, the culprit is president Vladimir Putin, who, under a fraudulent mantle of Eastern Orthodox Christianity and a burning desire to recapture past Russian imperial glory, is currently invading neighboring Ukraine. The ruthless, illegal incursion is part of a long-view strategy to avenge and rectify the humiliating implosion of the former Soviet Union in 1991, including its loss of hegemony over a number of former Eastern Bloc countries, including now-independent Ukraine.
In the U.S., the primary culprit continues to be ex-President Donald Trump, who was handily defeated by President Joe Biden in the 2020 election but is still supported by slavish minions in the now-unrecognizable Republican Party that he conquered in a political hostile takeover. Trump has wooed and won the nation’s evangelical Christian voters, while he himself is not only amoral and depraved but craven. Like Putin, Trump continues to selfishly employ his smarmy superpower—personality-cult popularity—lying and spreading disinformation to followers and causing civic chaos while unjustly intimidating and punishing enemies.
Meanwhile, citizens in both nations who value honor, integrity, truth and the rule of law are maddeningly impotent in response—to Putin’s crimes against humanity in Ukraine and against his own people in Russia while claiming that his invasion is protecting Russian-speaking Ukrainians from genocide, and to Trump’s continuing gaslighting of the American people with the still-laughable falsehood that his 2020 re-election was somehow “stolen” due to “widespread voting fraud.”
In fact, there is no evidence that any intra-Ukrainian genocide has happened but lots of evidence that Russians are now unconscionably targeting Ukrainian noncombatants (a war crime on par with genocide). And there is no evidence that the 2020 U.S. election had any more than the normal smattering of fraud experienced during every vote, and nothing untoward that would have changed the final outcome: Trump lost, fair and square. Indeed, even Trump’s own election officials said it was “the most secure election in U.S. history.”
Putin and Trump are part of a surge in authoritarian government in the world, a growing counterweight to democratic values embodied in free republics, according to “Freedom in the World 2022,” a new report from Freedom House, which promotes global democracy:
[A]utocracy is making gains against democracy and encouraging more leaders to abandon the democratic path to security and prosperity, with countries that suffered democratic declines over the past year outnumbering those that improved by more than two to one.
Authoritarians in every region are working together to consolidate power and accelerate their attacks on democracy and human rights. Political rights and civil liberties have declined worldwide for each of the past 16 years, raising the prospect that autocracy could overtake democracy as the governance model guiding international standards of behavior.
‘Lies, damn lies and gasoline prices’
I was reminded of this disturbing trend while reading a newsletter dispatch by New York Times economic columnist Paul Krugman (available only by subscription), titled “Lies, damned lies and gasoline prices.”
The article is about continuing disinformation trafficked by the GOP in trying to discredit President Biden—wholly invented claims easily debunked by obvious facts to which Trump aficionados are apparently deaf and blind or otherwise insensible.
Krugman, a 2008 Nobel Prize laureate in economics, points out that “nothing either Trump did or Biden did has had any appreciable effect on U.S. oil production, let alone U.S. gasoline prices,” because crude oil prices are set globally, not nationally, and gas prices track crude prices.
Of course, that’s not what Republicans would have you believe, Krugman wrote. “They want the public to give Trump credit for low prices in 2020, when demand for oil was low because COVID had the world economy on its back. They want voters to blame environmental concerns, which have blocked the Keystone XL pipeline and might block drilling on public land, for high prices at the pump right now—even though it will take years before these policy changes have any effect, and that effect will be modest even then.
I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, we’re talking about a party that’s in denial about everything from climate change to vaccine effectiveness, so what’s a bit of economic nonsense thrown into the mix?
A “bit of economic nonsense” does matter, however, especially since, as is this case, constitutional free speech guarantees, which are even more expansive in politics, serve to misinform vast swaths of the population. And, infuriatringly, there appears to be nothing that can legally stifle such dangerous speech. Keep in mind that many tens of millions of Americans continue to accept any nonsense Donald Trump or his sycophantic GOP tribe spew, facts be damned. Like election fraud that wasn’t. Like that when the leader of the free world urges followers to march on Congress and “Fight like hell,” that’s somehow not incitement.
But will voters see through this latest Republican disinformation campaign?” Krugman asks warily. “Will Democrats make an effective case for the truth? I wish I was more optimistic than I am.
Can Democrats stop the mendacity
Certainly, few if any Republicans will see through it. But the jury is out on whether Democrats will be able. Lies, effectively delivered—like smart bombs—can be devastatingly destructive.
That’s the story of Adolf Hitler’s successful gaslighting of the German people before and during World War II, and of Vladimir Putin’s successful wool-pooling over the eyes of his Russian comrades about nonexistent Ukrainian genocide.
And of Donald Trump’s endless bald-faced fabrications.
It’s getting chillingly close to a “1984” moment in many 21st-century societies, when lies are more readily accepted than truth.
Here’s how disinformation can insinuate itself into real life worldwide. U.S. House Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-North Carolina) recently released a video of himself calling Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a “thug” and his government “incredibly evil,” which are fraudulent talking points of the Russian government.
Cawthorn spokesman Luke Ball issued a statement unconvincingly claiming the lawmaker was referring to pro-Ukraine misinformation, according to the Washington Post:
The Congressman was expressing his displeasure at how foreign leaders, including Zelensky, had recently used false propaganda to entice America into becoming involved in an overseas conflict.
Encouragingly a number of House and Senate colleagues called Cawthorn out for his bogus comments, including Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who reminded Cawthorn that Putin was “an actual murderous thug” in ochestrating and prosecuting the Ukraine invasion, not the other way around.
Ideally, the entirety of Congress should have pushed back against the embarrassingly troglodyte Cawthorn. But most GOP members were fine hiding from the truth or accepting nonsense, just like Russian “patriots.”