Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared in an interview that liberalism is, once and for all, dead.
“The liberal idea has become obsolete,” Putin said in an interview with the Financial Times. “It has come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population.” Putin pointed to a range of issues roiling Western polities, from migration debates to financial issues to continued attempts to expand LGBTQ rights.
“[Liberals] cannot simply dictate anything to anyone just like they have been attempting to do over the recent decades,” Putin added. “Our western partners have admitted that some elements of the liberal idea, such as multiculturalism, are no longer tenable.”
Responses to Putin’s claim varied widely. Some analysts described the Russian president’s remarks as misplaced triumphalism; others viewed them as the latest in a long line of attempts to troll the West.
President Donald Trump seemed to completely misunderstand Putin’s statements, claiming that Putin was criticizing about how liberal-run American cities, like those along the U.S. west coast.
But Putin’s statements didn’t have one intended audience or purpose. They were unmistakable signals — clear dog-whistles — to Putin’s far-right supporters across the West, including in the United States. And those dog-whistles about the supposed “obsolete” nature of liberalism were heard loud and clear.
At Virginia Dare, a far-right rag that routinely pushes white nationalist material, Pat Buchanan, a former speechwriter for Richard Nixon, praised Putin’s position. “Is Putin right?”, Buchanan asked, describing Putin’s “confident claim.” Apparently so, according to Buchanan, who said the recent G-20 summit “appeared to validate [Putin’s] thesis.” (One commentator responded to Buchanan’s comments by writing, “Russia should be our greatest ally!”)
Buchanan’s analysis was tweeted out by Peter Brimelow, a key American white nationalist publisher. Former InfoWars conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson, who had previously backed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, also tweeted out Putin’s claim.
Pat Buchanan: 'Putin praised Trump's efforts to secure the U.S. border: "This liberal idea presupposes that … migrants can kill, plunder and rape with impunity because their rights as migrants have to be protected."' https://t.co/08Eo1GoVw5
— Peter Brimelow (@peterbrimelow) July 1, 2019
Buchanan’s position fits within a longer trajectory of his willingness to praise Putin, which dates back to at least 2014. At that time, amid Russian attempts to break up Ukraine wholesale, Buchanan began wondering aloud whether “God” was on Putin’s side.
“In the culture war for the future of mankind, Putin is planting Russia’s flag firmly on the side of traditional Christianity,” Buchanan wrote at the time. Five years on, Buchanan is singing very much the same tune, describing Putin in the white nationalist Virginia Dare journal as a “Russian nationalist who seeks the return of her lost peoples to the Motherland[.]”
But Buchanan wasn’t the only voice among the morass of the American far-right to praise Putin’s recent claim. The anti-Semitic Russia Insider outlet, whose founder previously attempted to obtain funding from now-sanctioned Russian oligarchs, likewise applauded Putin’s claim.
“Putin is right, liberalism is dead,” blared a headline on the site. The bizarre write-up ranged from praising Putin’s rhetoric — “Putin capped off his argument by ever so gently and politely putting the boot in,” read one line — to veering into discussion about how to end the overpopulation of Earth. (“That is, it may very well be the case that Earth is overpopulated with you, but that, of course, is for you alone to decide. If you feel sufficiently strongly about this matter, you should perhaps take charge and rid the planet of your good self,” the piece read.)
Liberalism, of course, is far from dead, as evidenced by everything from recent mass protests in Hong Kong and Sudan to the continued expansions of rights across the West.
“Liberalism is not a utopian project, it is a work in perpetual progress,” Financial Times’ Martin Wolf wrote. “It is an approach to living together that starts from the primacy of human agency. But that is only the starting point. Making that approach work requires constant adaptation and adjustment.”
Those realities help reframe Putin’s claim less as a mere observation and more as an attempt at distracting from the stagnation continue to undercut Russia — a distraction that voices on the American far-right are only too happy to play up, as they continue to back Putin’s regime.