Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American
November 22, 2021
Heather Cox Richardson
Yesterday, the head of Ukraine’s defense intelligence agency, Brigadier General Kyrylo Budanov, told Military Times that he expects Russia to attack his country in late January or early February. Russia has placed more than 92,000 troops at its border with Ukraine.
In a visit to Washington, D.C., where he met with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksiy Reznikov, took a broader view of the mounting tensions in central and eastern Europe. Russian president Vladimir Putin “is testing the unity of the European Union, he is testing the unity of NATO allies, he is testing our society, Ukrainians, he is testing Poland, the Baltic countries,” Reznikov said.
Indeed, although U.S. and European officials for weeks have been warning Putin to pull back from the Ukraine border, he has escalated his rhetoric against Ukraine, claiming that Russians and Ukrainians represent “one people—a single whole.” At the same time, he has backed a rising authoritarian in Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko. Putin has established a joint military base in Belarus and backed Lukashenko’s use of Middle Eastern migrants to destabilize nearby Poland. Poland is a member of both the European Union and NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which joined the U.S., Canada, and Western European nations together in 1949 to oppose first the USSR and then, after the USSR crumbled, the rising threat of Russia.
What we have here is a proxy battle over the future of liberal democracy—government based on individual rights, civil liberties, free enterprise, and consent of the governed.
Since it declared independence from the old USSR in 1991, Ukraine has moved toward the European Union, a stance that threatens the wealth and power of oligarchs with ties to Russia who have consistently tried to regain control of the country. Part of Putin’s reach for Ukraine reflects that the Russian economy has underperformed under his 20-year rule; Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014 significantly boosted Putin’s popularity in Russia, but that enthusiasm faded in the sluggish economy.
But Putin’s attempt to undermine democracy is also ideological.
In 2019, he told the Financial Times that liberalism—the set of ideas necessary for freedom and embraced by America’s Founders—is obsolete.
Those governing principles have outlived their purpose, Putin said. The multiculturalism that comes from liberalism has led to the breakdown of traditional values and permitted migrants to “kill, plunder and rape with impunity because their rights as migrants have to be protected, he said.” “[Liberals] cannot simply dictate anything to anyone.”
In that, he led the way for Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who champions what he calls “illiberal democracy,”or “Christian democracy.” Replacing the multiculturalism, immigration, and nontraditional family structures of modern democracies with a society based on Christianity, nationalism, traditional families, and white supremacy will strengthen Hungary, he says.
Putin, Orbán, Lukashenko, and others like them are advancing a very old version of society. They believe that a few men—white, Christian—should run the world and amass both wealth and power while the rest of us support them. While they attract voters with their cultural stands—attacking immigration and gay rights, for example—they have rigged elections, turned their economies over to cronies, and stifled the press. They have turned their nations from democracy to an authoritarianism that has been called “kleptocracy” or “soft fascism.”
In short, they want to abandon democracy for autocracy—government by a dictator.
Astonishingly, radicals of the American right have embraced this vision. Fox News Channel personality Tucker Carlson has been open about his support for both Orbán and Russia, and in 2022, the Conservative Political Action Conference will meet in Budapest, where, apparently, they think they will feel at home. Leaders on the American right hammer constantly on cultural issues, deliberately inflaming voters against immigration, Black rights, and transgender students on school sports teams, for example, as signs that American society is collapsing and that we must turn to Christianity and traditional values to restore our stability.
Now, as Americans have chosen multiculturalism, civil rights, and equality, the American right has turned to the power of the state to impose their will on the rest of us, just as Orbán and Putin have used the state in their own countries. We are seeing calls from right-wing leaders to institute Christianity as the basis of our government, attacks on immigration and civil rights, and the systematic dismantling of our right to vote, that is, our right to consent to the government under which we live.
That those who claim to love America, which once billed itself as the leader of the world, are taking their lead from minor authoritarian countries—the economy of Russia is comparable to that of Texas, while Hungary’s population is comparable to Michigan’s—shows the extraordinary poverty, or perhaps the extraordinary greed, of their vision.
In 1776, the Founders of this country declared independence from monarchy, not just from England’s King George III but from all kings. In part because they could not see women or people of color as equal to white men, they could envision the concept of natural equality for everyone else. That, in turn, made them stand against the idea that some men should rule over others on the basis of their wealth, ancestry, or religion.
Instead of these old forms of government and society, they stood firm on the idea that all men are created equal and that they have natural rights they bring with them into society. These rights include—but are not limited to (James Madison would later add the free exercise of religion, for example)—the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Governments, they said, are made by men to secure these rights, and they are legitimate only as long as those they govern consent to them.
Our democratic government, based on ideas Putin and Orbán explicitly reject—the liberal ideas of individual rights, civil liberties, democracy, and free enterprise—is the heritage of all Americans, expanded as it has been since 1776 and imperfectly though it has been, so far, applied.
In today’s America, those who call themselves “conservative” are the very opposite of conservative: they are dangerous radicals seeking to bring us to our knees by attacking the grand philosophy that made this nation great—and which, if we could finally make it a reality, could make it greater still—replacing it with the stunted beliefs of petty tyrants.