WASHINGTON — It is jarring to see pro-Trump conservatives indifferent or even hostile to investigations of Russian intervention in the 2016 campaign. Just a few years ago (it feels like an eternity), conservatives were jumping all over President Obama for his Russian “reset” and his first-term eagerness to negotiate with Moscow.
Even further back, conservatives hailed Ronald Reagan’s description of the Soviet Union as “an evil empire.” Reagan ran a brilliant ad during his 1984 re-election bid that showed a bear roaming through the woods. Without mentioning the words “Russia” or “Soviet Union,” an announcer intoned:
“There is a bear in the woods. For some people, the bear is easy to see. Others don’t see it at all. Some people say the bear is tame. Others say it’s vicious and dangerous. Since no one can really be sure who’s right, isn’t it smart to be as strong as the bear? If there is a bear.”
The drift on the right toward Vladimir Putin is remarkable. An Economist/YouGov poll in December found that while only 9 percent of Trump voters had a favorable view of Obama, 35 percent had a favorable view of Putin. In February, Gallup reported that the proportion of Republicans viewing Putin favorably rose from 12 percent in 2015 to 32 percent this year.
Not surprisingly, given what Putin did to defeat Hillary Clinton, his favorability among Democrats dropped, from 15 percent in 2015 to 10 percent now. But note how unpopular Putin was with Democrats in both surveys. What’s striking is that a 3-point gap between the two parties in 2015 is now at 22 points.
It’s true that Moscow’s intervention in Western politics goes back a long way. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviets gave strong support to communist parties around the world.
Putin, of course, will lend support to any political movement — right or left, separatist or nationalist — that disrupts the West. But he seems especially interested in creating a new international political alliance focused on conservatives and the far right.
He is casting himself as a strong supporter of religion and conservative values, and as an opponent of gay rights. Late last month, Putin staged a highly public audience in Moscow with Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate in this spring’s presidential election in France. Of course Putin denied he was trying to influence French voters.
Putin is active in the U.S., too. In a recent Time magazine article titled “Moscow Cozies Up to the Right,” Alex Altman and Elizabeth Dias reported on Russia’s efforts to build ties with America’s Christian conservatives and the gun lobby.
These days, any liberal who raises alarms about Trump’s relationship with Russia confronts charges of McCarthyism, hysteria and hypocrisy. The inclination of many on the left to assail Putin is often ascribed to partisan anger over his success in undermining Clinton’s candidacy.
There’s no doubt that liberals are angry, but ask yourself: Shouldn’t everyone, left, right and center, be furious over Russia’s efforts to inject calumny and falsehood into the American political bloodstream?
As last week’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearing revealed, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, one of Trump’s 2016 primary opponents, was also targeted by Russia. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, is right that Russia is trying to spread fear among American politicians in both parties that if they dare criticize Putin’s regime, as Clinton did when she was secretary of state, they risk being attacked in the same way she was.
Moreover, the problem with McCarthyism was not that it was directed against a totalitarian regime. Liberals, social democrats and democratic socialists were overwhelmingly anti-Soviet, too. McCarthyism was about lies and false charges — often against those on the left who were actually opposed to the Soviet Union. Doesn’t that sound a bit like the fake news stories aimed at Clinton?
It is not in the least hysterical to wonder about the behavior of Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who was once paid by Putin’s propaganda network Russia Today. It is not McCarthyite to ask why Trump has spoken with such warmth about a Russian autocrat or taken so many positions (on NATO and the European Union, for example) that can be fairly seen as more in line with Russia’s interests than our own.
And as Clint Watts of the Foreign Policy Research Institute told the Senate, Trump’s choice to “parrot” Russian-inspired conspiracy theories against Clinton made Putin’s disinformation campaign all the more effective.
Yes, there is a bear, and we need to know what it has done to our democracy.
E.J. Dionne Jr. is a columnist with The Washington Post. His email address is: [email protected] Twitter: @EJDionne.