By Harold Meyerson | Jul 17, 2018
When the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed, the American Right was faced with a conundrum. For most of the 20th century, it had defined itself by its anti-communism, the sole idea on which all wings of the disparate conservative community could agree. Moreover, anti-communism gave the Republicans a handy club with which to beat Democrats, since they could always attack the Democrats for being either soft on communism or, since Democrats believed in a mixed economy, being closet communists themselves. Then as now, Republicans were seldom deterred by an absence of evidence.
But with the 1991-1992 dissolution of the Soviet Union, the barbarians were no longer at the gate. The immediate beneficiary of this brave new world was presidential candidate Bill Clinton, whom the Republicans couldn’t attack, in the sudden absence of communism, for being soft on communism. There was still China, of course, but Republicans in those days and for some time thereafter liked China as a place where American corporations could do business.
Over the past quarter-century, however, Republicans have risen to the occasion: They have invented an enemy within whose purported terrors still drive GOP voters to the polls. The process began right after the Commies disappeared, in the 1992 Republican primaries, when Pat Buchanan proclaimed a culture war on liberals, minorities, and modernity itself—that is, on his fellow Americans. By 1994, Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh were singing from the same foul hymnal, and one year later Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes came along to swell the chorus. From that time forth, the Republican mantra was established: The enemy was here; the enemy was modernity; the enemy was the Democrats.
Then, a decade ago, Buchanan struck again. In his columns, he began noting that Vladimir Putin, while a onetime KGB-nik, was also becoming the leading figure on the world scene to oppose homosexuality and other egalitarian liberal deviations. Putin’s our guy, Buchanan concluded, waging the kind of war for traditional patriarchal authority and against his liberals that we Republicans need to wage against ours. (Having grown up in a household that vehemently supported Francisco Franco’s fascists in the Spanish Civil War, Buchanan had a chronic soft spot for authoritarians.)
Yesterday, what was once Buchanan’s eccentricity became the official policy of the president of the United States. Trump probably doesn’t give a hoot about Putin’s leadership of the war on gays, but as a nationalist patriarchal authoritarian thug, Putin is Trump’s kind of guy. Yes, Trump believes that he needs to back Putin up on the electoral interference question because it calls into question his victory; yes, perhaps Trump fears that Putin and his comrades have got the goods on him and he’d better go along with whatever they say.
But what we saw yesterday was also the reductio-ad-absurdum of the great Republican switcheroo: With the Communists gone, our real enemy is the enemy at home. And so a KGB thug with blood on his hands is the Republican president’s man, while Robert Mueller and the FBI are the cancer growing within. This is completely nuts, but it is also the logical culmination of the last 25 years of Republican evolution.