In July of last year, populist journalist Tucker Carlson said on Fox News: “What [Putin] does in Ukraine—while I think historically significant, certainly significant to Ukrainians—is not more significant to me than what gas costs.” In another segment, Carlson explicitly urged his viewers to consider the Democratic Party—their fellow Americans—as a more significant threat to American democracy than Vladimir Putin, dubiously claiming that what he perceives as “authoritarian” aspects of American progressivism are not ideals perpetuated in Russia—despite Putin having proven that he will go to murderous lengths to silence opposition, shape public opinion, and preserve his rule. Still, the campaign to pacify true autocracy continues unabated, fueled by a desire to achieve partisan goals over world stability. Countless voices are attempting to blur the lines between truth and deceit, cast doubt on the merits of foreign aid, and assault the very heart of our identity.
As the Ukraine war rages on amidst a steady stream of Western aid (which is making a massive impact), populist right-wing media is mounting an ongoing campaign to whitewash Putin’s horrific evil and convince the American public that the Ukrainian cause is not worth our time. It is heartbreaking to see some members of the Republican Party actively spread Russian disinformation, endlessly deflect blame for Putin’s brutality, and attempt to justify appeasing Putin’s inexcusable imperialism. Despite resistance to tyranny undergirding the foundations of conservative thought, Tucker Carlson and other populist figures have been aired on Russian state media and propaganda channels as supposed proof of the West’s acknowledgment of Russia’s innocence.
Such a convergence of American right-wing populism and Russian interests is one of the most troubling dynamics in modern American politics, as it has begun to nefariously domesticate and normalize autocratic propaganda in our daily lives. It also reveals how far some are willing to go for partisan goals. According to isolationist populism, dictators should be allowed to do whatever they want on the world stage free of accountability, even if that means invading a peaceful, democratic nation and then mounting a disinformation campaign unrivaled by any other in history to justify their barbarous imperialism. Why? Because according to them, America’s position as the premier opponent of autocracy abroad should be subordinate to the interests of the American people at home. “America First” above all else, even if that means utterly abandoning our like-minded allies and throwing our commitment to democracy on the trash heap. It’s possible that the true implications of this approach simply escape many of them, but if the isolationist vision of America were to come to fruition, our democracy would fall deep into a pit of self-betrayal. Every indication is that Ukraine is casting aside her Soviet heritage to forge a new national identity—one built around the cultivation and sustainment of Western democracy. If we were to religiously forsake the support of this cause for the sake of gas prices, Americans might soon find the autocracies of the world knocking at our door.
Modern-day Russia is not an ally—they are an adversary. Until Putin’s iron grip on the Russian people is relinquished one way or another, Russia is an entity to be confronted, not bargained with. I could write endlessly on all the ways in which Putin is and has been an utter enemy of human flourishing, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll include only a few examples. Needless to say, a nation that operates massive “bot farms” full of fake social media accounts to spread Kremlin propaganda; attempts to repeatedly undermine American democracy both domestically and abroad; targets civilians as a terror tactic and compensates for its lack of precision-guided munitions by leveling every Ukrainian city they encounter—this is not a nation to cozy up to, make concessions with, or expect truth from. Russia is a country led by a petty dictator who cowers behind a façade of strength. But if it’s not already clear: sending Russian teens to die in droves for a nostalgia-driven imperialism is not a strong leadership.
Many of the same populist figures who are dismissing Russian aggression are also calling for peace talks, but any such negotiations favor Putin’s demands by default. Is peace always desirable if it involves capitulation to tyranny? Ukrainians would undoubtedly disagree, and we should as well. Our country was founded on the right to revolution and the elevation of democracy above the superficial stability an autocracy brings. Putin could theoretically conquer the entire world by invading territory, holding the West at nuclear gunpoint while demanding concessions. Rinse and repeat. All because the fear of further escalation paralyzes us.
To be fair, there is sufficient historical precedent to justify skepticism about ambitious campaigns of American intervention. Past applications of American idealism have been irrational, overbearing, and uncalculated, particularly when they’ve involved direct military action undergirded by morally opaque motives. But to say that America and the West at large have no strategic interests in Ukraine is a massive understatement. Militarily supporting Ukraine is a crucial opportunity to further the fight against autocracy whilst avoiding the disastrous effects that past crusades of intervention have produced when hinged directly on American military force.
Considering Putin’s history of aggression against Post-Soviet states, who could be sure that he would stop at Ukraine? Putin has repeatedly alluded to further imperial ambitions, which have betrayed his nostalgia for the Soviet empire—just last month he threatened that western Poland was a gift from Stalin at the end of World War II, implying that Poland should be somehow indebted to Russia. Evidence has also emerged that Russia is planning destabilizing action in Moldova, and Kremlin-backed Wagner mercenaries have been amassing in Belarus to conduct “drills” right along the Polish border. Any opportunity to assist in delivering such a massive blow to autocracy worldwide should be capitalized on, as dictatorships around the globe are watching closely to see what they could get away with without incurring the wrath of the free world.
While Russia isn’t economically intertwined with the US, China most certainly is, and the economic maelstrom that would be unleashed should any conflict with China occur is one the world cannot afford. Investing in Ukraine is a direct investment in world security and stability, not the opposite, which some have attempted to suggest. After all, minimizing the destructive capability of a belligerent adversary whose actions are creating an energy crisis and assaulting the global food supply is certainly in every American’s interest. This isn’t about urging the West to adopt an indiscriminate policy of intervention, but rather it is a matter of recognizing the massive human suffering our failure to confront autocracy would incur around the world, not just within American borders.
There’s infinite room to debate the tactics and philosophy that should undergird American foreign policy, but our commitment to democracy worldwide cannot waiver, even if we ourselves are imperfect in our practice of it. American hegemony has admittedly risen to prominence through largely self-interested foreign policy, yet it has generated unprecedented stability and prosperity over the past 70 years. We’ve made inexcusable mistakes and our motives frequently stray far from altruism, but of all the possible empires that might have inherited the world in our hypothetical absence, I firmly believe we would not be better off with any other. To that end, if we embrace reclusiveness and allow Vladimir Putin to steamroll his way through Ukraine and allow Xi Jinping to storm the beaches of Taiwan, it signals to the world that America has all but abandoned the cause that is the very lifeblood of her identity. If the world’s oldest and most powerful democracy slinks into the shadows, our hope for the world’s embrace of the most virtuous aspects of democratic governance will die with her.
But maybe I’m being too optimistic. As many a dissident has suggested over the years, maybe our nation’s leaders aren’t truly concerned with advocating for democracy as much as solidifying their power. Maybe the soulless reality of realism has shaken our subconscious confidence in American exceptionalism. Maybe we have abandoned the virtues of our founding in a mindless pursuit of profit. Perhaps America isn’t a nation of romantic moralism, but one of imperialism and exploitation. Or maybe, just maybe, we have a chance to return to the soul of our ambition. As the Soviet hammer and sickle is torn down over Kyiv to be replaced by the Ukrainian trident, may every American heart find the courage to advocate for those battling so furiously against despotic autocracy.
Nothing can change who we’ve been, but the opportunity to be who we should be is never too far gone. Such boundless hate cannot be allowed to triumph.