Falling in Love with Dictators

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How the American Right Fell in Love With Dictators, Over and Over Again Trump and Putin are nothing new. By Casey Michel

from The Intelligencer - https://nymag.com/intelligencer/article/not-just-putin-why-the-right-falls-in-love-with-dictators.html

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty For years, an imperialistic, hard-right European dictator unleashing bloodshed across the Continent cultivated supporters across the U.S. This despot claimed he was leading a “unique, anti-Western culture,” and, in so doing, cultivated allies and fellow travelers among conservatives across America, all of whom were disgusted by “corrupt Western liberal values” and who “scorned Western liberalism as a bankrupt ideology.” Nor was this appeal just rhetorical; as investigators later discovered, this right-wing revanchist bankrolled both propaganda efforts and agents on the ground, successfully turning Americans, especially on the right, to his cause.

To modern readers, the story is a familiar one — not least as it pertains to Donald Trump’s affections for Vladimir Putin, to say nothing of how Russian forces have cultivated conservative Americans from Tucker Carlson to the National Rifle Association and beyond. But the aforementioned case has nothing to do with Putin or with Trump. Instead, it took place a century ago, when conservatives across the U.S. flocked to the cause of Germany’s militarist tyrant, Kaiser Wilhelm II.

In so doing, as Jacob Heilbrunn successfully argues in his new book, America Last: The Right’s Century-Long Romance With Foreign Dictators, they created a blueprint for how foreign dictators even decades later could cultivate conservative communities to their cause — and could, by the early 21st century, help propel one as far as the presidency. The story of the Americans who worshipped Wilhelm is just one of a range of pro-dictatorship efforts that Heilbrunn excavates, threading a century-long conservative infatuation with right-wing dictators. It’s not only a corrective to the voluminous (if also accurate) investigations on how communist tyrannies fostered leftist supporters in the U.S., but also an able — and wildly timely — effort to stitch together nominally disparate views, from different epochs and eras. It all adds up to a convincing conclusion: that Trump, in “lavishing praise on Putin and other dictators … wasn’t creating a new style of right-wing politics,” Heilbrunn, editor of The National Interest and author of a previously acclaimed book on the history of neoconservatives, writes. “Instead, he was building on a long-standing tradition.”

It’s a tradition that has seen surprisingly little scrutiny, allowing Trump’s treacly fealty to Putin to seem like an aberration. To be sure, there are elements unique to Trump’s personal predilections — not least his history as a luxury real-estate developer, an industry that profited arguably more than any other from the illicit, kleptocratic flows linked to foreign dictators, laundering untold millions of dollars (and potentially more) in the process. Never before could foreign despots so easily, and so effectively, patronize the company of a sitting American president.

But in other far more conspicuous ways, Trump is simply building on a legacy long predating his rise. There were, for instance, the early devotions to the Ur-Fascist himself, Benito Mussolini. Il Duce presented himself not only as a guarantor of order and stability — and a bastion against left-wing forces in Italy and beyond — but as someone who posed “as a defender of whites,” Heilbrunn notes, who prioritized “family values” and who, “in stark contrast to hedonistic America, cherished manliness.” (He also cherished Wall Street with JP Morgan organizing a loan for the Fascist government worth nearly $2 billion in modern currency.) Conservatives in America lapped it up, fêting not only Mussolini but salivating for a similar leader in the U.S. One conservative writer, Irving Babbitt, bleated that circumstances “may arrive when we may esteem ourselves fortunate if we get the American equivalent of a Mussolini; he may be needed to save us from the American equivalent of a Lenin.”

So, too, did plenty of conservative Americans view the rise of Mussolini’s younger brother, ideologically, in Berlin. While the organization of pro-Nazi sympathizers in America has seen more detailed treatments elsewhere, Heilbrunn ropes in other conservatives who freely platformed Adolf Hitler. Germany’s dictator was freely supported by conservatives such as William Randolph Hearst, who “not only admired the Fuhrer, but commissioned him and Mussolini to write for his newspapers for handsome fees.” Later investigations revealed that Hitler’s regime picked up on the kaiser’s previous model, not only covertly funding agents in the U.S. but even slipping pro-Nazi propaganda into official congressional mailings, recruiting some of the U.S.’s most conservative representatives of the time.

The postwar smothering of fascism didn’t seem to slow conservatives’ lust for right-wing strongmen. By the 1960s, the primary home for such reverence was found not necessarily in Washington but in the pages of National Review, where founder William F. Buckley and his claque of writers apparently never found a hard-right despot they couldn’t support. There was Spain’s Francisco Franco, whom Buckley dubbed an “authentic national hero,” Heilbrunn writes. There was Portugal’s Antonio Salazar, who wrote in the magazine that he was “fighting for Western civilization and Christian values.” There was Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, whom Buckley viewed as a “bona fide leader who knew how to exercise power.” (After Pinochet used a car bomb to assassinate a political opponent in Washington, D.C., Chilean officials turned directly to Buckley for advice on how to “sanitize Pinochet’s reputation,” for which Buckley happily obliged.)

Soon, though, such sentiments swelled back into the White House. By the Reagan era, American affections for right-wing despots during the late Cold War blossomed into official policy. The architect for such fondness was Reagan’s foreign-policy adviser, Jeane Kirkpatrick, who served as an “unabashed defender” of right-wing regimes throughout her tenure. Nor was she picky about the form. Militarists in Argentina, those running death squads in El Salvador, the authors of apartheid in South Africa: Kirkpatrick, with Reagan in tow, succored them all.

But then, in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, and a few years later, the Soviet Union shattered. America — and liberalism — stood triumphant. Supporting such regimes was suddenly gauche, out of step with this American moment. And the patterns and preferences that propped up American backing of right-wing dictators slunk back into the shadows.

But it never disappeared entirely. As with so much of the paleoconservative architecture of Trumpism — the nativism and the racism, the suspicion of the federal government and the amorality undergirding it all — Heilbrunn identified Pat Buchanan as the figure who kept the flames of such fawning for right-wing dictators alive. Not only did Buchanan refer to leaders like Hitler as “an individual of great courage,” but Buchanan whipped up opposition to American intervention in the Balkans, calling time and again to let Serbian tyrant Slobodan Milosevic have his way and commit genocide.

As Heilbrunn writes, Buchanan — who would later turn his affections toward figures like Putin, even before Trump entered the White House — “longed for a kind of internationalism rooted in those small towns and conservative values and in whiteness, whether in the U.S. or in Serbia or Russia or South Africa or elsewhere.” For years, Buchanan “seemed like a Cassandra,” but as Heilbrunn added, “One prospective candidate for the presidency who picked up on … Buchanan’s unusual history lessons was a loudmouthed Manhattan real estate mogul” — a figure who gave Buchanan’s views the biggest platform yet, carving an entire political movement out of a conservative tradition few Americans had any idea existed.

Thanks to Heilbrunn’s book, however, that confusion is no more. And while the book’s actual writing verges on the overwrought — words like oneiric and pursuivant belong in spelling bees, not mainstream political analysis — Heilbrunn correctly identifies the core of this conservative strain. Trumpists, and those who came before, “are advocating ethno-nationalism in the guise of a set of principles.” Just as the white supremacist Redeemers before them claimed they were simply advocating a restoration of democracy, so, too, do the Herrenvolk reactionaries of the MAGA world claim they’re simply restoring supposed American greatness — and that right-wing despots abroad should be allies in the fight.

If there’s a fault in Heilbrunn’s writing, it’s that there might be too much emphasis on such ideological affinity. After all, dictatorships’ abilities to inflame and inflate American conservative support can’t operate without a latticework of supporters. And as we’ve learned in recent years, those operatives — the lobbyists and the PR specialists, the law firms and the consultancies, the former congressional officials who leave office and immediately transform into mouthpieces for foreign regimes — don’t require any ideological overlap with their despotic clients. All they need is to get paid, and they’ll be happy to transform into foot-soldiers for tyranny.

Just look, for instance, at the network that serviced Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian thug who ruled Ukraine until Kyiv’s democratic revolution a decade ago. There was Paul Manafort, who later became Trump’s 2016 campaign manager. But there was also Tony Podesta, who until the mid-2010s oversaw arguably the leading Democratic lobbying shop in Washington. There was even Tad Devine, who helped Yanukovych grab power in 2010 — and who then steered Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign. It was an ideological potpourri, all working at the behest of an autocrat who tried to cement pro-Russian rule in Kyiv — and whose ouster lit a fuse that detonated stability in Europe and that now risks far more devastation.

But that’s all the subject for another book (mine, called Foreign Agents, will be hitting bookshelves in August). In the meantime, Heilbrunn’s analysis of this glorification of right-wing dictatorships is a warning — as if more were needed — of what a potential Trump second term could look like. Whether it’s Putin’s Russia or Orbán’s Hungary, or even the echoes of Wilhelmine Germany, the conclusion is clear: “Aggrieved … by what they perceived as their own society’s failings — its liberalism, its tolerance, its increasing secularism — conservatives have searched for a paradise abroad that can serve as a model of home.” The kaiser would be proud.