Lawyers, Guns and Money linked last week to an article from a couple of years ago discussing Russia’s use of “soft power.” This is the power of leading not through military force but shared values. The classic example being the United States using its liberal values — pro-immigration, democracy, equality — to build support in the rest of the world (yes, I’m perfectly aware how iffy these values often were in practice, even before Trump).
In Russia’s case, it’s Putin’s conservative values: anti-gay, ethno-nationalist. These have made him look cool to a number of Republicans (Franklin Graham and Pat Buchanan for instance) who’d sooner see homosexuality outlawed than tolerate a democracy that supports them (though they’re still willing to use democracy when they can: Christian bigot Rick Scarborough wants to elect right-wing Christians to school boards to choke off school support for gay kids).
Conversely, Putin’s perfectly happy to throw his supports behind like-minded politicians in America and elsewhere, which explains his successful meddling in 2016. As LGM notes, this leads to a fractured foreign policy in which Republicans won’t even give lip service to supporting democracy overseas: they’d rather cozy up to Putin or Hungary’s vicious Orban.
After reading the article, it occurred to me that another factor in Putin’s soft power is the way he presents as a virile, manly warrior. As Kristin Kobes Du Mez says in Jesus and John Wayne, the me of the religious right are obsessively afraid that they and America aren’t manly enough. They’re terrified that all that stuff Jesus said about love, compassion and forgiveness is castrating them, so they push back against it, and against women’s equality.
This leads to things like my odious state Rep. Madison Cawthorne saying parents should raise their sons to be monsters — because if they act like Real Men, that’s what the feminized secular culture will call them. Or right-wing, coup-supporting pastor Ken Peters explaining why other Christians don’t support overthrowing the government: “I think most preachers are weak and spineless and they should be leading the Girl Scouts and not being behind pulpits.”
In the same vein, right-winger Charlie Kirk claimed recently that if America tolerates drag queens, China will invade Taiwan because they’ll see us as weak and impotent. While it would be foolish to assume Kirk’s doing anything but spewing bullshit — what else to right-wing hacks do these days? — the choice of bullshit is nevertheless significant.
As Dave Futrelle points out, Trumpites love to portray him as a physical superman: “They desperately want him to be the confident, hyper-confident macho man he pretends to be. And so they are compelled to do their part in shoring up his masculinity, at least symbolically — for his sake and for their own.”
Putin presents himself as the kind of macho, dominant male they imagine Trump is and physically dominant as well. Their hearts swell for him. He’s a hard, ruthless dictator, completely unsoftened by that milk-and-water love-your-enemies bullshit in the Bible. He sneers at the West for its tolerance of “genderless and infertile” culture trends (does he sound like a CPAC speaker or what?). So we end up with Ted Cruz freaking out because the Army spotlighted a woman soldier raised by two mothers in a recent ad. According to Cruz, our military are now “pansies” who can’t possibly fight against the virile ruthlessness of Putin’s military.
As with Kirk, I’m not sure if Cruz believes a word of what he says. Perhaps he just knows some of his voters will; perhaps he’s genuinely anxious about gender issues — after all, the woman in that ad could kick his ass. But either way, the bullshit he chooses to spout is telling. And what it tells is not good.