Conservatives are trying to toe a very thin line on Russia and Putin

Four years of fervently defending Donald Trump and his unabashedly pro-Putin ways has made the current moment a wee bit difficult.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 29: Fox News host Tucker Carlson discusses 'Populism and the Right' during th...
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I almost feel sorry for Republicans this week. They’ve spent five years now fighting against their Cold War-era muscle memory to condemn Russia for everything, thanks to the full-throated embrace of Vladimir Putin and his geopolitical aims by former President Donald Trump. And now, as the overwhelming majority of the planet comes out firmly against Russia’s imperialist war against Ukraine, conservatives are left with a major case of Russia whiplash, leaving them scrambling to figure out who is really to blame for some of the worst fighting in Eastern Europe since World War II. While the entire world has essentially agreed that the culprit is Putin’s bloodthirsty imperial expansionist agenda, America’s right-wing elite are struggling to reconcile the obvious truth in front of them with their need to blame the world’s ills on whomever Trump isn’t defending at the moment.

Suffice it to say, they’re not having a great time of it.

Despite offering a perfunctory condemnation of Putin and his inner circle for being “the only group responsible” for the atrocities being committed in Ukraine this week, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson essentially laid blame for the Russian invasion at the feet of prominent Democratic House members, and, in a particularly grotesque turn, Kyiv-born Lt. Col. Alex Vindman, the former military officer who played a key role in outing Trump’s unsuccessful effort to strongarm Ukraine into interfering in the 2020 presidential election by threatening to withhold military support.

“I don’t think Vladimir Putin would have moved on Ukraine were it not for the weakness displayed, certainly by the Biden administration, but by the West in general,” Johnson told Fox News on Sunday. “I’m certainly hoping that Col. Vindman, Adam Schiff, Nancy Pelosi — who used Ukraine as a pawn in their impeachment travesty — are also recognizing and reflecting about how they weakened Ukraine, weakened the West, weakened America by the divisive politics that they play.”

How, exactly, three people who were involved in various capacities in investigating Trump’s plan to withhold the weapons Ukraine is literally using to fend off Russia’s current invasion are more to blame than Trump himself, Johnson didn’t deign to clarify.

Republican National Committee Chair and noted spine-lacker Ronna McDaniel’s effort to frame Russian aggression as a failure of American Democrats was hardly any better. Speaking with the ultra-right wing propaganda network Newsmax on Saturday, McDaniel blamed President Biden for being “weak” and “funding” Russia’s invasion by canceling the Trump administration’s catastrophic energy extraction projects.

“Trump was strong and Biden is weak,” McDaniel said. “Putin saw it and he took advantage, and now the whole world is watching this and is very, very concerned.”

Does this comport with the reality that Trump essentially spent his entire foreign policy energy working to undercut Ukraine and kneecap NATO, the very alliance working to hold Putin’s expansionist agenda at bay? Of course not. But reality isn’t really McDaniel’s concern, so much as political point-scoring is — and she’s got a tricky tightrope to walk to do so, shifting the onus of blame as much onto Biden and Democrats as she can so as not to counteract the four years of pro-Russia posturing she helped enable under the Trump administration.

Perhaps the most egregiously transparent, and hilariously inept, attempt to reorient around shifting public sentiment vis-a-vis Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was that of Fox News’s chief propagandist, Tucker Carlson. Days before Russian bombs started bombarding Ukrainian civilians, Carlson vociferously condemned Ukraine as “a pure client state of the United States State Department” and offered the following rambling defense of Putin — whom, he claimed, Democrats had conditioned Americans to hate without reason:

Just one day later, after Russia began its full-on invasion of Ukraine, Carlson offered a strikingly different assessment, saying simply, “Vladimir Putin started this war. He is to blame for what we’re seeing tonight.”

This is the dilemma MAGA conservatives now find themselves in. After struggling to shed themselves of their disdain for Russia, they’re now trying to pivot to some middle ground in which Russia is bad, again, but also, not that bad ... unless, maybe, it is?

So yeah: The American right-wing definitely possesses a solid grasp on one of the defining crises of our time. Aren’t we lucky.