Many Republicans must be asking themselves how their party came to be led by a pawn of the Russian government. Russians must be similarly surprised that Vladimir Putin has found an ally in an American political party that just four years earlier boasted of its great hostility to Moscow.
But Putin himself is surely not surprised. It is his great fortune that Trump may have laundered Russian money, abetted Russian cybercrime, and cavorted with Russian prostitutes in a Russian hotel suite. But even without those advantages—perhaps even without Trump’s presidential candidacy—all Putin would have needed to see that the GOP had become a soft target was a television.
Yes, in 2012, GOP leaders mocked President Obama for not taking a harder line against Russia. But beneath their vestigial and opportunistic Russophobia was an obvious and natural affinity. The same Republicans who considered themselves foes of the Kremlin were also in thrall to many of the same illiberal forces that keep Putin in power: bigotry, propaganda, situational ethics, and contempt for democracy.
Before Trump ventured to Moscow for the Miss Universe contest in 2013, he had gained international notoriety as a leader of the birther movement, and it was not despite but because of his willingness to traffic in racist conspiracy theories that he became a kingmaker in Republican politics. Conspiracy theorists and authoritarians cut across their coalition. Mitt Romney called Russia America’s greatest geopolitical foe, but he also sought out and received Trump’s endorsement for the Republican nomination in 2012, because pandering to birthers had become a signal to more ordinary GOP constituencies like gun owners, evangelicals, and movement conservatives.
It is no coincidence at all that these are the same constituencies the Russian spy Mariia Butina infiltrated, and infiltrated easily—the NRA, the National Prayer Breakfast, CPAC. Butina stands accused of operating as an unregistered foreign agent, but her indictment also paints a damning portrait of a political movement overrun with grifters, its doors wide open to unscrupulous operators who would happily cheat their way into power. Butina didn’t hide her pro-Russian aims, she broadcasted them proudly, and seemingly none of the people she courted with appeals to gun rights and religion objected. One of them, a Republican political operative nearly twice her age, literally fell in love. The two of them lived together and conspired on Moscow’s behalf in partnership, through his access to Republican officials and conservative leaders across the country.
Butina almost certainly did not know when she began her work that Trump would run for, let alone win, the presidency. Her efforts to influence GOP politics thus ran around the party’s official organs, through its grassroots mobilizing institutions. Trump’s rise merely represented a shortening of the way. His campaign teemed with grifters and crooks just like the ones she had already charmed, and many of them were unsurprisingly eager to partner with Russian spies to help Trump win the presidency.
That collusive relationship paid tremendous dividends, and Trump is reciprocating enthusiastically. His pro-Russia policies have exposed the party’s old, official posture of antipathy toward Moscow as reflexive rather than principled.
Putin’s favorability among Republican voters spiked during the election, and has continued to grow. Many political observers attribute the shift to Trump, and the cult-like devotion of his followers. But these voters may be more in possession of their faculties than Trump whisperers imagine. Moscow helped Trump win, and Trump heaps praise on Putin, which surely gave Republican voters reason to rethink their views, but what if, upon reflection, they simply found a kindred spirit in the Russian president?
For the white nationalists in Trump’s coalition, Putin seeks a global alliance of white nationalist parties, and is meddling in elections world wide to help those parties gain political power. But as Butina found, even more garden variety conservatives see their interests and Putin’s coming into alignment. Putin is deeply hostile to LGBT people, and frames his hostility in religious terms. The Russian economy is built on a broken foundation of fossil fuel extraction. American conservatives aren’t killing journalists and political opposition leaders, but they are hostile to journalism and democracy, and increasingly comfortable with both propaganda and exercising power through minority rule—by disenfranchising the majority, and appointing movement-loyalist judges who will ratify those efforts. Russia’s political identity is shaped by its aggrievement over the crumbling of its once-vast empire. The American right is similarly revanchist—not over lost territory, but lost demographic dominance and privilege.
For now, the GOP’s congressional leaders remain nominally committed to the western alliance, and to treating Russia as an adversary. But they will not check Trump as he advances the opposite view. Elite conservative opinion is already shifting on the Russia question, and should Trump ever convince a majority of Republican voters that he’s right about Russia, the congressional leadership will follow suit. Putin seems to grasp that, too. What we’re seeing, across several different plot lines, is that in many ways Moscow understood Republicans better than Republicans understand themselves. The real collusion was in their hearts all along.