The Russian autocrat of the day has changed the tune from left to right – and just like that, American Republicans have become Russia’s new useful idiots.
Except, they are paid.
In her quick commentary about Tucker Carlson’s interview with Orbán, Anne Applebaum recalled a painfully fitting anecdote about a prominent useful idiot, George Bernard Shaw, during his 1931 visit to Russia.
“George Bernard Shaw celebrated his 75th birthday in Moscow in 1931 with a lavish banquet held at the height of a horrific famine created by Stalin’s disastrous collectivization policy. As a gesture of faith in the Soviet system, he told the audience that although friends had given him tins of food to take to Russia, “I threw all of the food out of the window” before arriving. One journalist in attendance recalled how the audience “gasped”: “One felt the convulsive reaction in their bellies. A tin of English beef would provide a memorable holiday in the home of any of the workers and intellectuals at the gathering.””
Tucker Carlson chose to become the George Bernard Shaw of the American right. The Michael Moore of the Republicans. The Oliver Stone of Orbán. What these people have in common is that they sucked up to foreign dictators in a misguided effort to make a point at home.
Take Michael Moore, for instance. A friend recently called my attention to how he dragged a bunch of Americans to Cuba to demonstrate the superiority of state healthcare. To the surprise of no one who ever experienced a dictatorship, the propaganda guests received the royal treatment. Especially since they were being filmed.
What wasn’t filmed is how many Cubans didn’t get healthcare that week because their nurses, doctors and medical equipment have been reassigned to PR purposes.
That real Cubans were suffering for this documentary is not some idle speculation, but a very educated guess by anyone who knows the first thing about autocracies: the PR of the leader is more important that human lives. And that is PR abroad because an autocrat doesn’t need it at home anymore. No one can stand up to the leader so how could people enforce their own interests?
That is the whole point of an autocracy: that your interests do not matter.
Cuban doctors are famously enslaved and routinely dispatched abroad to earn money to the Castros, for instance. Just one more way a country can pimp out its human resources, next to slave labor in concentration camps, sweatshops for foreign companies and attracting horny, rich foreigners to rape the most vulnerable members of society for cash. And dumbass Michael Moore had the poor judgment to make his point with Cuba? American healthcare is seriously flawed in its financing. But just because the American system is wrong, state healthcare doesn’t necessarily work. Or if it does, at least take a non-dictatorship as a positive example.
Would Michael Moore have filmed the neglected locals in Cuba if he knew they existed? Would he have packed up his cameras and gave up on his documentary if he knew? Did he want to know? He most certainly got what he wanted, which is influence at home.
Too bad Carlson didn’t try to bring a bunch of injured firemen to a Hungarian state hospital like Moore did to Cuba. He could have made the opposite of Moore’s point by the same, demagogic tools. Carlson could have illustrated how free healthcare doesn’t work in the very same way Moore “proved” that it does!
Although Orbán would probably have secured him a Patomkin hospital with the remaining doctors and nurses in freshly cleaned uniforms all at his disposal – just like Castro did. Because every autocracy is the same, no matter what color. It is breathtaking how some men choose not to see that – and still claim to be intellectuals.
Now that Carlson also pulled an Oliver Stone and had his own
fellatio interview with a foreign autocrat filmed, we can only hope that he got what he wanted out of it. Was it money? Or was it power at home? Was it the kind of demagogic influence Michael Moore holds over the American left because of his faking of reality in Cuba?
For most western conservatives it is simply money. Orbán’s purpose-made foundations literally received billions of dollars in cash and assets and are tasked to improve his PR abroad. Part of these efforts is paying lush “visiting fellowships” to scholars, journalists and anyone who has any use and is willing to take it. Another way is inviting them to speaking engagements and giving them the five-star treatment. Just look at the Brain Bar line up. But if we ever learn how much it cost us to have Carlson lick Orbán’s balls on camera, it will be from American records, not Hungarian ones.
Just as the Cuban autocrat makes sure to put his country’s best foot forward when impressing an American influencer – Orbán does the same with our taxpayer money and Carlson. Whether we want it or not. And taking taxpayer money to advertise how conservative Orbán supposedly is – that is the the most cynical self-goal a supposedly conservative western intellectual can score. It is on par with left wing intellectuals sucking up to left wing dictatorships like Venezuela, Cuba or pre-1989 Russia.
Once I’ve heard a British professor opining how Belarus’ Lukashenka is really a free market leader because he is leading his country like a CEO does a corporation – and what is wrong with that? He might have been a professor but he wasn’t intelligent enough to see the difference between the state and a corporation. He certainly didn’t see the difference between the tools that a corporation has versus what the state can do – let alone understanding why the two should be kept separated.
Later I have learned that the twisted little opinions of the aforementioned British scholar were the result of a five-start treatment he once accepted in Minsk. And yes, an underpaid academic can be bought off by a fancy hotel. They don’t even need to be paid to justify taking an invitation like that – and then to sing the praise of the autocrat to whitewash themselves for accepting the invitation. A trip to China regularly impresses the shit out of poor, Hungarian academics, for instance, even if they are not paid cash. And a trip to Hungary by a western influencer is not even unpaid. Quite the opposite, in fact.
A Hungarian adjunct prof makes some 650 euros a month, so it is hardly surprising that he becomes a sponge for his hosts’ views. A foreign academic who comes to Hungary, for comparison, makes up to ten thousand euros a month for a visiting fellowship. Again, this just goes to show the priorities of an autocrat.
Orbán’s purpose-built PR-machine pays ten thousand dollars a month to run-of-the-mill western intellectuals for a visiting scholarship, but superstars may get even more from the Hungarian taxpayer. Government success bois with bags full of taxpayer money roam the world in search of influencers who would praise Orbán – and offer them all the riches of the taxpayers.
Just take a look at this semester’s crop. They would all swear that they had no idea their host is spending taxpayer money. Their host said so.
Poor American demagogues, by the way. It must be difficult to find a poster boy of a country when you are from the richest and most successful country on the planet. I am almost sorry for them – almost. Because a semi-competent intellectual would realize that just because something has flaws, it doesn’t mean that a better version must exist somewhere. So if you find the flaws of your political system, you may actually have to fix them – rather than looking for the promise land somewhere else.
For an American to point at Hungary as the promise land is purely delusional. Not only has this country shed millions who escaped its vicious pogroms, holocaust and various persecutions, but most of them went to America. You’re welcome. With that history in mind, it would be odd to imagine that Hungary is, for the fist time in history, a better place to be, to live, to work, to innovate and to prosper. Especially when it is – once again – under the thumbs of the perennial exporter of autocracy, Russia.
Because what Orbán does is not independent of what is happening in Russia. Making Carlson and his ilk even more like their shameful predecessors.
This time, Russia happens to be exporting autocracy under a nationalist and religionist flag – but the essence is the same. Russia may not be turning countries into the same color on the map this time, it may not be making them following the same -ism, it may not be openly on the ground with an army – but it is doing the same thing all over again: exporting autocracy.
And the reason Russia is not doing those things anymore is partly that those things are expensive. And money and tangible assets are what dictatorships can’t produce – so they always lose to the US in the end if they play the prosperity game.
But buying influence and destroying minds in western countries in comparatively cheap. And unlike boots on the ground, it is perfectly deniable. Putin may be very open about “info wars” and destabilizing operations in the west, but if you listen to his useful idiots abroad you get the impression that Putin has never done such a thing. In fact, he must have been sitting on his own hands for the last two decades, because nothing that happens has anything to do with his massive troll operations and buying foreign intellectual influence. We are supposed to give the the benefit of the doubt so often and so hard, we will never be allowed to call Putin’s actions actions at all.
Buying off and blackmailing other countries’ corrupt elites to establish autocratic kleptocracies is how Russia is recreating the empire.
Putin chose to incorporate nationalism and religionism this time because they work to grab and to keep power.
And just like that, western right wingers have become his useful idiots.
The fact that Putin wants the Russian empire back is not even a secret. He is the quintessential product of the previous Russian empire, the Soviets. Watching its demise when he worked with the Stasi (hello!) in East Germany was the formative event of his life: He swore to bring it back.
So when right wing Americans (and some renowned Canadians) flock to Russia because they identified flaws in their own countries – they are just as dumb as the left wing French and American intellectuals were in the 20th century sucking up to the very same thing: The Russian leader of the day.
Being a loud “anti-communist” is no proof of anything, just that they happen to hate that word. But they might very well like the thing beneath the word: autocracy.
Jordan Peterson openly managed to lick up to Russia – breathtakingly poor judgment from someone who claims to be upset with communism. Carlson may not go as far as licking Putin, but in an effort to build up Orbán as a smarter version of Trump he conveniently overlooked Orbán’s Chinese and Russian overlords. Also, his obvious failures. Only in the increasingly deluded mind of Orbán, for instance, would Hungary be a better place to live than the west. And only a desperate faux-conservative and fake patriot like Carlson would let that comment slide.
Do these useful idiots know that their idols are dictatorships? Of course they do. But they are blinded by their own condescension and happily lap up the dictators’ argument that people are so stupid, they must be ruled with an iron fist and controlled in their own interest.
After all, that is what every substandard intellectual ever thinks about other people: that they are idiots. These supposed intellectuals are not smart enough to see how this belief makes them the part of the problem. And being offered a chance to identify with the enlightened rulers who will make the world better with an iron fist is just too tempting for a poor, weak intellectual to resist.
When Carlson recommended Hungary as a (racially) pure place to live for (racist) Americans, he was no better than French intellectuals who so believed in the propaganda of the Soviet Union that they went to live there – only to find out that their praise of communism was not welcomed there. To their surprise, their constructive criticism was punished by stints on the Gulag and even the praise of the dictator was discouraged for he had his own people to do it better.
Carlson’s words prompted a massive spike in web searches about living in Hungary – a spike even this blog has felt – so, in a way, he is doing the same thing. We don’t have a Gulag right now, and an American can be blissfully ignorant here as long as he brings his American income and doesn’t understand the language. But to say that it will remain so for long is to say that an autocracy can stop on the slippery slope. In their better moments even the likes of Carlson and Peterson know that it is not how autocracies work. Maybe we should tell them it is left wing and they would suddenly see its flaws. Just as the lack of a mask mandate doesn’t make a country individualist (Carlson), the lack of pronoun-fixation doesn’t make an autocrat right (Peterson) and state healthcare doesn’t justify a dictatorship (Moore).
Today’s right wing Americans may call themselves patriotic, but they don’t understand the first thing of what made America great.
Behind the façade of paying lip service to individualism, they embrace the dumbest, gut-level collectivism and tribalism, based on race and ethnicity – just like their left wing enemies do. They yap about liberty, but they love strongmen and don’t realize that oppressing others is not liberty either.
They adore dictators who kneecapped free enterprises at home and forced companies into the hands of loyalists. As a matter of fact, American Republicans are far from pro-market. They are so pro-business, they are happy to harness state power in their own, warped financial interest. Calling this de facto oligarchy freedom is an atrocity to the concept of freedom. Ignorant idiots like Carlson blast politicians who never worked in their lives – yet they submissively interview autocrats who never worked in the private sector and openly want to crush it.
Republicans suck up to the same, dumb and aggressively irrational religionism that the founders of their country escaped from in Europe. Far from being enlightened – now they just want to rule at any cost (to those who are ruled).
For those who suffer from past and present oppression, useful idiots are a slap on the face. They come across as a bunch of idiots so caught up in their domestic partisanship that they can’t see the rest of the world clearly. They would be amusing if they weren’t so detrimental to the public discourse both at home and in the countries they affect. And if they didn’t eat the last morsel of food that was stolen from the tables of the peasants who have the misfortune to live in the Real Existing Fantasy of their respective dictatorships, left and right.