‘Extremists turn to a leader to protect Western values: Vladimir Putin’. So screams the headline of an article in Sunday’s edition of the New York Times. The article takes up an entire page, an indication that the newspaper’s editors consider its message to be of great importance. It says:
Throughout the collection of white ethnocentrists, nationalists, populists and neo-Nazis that has taken root on both sides of the Atlantic, Mr. Putin is widely revered as a kind of white knight: a symbol of strength, racial purity and traditional Christian values in a world under threat from Islam, immigrants and rootless cosmopolitan elites. Fascination with and, in many cases, adoration of Mr. Putin – or at least a distorted image of him – first took hold among far-right politicians in Europe, many of whom have since developed close relations with their brethren in the United States. Such ties across the Atlantic have helped spread the view of Mr. Putin’s Russia as an ideal model. … Russia also shares with far-right groups across the world a deeply held belief that, regardless of their party, traditional elites should be deposed because of their support for globalism and transnational institutions like NATO and the European Union.
Building on this, the article paints Russia as a threat to national and international security, because of its ‘efforts … to organize and inspire extreme right-wing groups in the United States and Europe.’
And yet, buried in the middle of the article are a number of interesting titbits which undermine this thesis. After claiming that Russia has provided financial and logistical support to far-right forces in the West, the article admits that ‘the only proven case so far involves the National Front in France’. Moreover, Russia ‘has jailed some of its own white supremacist agitators’, and, as the New York Times confesses,
Mr. Putin has never personally promoted white supremacist ideas, and has repeatedly insisted that Russia, while predominantly white and Christian, is a vast territory of diverse religions and ethnic groups stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Nor has he displayed any sign of hostility toward Jews, a fact that has infuriated some of Russia’s more extremist nationalist groups.
One might imagine that at this point the article’s authors would change tack and take the opportunity to argue that Putin had been wrongly tarred with the extremist brush. This, however, would undermine the apparent purpose of the piece, so instead the authors plough on ahead with the tarring, while making an increasing mess of themselves in the process.
For instance, after discussing alt-right activist Richard Spencer, who recently caused a scandal by making a Nazi salute and shouting ‘Hail Trump’, the article says ‘Mr. Spencer acknowledged that Mr. Putin did not share his ideology.’ Next, the authors mention a conference of European and American nationalists organized in Russia by the Rodina party (which got about 1% of the vote in the recent Duma elections), but cite organizer Fyodor Biryukov as saying that ‘the Kremlin had not supported the event.’ Despite this, the article concludes that ‘Mr. Putin’s Russia [is] now the home of a new global alliance of far-right groups.’
The New York Times never says as much, but with a sort of ‘wink, wink’ it implies guilt by association: ‘White ethnocentrists and neo-Nazis’ like Putin, ergo Putin must be a neo-Nazi. This is a classic example of what is sometimes called the ‘association fallacy’ or ‘bad company fallacy’. And yet, the evidence in the article doesn’t actually support the message implied in the headline. It isn’t ‘fake news’, but it’s misleading nonetheless.