Sunday’s edition of the New York Times had an interesting little piece by the newspaper’s token conservative op-ed writer Ross Douthat, entitled ‘The Strange Death of Liberal Russophobia’, a by-line echoing the title of George Dangerfield’s famous 1935 book The Strange Death of Liberal England. Douthat notes that between 2016 and 2020, when Donald Trump was president of the USA, among American liberals,
[Russian president Vladimir] Putin was a figure of extraordinary menace whose tentacles extended everywhere, from Brexit to the NRA. He had hacked American democracy, placed a Manchurian candidate in the White House, sowed the internet with misinformation, placed bounties on our soldiers in Afghanistan, extended Russian power across the Middle East and threatened Eastern Europe with invasion or subversion. In this atmosphere ever rumor about Russian perfidy was pre-emptively believed, and the defense of liberal democracy required recognizing that we had been thrust into Cold War 2.0.
Douthat isn’t wrong about that. For a period of four years, Putin derangement syndrome, allied to an overarching Russophobia, became a centrepiece of the Democratic party’s identity. It was to be expected that once Joe Biden became president, US policy towards Russia would become even more hardline. But, Douthat notes, the opposite has happened:
Now comes Biden, making moves in Russia policy that are essentially conciliatory – freezing a military aid package to Ukraine, ending US sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline linking Germany to Russia, a return of ambassadors – and setting a summit that can reasonably be regarded as a modest propaganda coup for Putin.
And yet, all this – which if Trump had done it, would have led to screams of betrayal and have been seen as proof that Trump was working on behalf of the Kremlin – has passed by with nary of a squeak of protest from the same American liberals who just a short while ago were portraying Moscow as the source of all evil.
Douthat argues that it’s a sign of ‘the wisdom of the Biden administration in recognizing that certain Trump-era hysterias within its party can be safely put to sleep.’ According to Douthat, the Russophobic lunacy was the purview of one particular part of the Democratic party – what George Packer calls ‘Smart America’ (‘which is basically meritocratic elites’). This group ‘wanted to blame all its own failures on Russian disinformation’, but it isn’t Biden’s core constituency. He therefore feels free to ignore it and to pursue an essentially Realist policy towards the Russian Federation.
There maybe something to this theory. But I suggest another – the ‘strange’ death of liberal Russophobia isn’t so ‘strange’ at all. Its rise and fall indicates that it was always a tactic more than anything else. Russia-bashing was a method chosen by elements in the Democratic party as a means of undermining Trump and so winning back power. It wasn’t in my view a very good method, and I don’t think that Biden’s victory owed much if anything to it, but it was always a method not an end in itself. That doesn’t mean that ‘Smart America’ didn’t come to believe its own Russophobic propaganda – I get a strong sense that its members repeated its claims so often that in due course they became true believers. But from Biden’s point of view, once Trump was gone, the method had served its purpose. There is no longer any reason to make a central point of Democratic rhetoric.
And so, having outlived its usefulness, it has been discarded. Or at least, one hopes it has. I’m not convinced that it’s exactly suffered a ‘death’, as Douthat put it. It’s still there, with a strong hold on parts of the liberal establishment in the USA. But it seems that at least for now, Biden is prepared to largely ignore it. In that sense, when Douthat speaks of the ‘wisdom of the Biden administration’, one has to agree.