For some time, I have been watching the culture wars from a safe distance. The issues involved are sometimes interesting. But the vicious, career-ending nature of the arguments has dissuaded me from actually entering the debate.
So instead I have stayed in my geopolitical lane, avoiding explosive subjects such as transgender bathrooms in favour of relatively uncontroversial topics such as Brexit or nuclear war.
Now I am reluctantly concluding that my safe space of geopolitics is merging with the culture wars. Look at the speeches of Vladimir Putin. The justifications the Russian leader offers for the invasion of Ukraine do not rest solely on security or history. Increasingly, Putin is presenting the war in Ukraine as part of the culture wars.
In his speech on September 30th, celebrating Russia’s annexation of four regions of Ukraine, Putin accused the West of “moving towards Satanism” and “teaching sexual deviation to children”. He asserted that “we’re fighting to protect our children and our grandchildren from this experiment to change their souls”.
These arguments are not aimed solely, or perhaps even mainly, at the Russian people. Putin is also flirting with an important constituency in the West – cultural conservatives who are so disgusted by the alleged decadence of their own societies that they are attracted to Putin’s Russia.
On the eve of the war in Ukraine, Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, remarked on his podcast: “Putin ain’t woke. He’s anti-woke.” To which Erik Prince, his interviewee, replied: “The Russian people still know which bathroom to use.”
Around the same time, Tucker Carlson, perhaps the most influential pro-Trump TV host in America, told his audience to ask themselves: “Has Putin ever called me a racist? ... Is he trying to snuff out Christianity?”
The “war on woke” is now absolutely central to Republican party politics. On these issues, many Republicans feel closer to Putin than to the Democrats. As Jacob Heilbrunn, an astute analyst of conservative America, put it to me recently, the far right of the GOP “see Putin as a defender of traditional Christian values and an opponent of LGBTQ, an opponent of transgender and an opponent of the weakening of masculine virtues that were responsible for the rise of the West”.
In 2021, Ted Cruz retweeted a video that contrasted a Russian recruitment ad, full of shaven-headed, muscle-bound troops, with a US ad featuring a female soldier raised by a lesbian couple. The Republican senator mused: “Perhaps a woke, emasculated military is not the best idea.”
The Russian military’s disastrous performance in Ukraine suggests a riposte to Cruz: perhaps brutalising your military and treating them as cannon fodder is not the best idea. But while it is no longer so fashionable to laud Putin’s Russia, the US right has latched on to other foreign authoritarians as allies in the culture wars.
Last May, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán hosted the US Conservative Political Action Conference and urged them to wage a common fight against “progressive liberals, neo-Marxists, intoxicated by the dream of wokeness, those in the pay of George Soros ... They want to abolish the western way of life.” Orbán is widely seen as the European Union leader most sympathetic to Putin.
The overlap between nationalism and the anti-woke crusade is not a coincidence. They are linked by nostalgia for a mythologised past of national greatness and cultural homogeneity, when “men were men” and women and minorities knew their place. It is not surprising that the America-first nationalists of Trump should feel an affinity with fellow nationalists in Hungary or Russia.
But while the battle lines in the war in Ukraine and the war on woke overlap, they are far from identical. The Polish government takes a similar view to Orbán on LGBT issues but a very different line on Ukraine and Russia.
Some of Putin’s efforts to reach out to assumed allies in the West have been ham-fisted in the extreme. He once tried to link Russia’s fate with that of JK Rowling, arguing that his nation, like the British author, was being “cancelled”. Rowling responded acidly that “critiques of western cancel culture are possibly best not made by those currently slaughtering civilians”.
Israel is an interesting example of a country that has straddled the divide, leaning left on culture war issues and hard right on nationalism. The Israelis have sometimes been accused of “pinkwashing”, using their liberalism on LGBT issues to cover for harsh policies towards the Palestinians. That approach could be summarised as “ignore Gaza, look at our Gay Pride parade.”
But the current coalition government, headed by Binyamin Netanyahu, is endangering this careful straddle. It includes ministers from religious right parties, who have implied that doctors should be allowed to refuse to treat gay patients. Netanyahu in the past has cultivated close relations with Orbán, Putin and Jair Bolsonaro, the gay-bashing former president of Brazil. But he also knows that he must maintain a working relationship with a White House in which the dreaded woke liberals are very much in evidence.
The culture wars have become part of today’s geopolitical struggles. But the overlapping alliances in these conflicts are creating strange bedfellows.
Gideon Rachman is a Financial Times columnist. This article first appeared in the Financial Times