How Tucker Carlson became Putin’s useful idiot

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A century has now passed since the death of Lenin in January 1924. But “useful idiots” — the term usually attributed to Lenin — are still making the trek to the Kremlin to broadcast Russia’s message back to the west. The latest in this long line of credulous foreigners is Tucker Carlson, a self-styled journalist, whose interview with Vladimir Putin was broadcast earlier this week.

A key characteristic of the useful idiot is insularity. Typically, they are obsessed by domestic political vendettas. They look to a foreign leader such as Putin (or before him, Castro or Mao) to validate their own parochial obsessions. Carlson used his audience with Putin to ask a series of leading questions, hoping the Russian leader would chuck back some red meat for the Maga crowd in the US. Did Putin think that America was a system “not run by people who are elected?” Did Putin regard himself as a Christian leader? Is Joe Biden’s administration undermining the dollar? Did US vice-president Kamala Harris try to provoke Russia into war? Is President Volodymyr Zelenskyy simply a puppet of the Biden administration?

Putin often declined to take the bait. This was not out of solicitude for Biden or regard for the truth. It was simply that the Russian president was busy dwelling on his own obsessions — in particular the history of Russia and Ukraine. One could sense Carlson’s rising panic during Putin’s extended opening monologue, as the Russian leader treated Middle America to a lecture on the crucial significance of Yaroslav the Wise, Grand Prince of Kyiv in 1019. The whole encounter would have been funny if the background to this bizarre conversation was not so tragic.

However, it would also be a mistake to believe that Carlson and Putin were simply talking past each other. In important respects, the two men do have a common purpose and common enemies. Back in his days on Fox TV, Carlson told his audience to ask themselves, “Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him?” The Russian leader, Carlson suggested, was not a threat to Middle America. The real enemy are “woke” liberals intent on flooding the US with migrants, undermining American democracy and promoting transgender rights.

Carlson has also denounced Zelenskyy in florid terms, calling the Ukrainian leader “a dictator, a dangerous authoritarian”. It is little wonder that this American celebrity was so welcome in the Kremlin. Predictably, Carlson invited Putin to agree that Zelenskyy follows orders from the US government. But Putin failed to endorse that idea. He even seemed to hold open the possibility that Zelenskyy could decide to be a partner in peace negotiations.

At other times, however, Putin has shown himself all too aware of the ideological bugbears of the US far-right — and more than willing to cater to them. As the Russian analyst Mikhail Zygar points out in a recent article for Foreign Affairs, Putin and his circle have deliberately waded into the “war on woke” in an effort to find allies on the far-right in America and Europe.

In a 2013 speech, the Russian leader suggested that, “Many Euro-Atlantic countries have gone down the path of abandoning their roots, including Christian values” and had been unable to integrate “foreign cultural elements” into their societies. More recently, Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s national security council and one of Putin’s closest confidants, has denounced the Black Lives Matter movement in the US and suggested that there are parts of America “where whites are forbidden to enter”. As Zygar writes: “Such remarks could easily have been written by . . . Tucker Carlson.”

Putin and his allies have also hit other key themes beloved of the Trumpist US right — such as opposition to abortion and hostility to LGBTQ “propaganda”. Putin and Carlson share some of the same allies: Carlson travelled to Budapest to conduct a fawning interview with Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian leader — who has also acted as a sympathetic voice for Putin within the EU. Elon Musk, the boss of Tesla and X, was thanked effusively by Carlson for providing a platform for his Putin interview and then got a favourable mention from the Russian leader himself, who told Carlson, “There is no stopping Elon Musk.”

Carlson has promoted the “great replacement” conspiracy theory — the idea that the US elite is deliberately promoting mass immigration to create a bloc of compliant voters. Musk recently flirted with the same idea, accusing the Biden administration of “actively facilitating illegal immigration” and suggested they see migrants as “future Dem voters”.

The interview with Putin came at a crucial time in US politics — an intensifying presidential race, and aid to Ukraine being blocked by Republicans in Congress. With some relish, Putin told Carlson that if America stops supplying weapons to Ukraine, the war would be over “in a few weeks”.

The Russian leader seized the chance to tip the Washington debate further in Russia’s direction. But his eccentric history lectures are unlikely to have swayed many votes on Capitol Hill. Yaroslav the Wise might have done better.

gideon.rachman@ft.com

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