Right-wing switchback: "National conservatives" dump Putin, want to claim Ukraine

At global gathering of right-wing nationalists, a startling pivot: Putin's toast — and wow, do they love Ukraine

By Kathryn Joyce

Investigative Reporter

Published April 13, 2022 6:30AM (EDT)

Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskyy (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskyy (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

From the first day of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic have been placed in an uneasy position. For more than two decades, right-wing activists and politicians have praised Russia as the unlikely wellspring of renewed traditionalism, as Vladimir Putin intertwined church and state in an effort to bolster Russian nationalism and, more quietly, his aspirations to reconstruct the Soviet empire. 

When the launch of Putin's war coincided with the first day of the Conservative Political Action conference in late February, a dizzying ideological switchback began. Speakers who had declared just days or hours earlier that they didn't care about the fate of Ukraine were rapidly forced to recalibrate. Fox News' Tucker Carlson, who in 2019 declared he was "root[ing] for Russia" in its conflict with Ukraine, was compelled to recant, at least temporarily. In Europe, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who had celebrated his long and fond relationship with Putin in Moscow just weeks before Russia invaded, issued a tepid condemnation. (Hungary is a member state of both the EU and NATO, though its relationship with both is tense.)

At least initially, on the broader, more ideological level, there was a sense that Russia's aggression — and Putin's claims that he was fighting not just Ukraine but the whole of the "degenerate" West — would engender a rebuke of the "illiberal" populist movements that have swept far-right leaders into power around the world. 

RELATED: Russia's holy war: Vladimir Putin, Pope Francis, the Virgin Mary and the fate of Ukraine

As the Washington Post editorial board put it this week, Putin had launched two wars, the second being a war of ideas over the international illiberal agenda Russia has helped lead. Or as columnist Brad Littlejohn wrote at The American Conservative, "behind the battles being waged on the plains of Ukraine was a deeper battle over the narrative that would frame Russia's invasion, the lessons the West must learn from it, and the vision for a future Europe that ought to emerge on the other side of this crisis." 

One contingent on the right that might have seemed particularly vulnerable to this reordering of the political arena are the National Conservatives: a relatively new international right-wing coalition that seeks to rehabilitate the idea of nationalism as a virtue and to oppose the emphasis on individual freedom and pluralism in classical liberalism — meaning the libertarian, small-L liberalism that "mainstream" conservatives used to embrace — as incompatible with traditional values. 

For the last several years, the "NatCons," who held a high-profile meeting in Orlando last November that drew numerous conservative intellectuals and politicians, have labored to combine right-wing social mores, public religiosity and newly interventionist economic policies into a movement better positioned for a populist age. In that effort, they've frequently looked to Orbán as inspiration, especially for the way he has wielded authoritarian measures toward traditionalist ends, even as Orbán has clearly been looking to Russia. 

At their recent conference, the NatCons pivoted to the mind-bending claim that Ukraine's struggle embodies right-wing nationalism, not "Western liberal values."

Yet when the NatCons gathered several weeks ago in Brussels, for their fifth international conference, the dominant message of the speakers was not reassessment or remorse, but vindication. Not because of any overt or coded sympathy for Russian aggression — the speakers were so uniformly vitriolic in condemning the invasion that conservative writer Rod Dreher, another presenter, noted it was "almost impossible to dissent from anti-Russian maximalism" — but rather because of their ambitious and perhaps mind-bending claim that Ukraine's struggle against an invading army embodied their values, not those of the democratic center or left. 

One former European Parliament member from the U.K., Brigadier Geoffrey Charles van Orden, claimed, citing an unnamed observer in Ukraine, that there were no evident "Western liberal values behind the noble Ukrainian struggle," which was rooted in centuries of Ukrainian nationalist patriotism instead. Another speaker, former Hungarian diplomat Attila Demkó, suggested that a woke Western fixation on "micro-aggressions" had left Europe too soft to anticipate a macro-aggressor like Putin. 

Chris DeMuth, former president of the American Enterprise Institute and chair of the 2021 National Conservatism conference, opened the gathering (in a speech later adapted for a Wall Street Journal op-ed), by arguing that "the free world has fallen prey to certain soft conceits which Putin and his ilk are right to see as weaknesses." While "experts claimed that nation states and borders were barbaric vestiges and global bureaucracies could usher in peace and harmony," he continued, "it turned out that we had actual barbarians in the here and now, and that nations with borders were essential to peace and harmony."

All told, reflected conference organizer Yoram Hazony, it was "not a bad moment" for nationalism. Hazony, an Israeli political theorist and chair of the Edmund Burke Foundation, is not just the chief organizer of the NatCon conference series, but one of the main architects of the movement, as author of the 2018 book "The Virtue of Nationalism." For years, Hazony said, critics of his movement had argued there was little difference between nationalism and imperialism. But the Ukraine war, he said, had demolished that argument. 

Nationalists, he said, looked at Russia's invasion and recognized it as unjust, proclaiming "that a people has a right, if it's capable of asserting that right, to be able to chart its own course." By contrast, "imperialists" — a category Hazony defines in his own terms — viewed the idea of independent nations dismissively, asking, "What difference do the borders really make? And why should everybody have their own laws when we know what the right laws are?" 

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You may guess where this is going. As Hazony continued: "There are plenty of people in Russia who think that." And likewise, he said, "plenty of people in Brussels, and in Berlin and in Washington." 

This speaks to a core conviction of the national conservatives: that ever since World War II, the concept of nationalism has been unfairly smeared as the driving force behind the crimes of Hitler's Germany or Stalin's Soviet Union, when both examples should correctly be seen as the excesses of empire. 

Ofir Haivry, Hazony's right-hand man at the Herzl Institute, a Jerusalem think tank, argued that this narrative was a deliberate misrepresentation concocted by liberals and Marxists, who he said had conspired in the aftermath of World War II to deflect blame from their own ideologies — since, as he put it, "many liberals were imperialists and Marxists of course were totalitarian." Since then, he argued, the liberal domination of academia had propagated the anti-nationalist argument until it became canonical. Today, he continued, the same old con was continuing, with liberals casting Russia's war "as a conflict between nationalism, represented by Russia, and liberal democracy, represented by Ukraine." That, in turn, he said, was leading to calls for a new round of imperialism: to erect a "liberal empire" to stand against Russian imperialism. 

The new "Evil Empire"

This, too, gets at a driving narrative among NatCons, and the "post-liberal" conservatives who largely compose its ranks. For them, nationalism, properly understood, represents the good fight against empire, and imperialism these days is primarily found on the left, deploying the soft power of culture, international standards and corporate might to build a "woke" empire that represses conservative or "traditional" values. 

For this new wave of conservatives, nationalism is the good fight against empire, and "woke" imperialism is the province of the left.

The Brussels conference drew numerous politicians, including a Ukrainian ambassador, multiple members of the European Parliament and representatives from national governments including Poland, Hungary, Britain, the Netherlands, Greece and more. Writing in the British publication The Critic, Sebastian Milbank noted that Marion Maréchal, the estranged niece of far-right populist French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, was initially listed as a speaker but apparently dropped out. But Finnish legislator Päivi Räsänen — whose recent prosecution under Finnish hate speech laws for making anti-LGBTQ statements briefly made her a Fox News cause célèbre — was there with one of her attorneys: an Irish lawyer in France who works for the international wing of Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian right advocacy group based in the U.S. 

Räsänen's prosecution — which ended in acquittal two weeks ago — as well as the European Union's recent sanctions against Poland and Hungary for their repressive policies toward women, LGBTQ people and migrants, and their restrictions on free speech and the courts, were all held up at the conference as examples of how liberal empire works today. 

Judit Varga, Hungary's minister of justice, delivered an angry rebuke to the EU over the sanctions, charging that the body was using "the rule of law" as "a blackmailing tool to press member states to [toe the line] and if legal measures are not enough, to pressure member states ideologically." 

Arguing that "political correctness and multiculturalism" have supplanted the common sense that once made Europe great, Varga said, "What is at stake is the European way of life, the respect for Judeo-Christian heritage, our common history and culture, our diversity of national identities and our European freedom. I might say the Christian freedom … that is resilient to the pressure of ideological hegemony and [which] includes not only civil and political freedoms … but also, for example, the right to decide with whom we want to live, the right to defend our families and raise and educate our children in a way we wish to do." 

Varga was clearly referring to some of Hungary's most controversial positions, without quite spelling them out. Those include its near-total ban (at least before until the Ukraine war) on migrants and refugees, whom Orbán has cast as "Muslim invaders"; its prohibition on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ adoption rights; and its Russia-inspired "don't say gay" law that forbids sharing LGBTQ "content" with children. 

Constantinos Bogdanos, a former Greek lawmaker recently expelled from his own party for extremism — he appeared with members of Golden Dawn, a now-defunct neo-Nazi party, and publicized the names of migrant kindergarteners at a school in Athens — described Ukrainians' valiant defiance of Russia as a model for how conservatives should respond to a liberal political order. "We live in a world that aims towards negating the terms that are the foundation of our common perception and experience," he said. "There is no respect or even no allowed concept nowadays of what is right and wrong, good or bad. There is no permission to talk about nations, there is no permission to talk about genders. So we all stand with Ukraine because it reintroduces what is right, as simple as that." 

David Engels, a Belgian historian, was more succinct: The European Union, he declared, was the new "evil empire." 

Ukrainians are "real refugees" 

There were relatively few American speakers, but Josh Hammer, the right-wing opinion editor of Newsweek, used the occasion to offer his prescription for a NatCon-style immigration policy, founded on the premise that a nation is not just an idea or a constitutional construct, but rather "a common people with a shared culture, religious heritage, customs, habits and a way of life." 

Such a definition of nationhood, Hammer said, was imperative if countries wanted to be able to establish limits on immigration — contrary to what he described as the EU's intentional effort to use immigration "to stamp out any local or parochial difference" and "dilute" Europe's "Christian heritage" by "flood[ing] the continent with migrants of alien cultural or religious backgrounds…and with other colorful inflows more broadly that better reflect the modern left's intersectional sensibilities." 

Allowing such a diverse influx, he said, inevitably leads towards "balkanization" as immigrants fail to assimilate. Instead he argued that the U.S. should "codify into law a prioritization above all else of the need for cultural assimilation," rejecting merit- or skill-based immigration policies in favor of the explicit ethnic restrictions found in countries like Israel or Japan. 

This too was a common theme, as numerous speakers took pains to distinguish between the refugees fleeing war in Ukraine, and the other sorts of refugees they have vehemently opposed for years.

A Hungarian speaker insisted that we can't "draw any parallel between the Ukrainian refugee crisis and the migration crisis of earlier years," because they are somehow "completely different."

Reiterating Orbán's perspective that migration endangers Hungary's "cultural sovereignty and self-identity" as well as bringing "social tension and inevitable disturbances while destroying the cultural identity of Europe," Varga said it was "important not to draw any parallel between the current Ukrainian refugee crisis and the migration crisis of earlier years," because "this crisis is completely different." 

Juan Ángel Soto Gómez, the international director of Fundación Disenso, a think tank established by Spain's right-wing Vox party, likewise charged that large-scale immigration "dissolves national identity" and is a tool being used strategically "by third parties" to create domestic unrest. 

Demkó, the former Hungarian diplomat, made a similar point, declaring of displaced Ukrainians, "These are real refugees from a neighboring country. Not like in 2015 when we were told we had to take refugees from five countries away, 80% [of them] young male." 

Dreams of a conservative "reconquista"

Following this theme, a number of speakers argued that it was imperative to revive Christianity on a grand scale in Europe in order to maintain its culture. 

Dreher, another mainstay of the NatCon conferences and discourse online, said that while "we must never return to a form of Christianity that persecutes" non-believers, that threat should not deter the faithful from striving to establish "a healthy Christian democracy," like Hungary's. "The idea that public Christianity inevitably means bigotry is a slander that secular liberals use to marginalize believers, to intimidate us and to dispossess European peoples of their past," he said. 

Just such a dispossession had occurred, Dreher continued, when the EU Constitution rejected proposals to designate Christianity as a special aspect of European heritage. That reflected, he claimed, the "totalitarian" impulse to "eliminate the shared memories of the peoples they wish to conquer." 

David Engels said that there was a deep feeling among conservatives "that our own civilization, like all others before, is gradually coming to an end," largely due to the dwindling numbers of people who embrace Western civilization as their heritage. "Whoever is a true national patriot knows that the defense of his country is only possible through the defense of the Western identity in its entirety," he continued. "Only by acknowledging our common Western identity and our common Judeo-Christian values, only by creating a new sacrum imperium, a new holy empire, can we overcome the current EU, the evil empire." 

Belgian historian David Engels called the EU an "evil empire," which can be overcome "through the defense of Western identity" and "creating a new sacrum imperium, a new holy empire."

Engels called for conservatives to establish parallel education, media and social welfare systems outside government control, and to establish "regional power centers" that could serve as a launching pad "for the reconquest of the state as a whole." Similarly, within the larger context of the EU, he called for Eastern European states to "become an offensive agent of Western patriotism and the conservative reconquista of our continent through economic engagement, media outreach, political pressure and cultural example." 

Conservatives had reason to hope, he argued, that the war against Russia might not only liberate Ukraine but, eventually, other Russian-dominated countries as well, which would expand the ranks of conservative states to the East. These revitalized nations, he imagined, might "become an effective counterweight to the current Paris-Berlin axis and perhaps bring about a decisive change of course for the European Union." 

"National populism is not dead"

In the weeks since the conference, questions around the role of the right in Europe have only continued. 

At the beginning of this month, Orbán was reelected to a third term in Hungary, and last weekend in France, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, long known for her vehement anti-immigration rhetoric, advanced to a runoff against President Emmanuel Macron. The news on both fronts, wrote New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat, served as a rude awakening for those who'd hoped that the war in Ukraine might reinvigorate Western liberalism. 

In the case of France, Le Pen's strong showing, just a few percentage points behind Macron, raised the possibility that a cornerstone of NATO might become one of the newest illiberal nations in the EU. After two previous failed presidential campaigns, Le Pen has tried to soften her image — leading, among other things, to her niece Marion Maréchal endorsing the even further-right Éric Zemmour, a favorite of the NatCon crowd — but has maintained some of her most xenophobic positions, including a promise to amend the French constitution to ban "the installation on national territory of a number of foreigners so large that it would change the composition and identity of the French people." This result suggests that Le Pen's connections to Russia, including a 9 million euro Russian bank loan that financed an earlier campaign, and a flyer this year that showed her shaking hands with Putin, haven't proved politically fatal. 

In Hungary, Orbán proclaimed victory over not just his actual opponent but also against "the international left, the Brussels bureaucrat, the Soros empire with all its money, the international mainstream media, and … even the president of Ukraine." The last was a response to Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who had chastised Hungary's neutral stance and challenged Orbán to decide "once and for all…who you are with." 

To NatCons like Dreher, Orbán's victory was a heartening sign. The Hungarian leader had savvily positioned himself as a right-wing "peace candidate," Dreher wrote, and avoided being "morally blackmailed by Zelensky." This also proved that "national-populism is not dead," he argued, and that despite the hopes of the "liberal internationalist class," Putin's war had not vanquished "Trumpist populism." 

Dreher called on American conservatives to follow in Orbán's footsteps and confront the supposed leftist domination of cultural institutions through measures like Republicans' recent call for punishing Disney. That, Dreher said, was "a pure Orbán move. We need to see more of it." 

In all likelihood, we will.

Read more from Kathryn Joyce on religion and the far right:

By Kathryn Joyce

Kathryn Joyce was an investigative reporter at Salon, and the author of two books: "The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption" and "Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement."

MORE FROM Kathryn Joyce

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Conservatives Marine Le Pen Reporting Rod Dreher Viktor Orbán Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelenskyy