The Conservative Nationalists and their Con Game with Ukraine

The Danger of an Illusion

Christian nationalist and xenophobic Trumpian ideologies have migrated from the toxic hinterlands of conservatism into the fetid vortex of the Republican Party, much to the shock and dismay of old-style conservatives with whom you might have enjoyed (if only briefly) a coffee and a bagel. One clear example of this is Trump’s former White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, now a co-host of the Fox News show ‘Outnumbered.’ As Kathryn Joyce reports, McEnany ‘called for fighting the forces of ‘darkness’ (which were not clearly delineated) by ‘filling the world’ with ‘Christian babies’ during an interview with conservative Christian actor and activist Kirk Cameron.’ A cross-brandishing votary of Donald Trump, McEnany has made her Christian (Southern Baptist) faith a central bearing of her public image. She followed in the footsteps of the former White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who read a ‘Jesus calling’ before every press briefing. To speak from one’s faith-based experience and share it with others is fine, but mixing faith and belief with today’s toxic politics has serious challenges and ramifications, especially when you claim that Jesus had installed you in the briefing room of the White House. While she may not have literally bowed before the golden idol of Trump that was paraded out at the 2021 Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference (a shiny, life-size stainless-steel sculpture painted gold that depicts the 45th president, holding a copy of the Constitution, wearing shorts fashioned after the American flag and with what looks like a magic wand in his hand), McEnany represents many in the evangelical world who adore Donald Trump because of his stance against LGBTQ rights, immigrants, abortion providers, woke liberals, Muslims and taxing the wealthy. After all, to them being rich means being in favour with God (exactly the opposite of what the Gospels teach).

Presidents, too, have expressed their religious beliefs while in office. Reagan wrote a letter saying, ‘My daily prayer is that God will help me to use this position so as to serve Him. Teddy Roosevelt once called the presidency a bully pulpit. I intend to use it to the best of my ability to serve the Lord.’ After an unsuccessful 1981 assassination attempt caused Reagan to reflect upon his faith, a Secret Service guard protecting Reagan recalled Reagan saying: ‘God knew I needed a nudge. God wanted that assassination attempt to happen. He gave me a wake-up call. Everything I do from now on, I owe to God.’ The words of Bush Jr. are more difficult to forget when he proclaimed, ‘There is only one reason that I am here in the Oval Office and not in a bar. I found faith. I found God. I am here because of the power of prayer.’ He revealed the fervour of his Christian faith to a Palestinian delegation during the Israeli-Palestinian summit at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, shortly after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Nabil Shaath was the Palestinian foreign minister at the time and also part of the delegation. She famously remarked: ‘President Bush said to all of us: “I am driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, ‘George, go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan.’ And I did. And then God would tell me, ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq.’ And I did.”’ The US-backed military campaign that defeated Islamic State militants in Iraq resulted ‘in $45.7 billion in damage to the country’s houses, power plants, schools and other civilian infrastructure,’ according to a new assessment by experts at the World Bank and the Iraqi government. It has been reported that more than 500,000 children had died as a result of UN-imposed sanctions in Iraq. Population-based studies produce estimates of the number of Iraq War casualties ranging from 151,000 violent deaths to 1,033,000 excess deaths.

Was Bush Jr.’s decision to encourage former Soviet satellite countries to join NATO a response to a religious directive? ‘Dear George, move east and take NATO to the steps of Russia. Yours, God.’ After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev had presented a vision of a unified Eurasia from Lisbon to Vladivostok with no military alliances. Bush Sr. responded with a ‘Partnership for Peace’ initiative, which allowed countries to join the Partnership for Peace without a connection to NATO. Bush Sr. made a promise to Gorbachev that NATO would not extend one inch to the east, meaning to the east of East Germany. And Bush Jr. was in clear violation of his father’s promise as Russian satellite countries, heeding the words of Bush Jr., started to join NATO. At a NATO summit meeting in Bucharest, Romania, Bush Jr. lobbied frantically to extend membership to Ukraine and Georgia. His key allies, such as Germany and France, who turned out to be more clear-headed than Bush, flatly rejected Bush’s plan to welcome Ukraine and Georgia into a Membership Action Plan. They wanted to get Russia to soften its opposition to positioning a missile defence array in Eastern Europe. At least seven countries lined up against Bush. However, all parties ‘agreed on the importance of keeping the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s door open to Ukraine and Georgia.’

Does a belief that God personally intervenes in the lives of politicians play a part in their political choices? Or is this more a matter of geopolitical brinkmanship? For all the praise for Judeo-Christian values that we are hearing from the far-right, one could easily come to the conclusion that evangelical politicians do believe that God directs them to make political choices, world-historical ones at that. Kathryn Joyce reports that ‘[f]rom the first day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic supporting Judeo-Christian values have been placed in an uneasy position. For more than two decades, these 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.’

The far-right, who for several decades had praised Putin’s holy alliance of church and state and championed his brand of nationalism as a glorious and patriotic virtue, underwent what Joyce calls an ‘ideological switchback’ when Putin launched its invasion of Ukraine (that ominously coincided with the first day of the Conservative Political Action conference in late February). Joyce writes:

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 a congress of conservative speakers from 19 nations who assembled for the second NatCon (National Conservative) Europe in Brussels, gathering under the auspices of the Edmund Burke Foundation, one might have expected Putin to be praised as a champion of traditionalism and the union of church and state while Ukraine would be denounced as a paragon of liberal democratic universalism, a martyr for ‘woke’ Western values that must be condemned. Not so, it turns out.

What exactly is National Conservatism? National Conservatism is opposed to a vision of a global ‘rules-based liberal order’ designed to bring peace and prosperity to the world. Rather, it is committed to a view of political conservatism that incorporates a fundamental role for nationalism, one that emphasizes the idea of ‘national traditions’ and presents itself as an alternative ‘to the excesses of purist libertarianism, and in stark opposition to political theories grounded in race.’

Here is how they define themselves:

‘National Conservatism’ is a movement of public figures, journalists, scholars, and students who understand that the past and future of conservatism are inextricably tied to the idea of the nation, to the principle of national independence, and to the revival of the unique national traditions that alone have the power to bind a people together and bring about their flourishing.

We envision a protracted effort to recover and reconsolidate the rich tradition of national conservative thought as an intellectually serious alternative to the excesses of purist libertarianism, and in stark opposition to political theories grounded in race. Our aim is to solidify and energize national conservatives, offering them a much-needed institutional base, substantial ideas in the areas of public policy, political theory, and economics, and an extensive support network across the country.

National conservatism is a project of the Edmund Burke Foundation, a new public affairs institute dedicated to developing a revitalized conservatism for the age of nationalism already upon us.

Brad Littlejohn, writing in The American Conservative, describes the convention scene in Brussels: ‘Speaker after speaker denounced Putin as an imperialist thug and Russia as a power with whom “no compromise is possible.” Prime Ministers Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland and Janez Janša of Slovenia called for unstinting solidarity with Ukraine. Indeed, from the perspective of the national conservatives gathered in Brussels last week, if anyone had cause to be outraged by Russia, it was them.’

Following this NatCon narrative,

Putin was no nationalist but fit the classic imperialist profile, heading up a massive multi-national empire and now hell-bent on gobbling up a weak neighbour. ‘Ukraine,’ said Richard Milsom, ‘was invaded because it insisted on being a fully sovereign nation, rather than accepting semi-dependent status.’ Moreover, far from being martyrs for universal liberal values, Ukrainians were offering a sterling depiction of something we had almost forgotten: a fierce, courageous love of one’s fatherland. As UK writer Henry George put it, they were ‘fighting, like Horatius, for “the ashes of their fathers and the temples of their gods.”’ They were proving again the importance of bonds of shared national loyalty and the consequences of European anomie.

According to Kathryn Joyce, Putin’s claim that he was fighting not just Ukraine but the whole of the ‘degenerate’ West forced ‘the ‘illiberal’ populist movements that have swept far-right leaders into power around the world’ to engender a rebuke since Putin effectively had ‘launched two wars, the second being a war of ideas over the international illiberal agenda Russia has helped lead.’ Suddenly the libertarianism associated with the NatCons was no longer in fashion since it did not fit into Putin’s war narrative. The NatCons who had ‘laboured to combine right-wing social mores, public religiosity and newly interventionist economic policies into a movement better positioned for a populist age’ and who had ‘looked to Orbán as inspiration, especially for the way he has wielded authoritarian measures toward traditionalist ends’ were forced to pivot in favour of Ukraine. They decided to describe Ukraine’s struggle as right-wing nationalism. Clever!

Many who are supportive of Ukraine’s embrace of Western liberal values would blanch – even vomit – at such an assertion. At the Brussels conference, the NatCons trotted out ‘their ambitious and perhaps mind-bending claim that Ukraine’s struggle against an invading army embodied their values, not those of the democratic centre or left.’ Joyce reports that a former European Parliament member from the UK, 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.’ Suddenly, support for Ukraine among the NatCons was attributed to Ukraine supporting the values of the NatCons, which eschewed Western liberal values. Well, that might be true of Svoboda, but this is a fringe political party. If you agree with the NatCons, then you are essentially admitting that there is little connection between nationalism and imperialism and are saddling up to the view of neonationalist Yoram Hazony, an Israeli political theorist and chair of the Edmund Burke Foundation, chief organizer of the NatCon conference series, and one of the main architects of the movement. His 2018 book The Virtue of Nationalism is one of the cornerstones of the NatCon movement.

Joyce summarizes Hazony’s position on Ukraine: ‘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?’ EU leadership was condemned as its own form of imperialism just as sinister as Putin’s. Both were in gross violation of national rights of self-determination and forcing a single vision of the good on all of Europe. Conservative reporter John Littlejohn rightly asks (and this is the one observation of his that I agree with):

How is this sort of nationalism not merely liberal individualism writ large? Many conference speakers, after all, were loud in their denunciation of the liberal ideal of the free, untrammelled, and self-determining individual, free to chart and pursue his own vision of the good without either the help or the hindrance of his fellow man or any higher authority. Wasn’t their ideal of the sovereign and self-determining nation simply Lockean man writ large?

Apparently, it was not.

So, following this bugged-out line of thinking, which can be likened to changing the rules in the middle of the game, the crimes of Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union are to be seen as ‘the excesses of empire’ and having little or nothing to do with nationalism. This view seems like it might have been hatched somewhere in the basement of a Vegas strip joint by a group of disbarred QAnon lawyers high on ‘blow’ – let’s make the liberals into imperialists and write off the Marxists as totalitarian – and let’s make them diametrically opposed to nationalism! Can’t you hear them chatting through the cigar smoke, ‘Liberals and their Marxist friends want to create a liberal imperialist empire designed to defeat Russian imperialism. Ah, yes, the real truth behind imperialist warfare! Lenin, you got it all wrong!’ According to the NatCons, nationalism (represented by the NatCons and Ukrainians) is pitted against empire and the imperialists (represented by the liberals and Marxists and Putin) are held captive by their thirst for conquering foreign territories. Imperialism, well, let’s ignore history and make solely it a leftist problem. Yes, just reverse the narrative. Nice try, NatCons.

If Dinesh D’Souza can claim in his book, The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left (2017), that fascism is really a problem of the left, not the right, then anything goes. It’s a geopolitical version of Pee-wee Herman’s, ‘I know you are, but what am I.’ Call Trump a racist, and he will proclaim himself the least racist person in the entire world (Trump has, in fact, been praised as the most moral president on record). Just argue it forcefully enough to an audience groomed by right-wing ideology to believe that any news that doesn’t praise Trump must be fake.

Mark Bray writes that

for D’Souza, right-wing libertarians are the only real anti-fascists. Not the labour unions, community self-defence organizations, and anti-fascist groups who tirelessly monitor local white supremacists, educate the public about their poisonous agendas, and confront them when necessary. No, as LGBTQ centres are attacked, and mosques are burnt down, D’Souza’s ‘anti-fascist agenda’ entails repealing Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, and tightening welfare provisions because fascism is ‘the all-powerful Leviathan state.’

In and of themselves, such arguments are hardly worthy of sustained examination or rebuke. The Big Lie reads like an alt-right wiki where FDR was ‘our first Duce or Führer,’ Planned Parenthood is worse than Nazi eugenics, George Soros bankrolls the entire left, and slavery and indigenous genocide in the Americas, which began 500 years ago, were the sole responsibility of the Democratic Party. This from a writer who blamed 9/11 on liberals. D’Souza insists that there had been a vast societal conspiracy for generations to keep all of this a secret … until his book came out.

Joyce further describes the NatCons as against ‘political correctness and multiculturalism.’ She reports that Judit Varga, Hungary’s minister of justice, argued for a defence of ‘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.’ Joyce reveals that here Varga was making sly references to some of Hungary’s positions that ‘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.’

Sounds a lot like Florida’s governor, Rick DeSantis, doesn’t it? Such organized deceit is stunning. Historical amnesia is openly being touted as a virtue. A motivated forgetfulness can convince you that pouring oil on a flame is the best way to achieve détente. Winston Smith, are you there? The Ministry of Love (Newspeak: Miniluv) orders you to report immediately to room 101. Today, the National Conservatives will be in charge of your re-alignment. What colour rat do you prefer? By the way, our rat colony hasn’t been fed for weeks.

So, for the NatCons, who bear an ideological affinity to Steve Bannon and Trumpists working to build their new sacrum imperium in the dark clouds of Bannon’s malodorous ecclesiastical imagination, the European Union is castigated as the new ‘evil empire’ while Ukraine is championed as the home of true nationalists, true patriots fighting against the ‘woke’ culture of the ‘current Paris-Berlin axis,’ brave defenders of traditional Christian European culture struggling against satanic liberal values such as diversity (which only leads to balkanization) – against what Victor Orbán decries as ‘the international left, the Brussels bureaucrat, the Soros empire with all its money, the international mainstream media, and … even the president of Ukraine’ (Orbán didn’t like Zelenskyy’s challenge to Orbán to decide ‘once and for all … who you are with’).

Yes, it’s a good thing to support Ukraine. But for the right reasons! Not because you claim Ukraine is anti-Western, anti-American, anti-European Union. Rod Dreher, one of the few Americans present at the Brussels conference, was unapologetic in his call for claiming a Christian continent out of the rubble of European history: ‘We have a continent to reclaim for Jesus of Nazareth, whom we Christians call the Prince of Peace.’ Littlejohn reports that ‘Eva Vlaardingerbroek of the Netherlands and Yoram Hazony both argued that the reason European conservatives have kept losing is because they have been too afraid to talk about God or Scripture.’

My support for Ukraine is not because I believe with the NatCons that their nationalism is bound up with conservative, anti-liberal, anti-Western politics. Quite the opposite. My solidarity lies with Ukraine’s workers, socialists and pro-democracy activists. In an act of deception that rivals that of the Trojan Horse, the NatCons are trying to tell the world that Ukraine is anti-Western and supports its NatCon political vision of the future. In making such a statement, are the National Conservatives casting a wink and a nod to Svoboda, Ukraine’s neo-Nazi party? Are they betraying wishful thinking? Are they trying to announce national conservatism into existence – into Ukraine’s political unconscious?

This all sounds like reactionary politics canceling itself in a misplaced sense of profundity, the kind of dime-store position stirred up by social media, a bargain-basement manifesto desperately trying to codify itself as a conservative revolutionary politics, tactical manoeuvres trying to pass themselves off as a mature strategy, as something of political substance. Remember Newt’s Contract with America? NatCon will try to cement itself in more and more with evangelical Christianity as time goes on – at least on the American scene. Don’t be surprised if one day you find Kayleigh McEnany keynoting a NatCon conference. The NatCons are not yet claiming that God speaks directly to them about how to advise the US and NATO and bring about God’s Kingdom on earth. But it is certainly implied that God is on the side of the conservative nationalists, at least in terms of the way the NatCons are redefining nationalism in order to take advantage of the war in Ukraine and to suit their neo-fascist political agenda.

I prefer to stand with the liberation theologians, who have a grasp of what it means to understand the gospel teachings ‘from below’ – what is called the social gospel of Jesus Christ – and who are highly critical of both nationalism and imperialism. They would, I believe, proclaim the perfidiousness of inverting the meaning of these terms – a nice con if you can get away with it – in order to achieve one’s political goals. Dom Helder Camera, who served as Archbishop of Recife in Brazil, once observed: ‘When I feed the poor, they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist.’ Today the NatCons would call him an imperialist. Brad Littlejohn, who dreams of America becoming a Christian nation, thinks that all that is required is for a president to claim so through speech acts, something truly performative – ‘in the sense of utterances that actually perform and bring about in some measure that which they attest.’ (Yes, yes, I studied J.L. Austin’s work, too). Perhaps something like: ‘I pronounce these United States of America a Christian Nation, a servant nation under God.’ Sorry to disappoint you, Brad. If America ever becomes a Christian nation, it will have no need for labels like nationalism, and it will have transcended the need to advertise itself as Christian.

Meanwhile, the defenders of Ukraine, including the Azov Regiment, are too busy fighting the Russian invaders than to worry about conferences on conservative nationalism set up by the far-right. While I have been critical of this group in previous columns, Anton Shekhovtsov, a social scientist with a knowledge of Azov, reminds those of us in the West, that, in June 2014, Azov played an important role in liberating the Ukrainian city of Mariupol from pro-Russian forces. This proved both Azov’s combat effectiveness and also ‘their truly pro-Ukrainian position.’ It also attracted many volunteers who had no political background at all. In autumn 2014, the battalion was transformed into a regiment and was enrolled in the National Guard of Ukraine. The National Guard is part of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Shekhovtsov writes that ‘within a few months after the creation of the Azov battalion, people with a history of dubious links to Russian and pro-Russian stakeholders moved away from Azov.’ A process of de-politicization had begun. In 2015, former fighters of Azov formed an NGO ‘Azov Civil Corps,’ which was transformed into a political party, ‘National Corps,’ in 2016. Shekhovtsov notes that soon after ‘far-right figures departed from the command of Azov and became engaged in the party-building.’ He further writes that

by the time of the parliamentary elections in 2019, it became evident that no Ukrainian far-right party would make it to the parliament. Out of despair, the Ukrainian far-right joined forces to compete in the parliamentary elections. However, their united list, which included members of the Freedom party, National Corps, Right Sector, and a few minor far-right groups, received only 2.15% of the vote and failed to get them elected into the parliament.

It appears that Azov had evolved prior to and since the invasion of Ukraine. Russian propaganda no doubt has played a significant role in exaggerating Azov as a neo-Nazi formation as a pretext for invasion. Should we be concerned about the rise of fascism? Absolutely. But we should also listen carefully to reports that warn of Russian invaders who ‘are equipped with mobile crematoriums which they use to destroy evidence of their villainy.’ And who are we in the West to deny that, in Mariupol, ‘Azov is now defending not only the freedom of the living but also the dignity of the dead’?

According to Shekhovtsov, ‘Azov today is a highly professional special operations detachment. Not a political organization, not a militia, not a far-right battalion. It is still formally subordinated to the National Guard of Ukraine’s Interior Ministry, but now it largely coordinates its military activities with the Armed Forces, therefore, one can expect that Azov will move under the command of Ukraine’s Defense Ministry.’ Further, Shekhovtsov reminds us that the only time that the Ukrainian far-right  had a relatively successful electoral outcome was during the elections  in 2012. That was when the Freedom (Svoboda) party received 10.45% of the vote. He notes that

[t]he only reason for their relative success was because at that time they were considered the most radical opposition to the pro-Kremlin foreign policy agenda of Yanukovych’s regime. It is important to stress: they secured seats in the Ukrainian parliament not because of their far-right program but because of their radical criticism of Russia and its agents in Ukraine.

Azov is putting up a brave fight in Mariupol but has been hampered  in receiving sophisticated weapons partly because of, as Shekhovtsov puts it, ‘Westerners obsessed with the alleged “neo-Nazi” threat of Azov.’ In our commentaries, Western writers (and that includes me) must be careful that we do not become victims of dysmetropsia, ‘an inability to judge an object’s size,’ a term that Shekhovtsov uses to refer to Westerners ‘who see no difference between the alleged “far-right” threat of Azov and the Russian genocidal invasion of Ukraine.’ Shekhovtsov also writes of ‘moral procrastination,’ which he defines as ‘voluntarily distracting ourselves with insignificant activities from performing really important tasks. Moral procrastination is about giving preference to small exciting things instead of dealing with difficult issues that actually matter.’ He explains:

There are many in the West who – instead of even starting to comprehend the brutal horror of the Russian war against Ukraine – prefer to distract themselves with inquiries of whether Azov fighters have any politically incorrect tattoos or t-shirts. It’s much more exciting, of course, than to stand up to the Russian genocidal invasion. This is moral procrastination that should be met with disdain and contempt. For Azov’s selfless epic struggle against superior numbers of the Russian enemy forces in Mariupol, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently awarded the country’s highest award, ‘Hero of Ukraine,’ to Azov Commander Denys Prokopenko. Well deserved.

The struggle continues.

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Peter McLaren

Peter McLaren is Emeritus Professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. From 2013-2023 he served as Distinguished Professor in Critical Studies, Co-Director and International Ambassador for Global Ethics and Social Justice, The Paulo Freire Democratic Project, Attallah College of Educational Studies, Chapman University, USA.