On Wednesday, The Washington Post ran an alarming article discussing a poll that shows Republicans view Russian President Vladmir Putin more favorably than they do President Joe Biden. The numbers do not immediately suggest that Republican voters would jump directly to supporting America’s enemies during an international crisis. But they do point to a potential danger emanating from key right-wing media voices — especially Fox News prime-time host Tucker Carlson — who are actively trying to push their base into siding with a Russian invasion of Ukraine and against American foreign policy interests.
The Economist-YouGov poll poll did not actually test Putin in a head-to-head popularity contest against Biden. Rather, it asked separate questions about the respondent’s favorability toward each of several political figures. The poll found many more Republicans willing to express “very favorable” and “somewhat favorable” opinions of Putin than willing to express the same sentiment toward Biden. Neither the Russian dictator nor the American president were particularly popular among Republicans, but Putin’s total favorability among Republicans (15%) was significantly higher than Biden’s (9%). In fact, by some margin, the poll showed Republicans prefered the Russian dictator over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Vice President Kamala Harris, and the Democratic Party as a whole.
Washington Post national correspondent Philip Bump pointed to the depth of the divide in Republican opinion of the two men; with 80% of Republicans having a “very unfavorable” view of Biden compared to just 45% of Republicans feeling the same way toward Putin. Bump also highlighted Republicans’ nearly universal willingness to describe Putin as a “strong leader,” a compliment they do not extend to Biden here at home. Bump concluded: “It’s the sort of strength that probably seems more appealing from afar.”
Past experience has shown these numbers can be malleable. Back in 2016, an Economist-YouGov poll showed that Putin’s favorable rating among Republicans almost reached parity with his unfavorability, in an environment of favorable right-wing media coverage of Russia coupled with then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s long record of public sympathy. In addition, Republican favorability toward Russia spiked at key moments, coinciding with Trump’s public request in July 2016 for Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails, and then rising further after Trump’s victory in the election thanks, in part, to Russia’s political intervention.
So far in the current crisis, Fox News has largely attributed Putin’s invasion of Ukraine to supposedly weak American leadership, blaming a variety of factors such as the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, progressive social policies, and even the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi for emboldening Russia. At the same time, Fox has been painting an alternate reality in which Trump would have opposed Putin’s aggression if he were still president — just as they previously worked to cover up Trump’s friendly relationship with Putin when he was in office.
But others on the right, led by Fox prime-time host Tucker Carlson, are actually taking a different approach: trying to convince their conservative audiences that they really ought to be siding with Putin over the president of the United States. On Tuesday night’s edition of his show, Carlson told his viewers to consider a series of rhetorical questions, consisting in part of a litany of Fox’s culture war grievances in America.
“Has Putin ever called me a racist?” Carlson asked. “Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him? … Is he teaching my children to embrace racial discrimination? Is he making fentanyl? Is he trying to snuff out Christianity? … These are fair questions, and the answer to all of them is ‘no.’ Vladimir Putin didn't do any of that. So, why does permanent Washington hate him so much?”
Carlson also attacked the non-military sanctions being implemented against Russia, such as Germany’s decision to stop the certification of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. “So how does having less energy help the United States?” Carlson asked, bizarrely implying that the sanction regime is part of a deliberate conspiracy by the Biden administration to raise energy prices for Americans to benefit Democratic donors:
Similar sentiments had been expressed earlier that day by far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, a close ally of Carlson. Jones sang the praises of Putin’s speech earlier this week, in which Putin effectively denied Ukraine’s national history and right to exist as an independent country. “It’s so weird to tune into a world leader and just truth’s coming out,” Jones said. Perhaps foreshadowing Carlson’s monologue later that night, Jones said the real enemies his audience should focus on were so-called “globalist” powers shutting down energy pipelines: “It’s not the Russians turning off pipelines. … It’s the globalists turning our power plants off. It’s the globalists shutting our infrastructure down, the same fricking people that think we’re their slaves — and thank God the Russians have wriggled free of that fricking python. I hope we can.”
Similarly, former Trump White House adviser Steve Bannon lauded Putin’s speech on his podcast, declaring, “You wouldn't hear an American politician except for Donald Trump do that.” He also referred to Ukraine as a “Hillary Clinton colony.” (In a similar vein, Carlson described Ukraine as a “pure client state of the United States State Department” on Wednesday night.)
And of course, Trump also applauded Putin as a “genius” for declaring that his favored regions of Ukraine are now independent and that the Russian military would now act as a “peacekeeper” there. (Trump took a break from his effusive commendation, however, to seemingly clarify that this situation “never would have happened with us” if he were still in the White House.)