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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury

THE IDIOTS (II): A NOTE ON TRUMP AND CARLSON

In Britain, Tucker Carlson is not a household name. I am familiar with some of his views on the causes of the Russo–Ukrainian war because back in January 2022 a friend sent me some clips from Carlson's former Fox News talk show. In those clips he posited, somewhat comically, that the United States might be better off taking Russia's side in its dispute with Ukraine. The gist of his position was that US commitment to NATO enlargement explained Russia's belligerence.


In the past I generally argued against NATO enlargements. It seemed (seems) a bit glib to dismiss it out of hand as a factor in US–Russia tensions given that Russians have complained about NATO for the past three decades. But Russia, if reluctantly, did accept NATO's expansion without starting wars. There is therefore something particular about Ukraine – which was not about to join NATO any time soon – that shows the large–scale invasion is better thought of as a colonial war by Russia rather than a balance of power war.


Carlson's interview with the Russian president weighed in at two hours and five minutes. Carlson's open–ended questioning style is an approach I generally favour, though it was not appropriate for this interview. Carlson probably couldn't conduct the interview otherwise, however, because he appeared too sympathetic to Putin's worldview, and because his own limited grasp on the key events proved an obstacle to a substantive discussion of the issues.


The interview style


Open–ended questions work best in interviews because that way you learn what the interviewee really thinks or feels about matters. The subject answers without interruption, and without being steered into saying what the interviewer wants them to say. Carlson more or less adopted this approach with Putin. For example, he asked, 'Can you imagine a scenario in which you send Russian troops into Poland?'; strictly speaking a closed Yes/No question, but it at least invited elaboration.


Unfortunately, the open question format seldom works with politicians, who have their talking points and witter on them at length, oftener than not to the exclusion of any new or revealing content. And my first grumble is that the interview should have been edited into a much shorter product. That is what the BBC or CNN would have done and it would have been far, far better for it.


Instead we got Putin's litany of grievances. Russia watchers have heard these ad nauseum. From NATO enlargement to allegations of CIA meddling in Russian politics, from American missile defence plans to claims that Ukraine is run by Nazis. The US is portrayed as a bully and European states cowardly sycophants. All of these things can be discussed, and I am not saying anything about the truth or falsehood of them, only that there was nothing particularly informative. Putin is used to talking (his annual Direct Line phone–in event and annual press conferences last up to five hours each) and Tucker allowed Putin to direct the course of the interview.


Take Carlson's opening gambit, asking Putin about his claim that 'the United States, through NATO, might launch a surprise attack against Russia.' 'I'll allow myself a minute,' began Putin in response, 'to tell you where Ukraine comes from.' He went back to the founding of the Rus' in CE862. Putin set out his historical narrative, not dissimilar to the version given in his infamous 2021 essay, which intended to deny both a distinct Ukrainian ethnicity and basis for statehood.


The main thing to note is that Carlson looked perplexed. At one point he interjects: 'I'm losing track of where in history we are.' Putin does, after all, talk about the tenth–century conversion of the Rus' to Christianity under Vladimir the Great. While Carlson rightly asks about the relevance of this (we are about twenty minutes into the interview already, and Vladimir the Great will crop up again after 1hr 40mins), Putin is trying to establish his 'authority'. Inadvertently, Putin is also displaying his colonial mindset in full measure.


A bliss of ignorance


Carlson, as far as I can tell, has genuine sympathy for many of Putin's views about current events and therefore wanted to let the Russian leader speak. But for Carlson the war is primarily a consequence of NATO enlargement and American domination, whereas for Putin (who certainly dislikes those things and says NATO enlargement is to blame) the war is implicitly a colonial claim on Ukraine. This difference explains Carlson's befuddlement when Putin recounts long–ago history.


A criticism levelled at Carlson is that he did not challenge Putin sufficiently. Partly that can be seen as a response to his sympathy for Putin's worldview, which came across in his questions and interjections. These fed Putin's grievances: 'Biden's funding the war you're fighting,' Carlson notes at one point, and he repeats Putin's claims that US politics is undemocratic.


More significantly, I posit, the lack of challenge resulted from the interviewer's shallow knowledge of Ukrainian events; that is what makes him useful to Putin. The Russian president regurgitated history as though it were a sequence of uncontested facts, was not challenged on his claims about NATO plans to put military bases in Ukraine or accusation that Boris Johnson scuppered a peace deal in 2022 (I rebutted that previously). I'll discuss only a couple of Putin's claims by way of illustration.


First of all, Carlson seems to nod along to Putin's claims that Ukraine is run by Nazis. Putin mentions that Zelenskyy visited the Canadian parliament and applauded a Nazi 'war hero'. That was an unfortunate incident but it is hardly evidence that Zelenskyy is a Nazi sympathiser.


There is a far right element in Ukrainian politics, and some of the volunteer battalions that fought in eastern Ukraine from 2014 had links to far right groups, but Putin magnifies the 'threat'. The far right has polled consistently low levels of support. In the 2014 presidential election far right parties won a few per cent of votes; the most visible far right candidate, Right Sector's Dmytro Yarosh, got less than one per cent. In the 2019 presidential election, a coalition of far right parties, including Right Sector and Svaboda, won 2.15% of the vote. One of Putin's proclaimed war aims is the 'de–nazification' of Ukraine. He needs to exaggerate the level of far right support in propaganda.


Secondly, Carlson could have challenged Putin's labelling of Ukrainian events, both in 2004 and 2014, as coups. In 2004 Russia tried (and failed) to bring its preferred candidate to power by interfering in Ukraine's election. There was clear evidence from leaked telephone intercepts that the election result had been manipulated, and from the fact the declared result contradicted exit polls. Dismay brought people out onto the streets and Ukraine's Supreme Court eventually overruled the result. Questions might be asked of specific details, but characterising the Orange Revolution as a coup is misleading. In 2014, meanwhile, Ukraine's president fled the country; he was not overthrown. Again, there are valid questions about what was going on but Carlson didn't engage enough to test Putin's version.


As a final observation, Carlson did not challenge Putin's claims about NATO forces in Ukraine or that there were 'US mercenaries in Ukraine'. Does Putin mean volunteer American fighters? Or does he mean private military companies? If Carlson had pressed Putin, the claim might suddenly look dubious, or perhaps Putin would substantiate it and we would have had good reason to endorse part of the Carlson perspective on US foreign policy.


The elephant in the room


In a trailer for the interview, Carlson portrayed it as an exercise in free speech and suggested that western media hadn't been willing to air Putin's views. It is somewhat ironic that the Kremlin spokesperson disproved that claim, admitting that interview requests from major western media had been turned down by the Kremlin. That in itself is telling: the Kremlin saw the Carlson interview as an opportunity, not as a threat or an obligation.


Still, Putin is the leader of a major state and I think it is fair that his views are heard in the western media. Were the BBC or CNN to air an interview, they would inevitably be chastised for giving Putin a platform, but I do not agree with that position. It is better to show that Putin's arguments are flawed through debate, not by exclusion, in my opinion.


Carlson's portrayal of the interview in terms of free speech is problematic in a different way. The elephant in the room is the lack of free speech in Russia itself. I think liberals' criticism would better be directed at the Russian state for its lack of free speech than at a conservative (erstwhile) talk show host. But there is something to be said against giving a platform to a leader who silences his critics without challenging him very much; it allows Putin to uphold a double standard whereby he has free speech and Russian citizens don't. It is in that regard that Carlson failed to give us anything worthy of attention. And it is why I think it is right that Putin has a platform and also craven that he chose this one.



Thank you for reading! You can support my blog by buying a copy of my book Belarus in Crisis: From Domestic Unrest to the Russia–Ukraine War. Available to UK buyers here and US buyers here.


Image credit: from kremlin.ru used under creative commons licence 4.0, tinted by me.

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