Do you remember the bit in George Orwell’s 1984 where, in the middle of Hate Week, it is suddenly revealed that Oceania is at war with its erstwhile ally Eastasia? Orwell dramatizes the scene by having the switch revealed just as a party agitator at a rally is tearing into what has until then been the enemy, Eurasia:
“The speech had been proceeding for perhaps twenty minutes when a messenger hurried on to the platform and a scrap of paper was slipped into the speaker’s hand. He unrolled and read it without pausing in his speech. Nothing altered in his voice or manner, or in the content of what he was saying, but suddenly the names were different. Without words said, a wave of understanding rippled through the crowd. Oceania was at war with Eastasia! The next moment there was a tremendous commotion. The banners and posters with which the square was decorated were all wrong! Quite half of them had the wrong faces on them. It was sabotage!”
When I read the book as a boy, I found that passage ridiculous. I had not lived, as the author had, through the double somersault of Western communists who, following Josef Stalin, abruptly embraced the Nazis in August 1939 and abandoned them in June 1941.
Now, though, I think Orwell was on to something. Look at the acrobatics performed by many (not all) Trump supporters over Russian President Vladimir Putin. Until recently, suspicion of Russia’s strongman was common to almost every Republican. Social conservatives, free-marketeers, foreign policy hawks, moderates, tea partiers: all disliked a statist, authoritarian regime that murdered journalists, imprisoned opponents and helped itself to slices of neighboring countries.
For what it’s worth, that also used to be Donald Trump’s position. When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, he demanded sanctions, adding: “We have to show some strength. I mean, Putin has eaten Obama's lunch, therefore our lunch, for a long period of time.”
Trump returned to that theme in his 2015 book, Time to Get Tough: “The results of Obama's pandering to Russia have been a total disaster.”
Following the presidential election, though, his tone changed sharply. “We're going to have a great relationship with Putin and Russia,” he told a victory rally. A series of tweets praised Putin’s intelligence and criticized his American detractors. In February, Trump went so far as to draw a moral equivalence between autocratic Russia and democratic America. When Bill O’Reilly put it to him in an interview that Putin was a killer, he replied: “There are a lot of killers. Do you think our country is so innocent?”
Actually, yes, compared to most places, but that’s not the point. What’s striking is how quickly and how smoothly Trump’s supporters have followed his lead. One moment, we were at war with Eurasia; the next, they had been our allies all along.
Something similar happened over free trade which, until two years ago, was supported by every mainstream Republican. I was stunned when, at the Republican Convention in Cleveland, Trump started to tear into global commerce. Fair enough: His own protectionism was already well established. But, to my utter astonishment, the Republican delegates cheered every word. Was it sheer tribalism? Was it because the anti-Trumpers had stayed away? Or was it that they had secretly thought that way all along?
A handful of Republicans might, of course, have been pro-Putin all along – or, at least, have favored putting aside their differences to co-operate against Islamist terrorism. But most American conservatives are patriots who would, in normal times, bridle at the merest suggestion of foreign interference in their politics. In any dispute between U.S. intelligence agencies and Putin, they’d know whom to believe.
Obviously, the presumption of innocence should apply in this as in all cases. There is no evidence of collusion between the Trump team and Putin, or even of direct collusion with the Kremlin stooges at WikiLeaks. It is right to be cautious when dealing with the murky world of intelligence. But the tone now creeping into the protestations of Trump’s supporters – “what’s wrong with Putin anyway, he’s just standing up for his country, blah blah” – is shameful.
Last week, Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May was blunt: “I have a very simple message for Russia. We know what you are doing. And you will not succeed. Because you underestimate the resilience of our democracies, the enduring attraction of free and open societies, and the commitment of Western nations to the alliances that bind us.” That, cousins, is how a conservative talks.
Daniel Hannan, a Washington Examiner columnist, is a British member of the European Parliament.