Frank Rich on the National Circus: Putin Has Not Restarted the Cold War — Yet

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Photo: AFP PHOTO/ RIA-NOVOSTI/ POOL/ ALEXEI NIKOLSKY

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with contributor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: Putin's ominous move to claim Crimea, the state of American populism, and Rupert Murdoch going off the rails.

Yesterday, Russian President Vladimir Putin reclaimed Crimea as part of Russia, celebrating with a chest-thumping address at the Kremlin, in which he denounced Western opposition to his actions and justified them on historical grounds. Many commentators are concerned that Putin may be contemplating a further takeover of Southeastern Ukraine and possibly even a challenge to the sovereignty of the NATO-aligned Baltic republics. Mitt Romney took a lot of heat in 2012 for saying Russia was "our number-one geopolitical foe." In retrospect, was he right? And what more, if anything, can Obama do about it?

Of course the president can and will beef up the weak, previously announced sanctions, as indeed the White House is already indicating. John Cassidy at The New Yorker has it right when he calls for the U.S. to tighten the screws on all the Russian oligarchs who are “buying up houses in Kensington and apartments overlooking Central Park” (not to mention Knightsbridge, Mayfair, and the Upper East Side). But Putin will not reverse himself on Crimea, and guess what? We may have to live with that, and we may have to live with a stormy U.S. relationship with a swaggering nationalistic Russia for years to come. But that is not the same thing as a new Cold War — the communist Soviet Union is dead, unbeknownst to the likes of John McCain, and so is its old nuclear arms race with the U.S. Should Putin now move to seize Lithuania and Latvia, as those on the American right promoting a new domino theory would have it, no doubt America will respond with far stronger measures, including some kind of military involvement, as Biden was implying during a visit to Eastern Europe today. But few believe that Putin is that mad.

As for Mitt Romney, he is still living in the 1950s. We don’t have a “number-one geopolitical foe” any more. This is a digital world, not an analog one, and if we have learned anything in this century, surely it’s that existential threats to American can come from anywhere. But let’s posit for a second that Romney is right: If Russia is our worst enemy, then what? Read any conservative politician or pundit about the Crimean crisis and you’ll find the same line: Putin is Hitler (or Stalin). Obama is Jimmy Carter (or Neville Chamberlain). The seizure of Crimea is 1939, or the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. And what is the action plan? Obama must not be weak! He must not lead from behind! He must be more like Reagan! But there is no further concrete proposal. Even Republicans can read polls and see that there is no appetite among voters in either party for boots on the ground anywhere in the world — the legacy of the last Republican president’s calamitous and costly invasion of Iraq. Indeed, there is zero interest in foreign affairs among Americans, period. It was telling that as the Ukraine crisis was exploding, NBC News, which had the most journalistic troops nearby, downplayed it entirely lest it interrupt its viewers enjoyment of the Olympics. Even today, I dare say that more Americans can now identify Malaysia than Crimea.

Politico published a piece yesterday that is a classic of the "rage of the rich" genre. Not only does it declare the "year of the populist" over in mid-March and question the political viability of tea party–aligned GOP presidential contenders Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, but it includes investor Ken Langone likening populist appeals to Nazi rhetoric and an unnamed Wall Street execuctive applauding Putin's Crimea annexation because it "keeps the focus off the evil 1 percent." Are comments like this purely hot air, or do they signal a real countermovement to what some saw as a rising populist tide?

The Russians are Nazis, American populists are Nazis — I guess it’s all the rage as the actual history of the Holocaust vanishes into the great American memory hole. In any case, some in the top one percent of both parties want to believe that populism is dead. As Politico put it, wealthy Republicans “see signs that the political zeitgeist may be shifting.” But it’s not clear what those signs are. That Wall Street has successfully killed the tax-reform plan of a genuine GOP reformer in the House, Ways & Means Chairman Dave Camp, who threatened to increase the tax burden on banks? That Mitch McConnell is promising to win his primary against a tea party insurgent? That Joe Scarborough is toying with a Wall Street—friendly presidential candidacy now that Wall Street’s (and Scarborough’s) favorite for that slot, Chris Christie, appears to be done? The fact remains that populism is alive and well in the GOP grassroots (as it is among Democrats). Rank-and-file Republican voters loathe the Bush administration’s bank bailout today no less than they did yesterday; populist stars like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz remain far more popular among the Republican base than the Establishment candidates that plutocrats like Ken Langone see and applaud on MSNBC and CNBC.

Speaking of intemperate billionaires, Rupert Murdoch took to Twitter this week to call for a boycott of Guinness because the Irish beer company had been "bullied by gay orgs" into withdrawing its sponsorships from New York's LGBT-excluding St. Patrick's Day Parade. Murdoch is clearly on the losing side of this issue. What does it say about him and his empire that he's picking this fight?

Murdoch’s instruction to the Irish that they boycott Guinness is truly the funniest pronouncement by a billionaire thus far this year — and there’s been plenty of competition (see above). In his tweet, he also managed to refer to the St. Patrick’s Day parade as a “religious” celebration — another laugh riot. His declaration that gay organizations are bullies is consistent with the right’s nonstop whine of victimization: Gay people bully helpless, God-loving straight people and the weak, defenseless Roman Catholic Church just as African-Americans and Hispanics bully and victimize powerless white people. The New York Post, Fox News, and Murdoch’s British tabloids, by contrast, are famous for their strict anti-bullying policies.

Anyway, for News Corp and 20th Century Fox, Murdoch is now the official nutty uncle they’d like to lock in the closet. And so no doubt would the GOP leaders who’ve made a show of professing “tolerance” for gays now that they realize that homophobia closes off the possibility of attracting young voters. Even in the quite Irish town of Boston, the mayor, both Massachusetts Senators, and all ten candidates for governor boycotted the parade this year (as did Sam Adams beer). When Murdoch’s most recent former wife, Wendi Deng, was in his household mix, she socialized with gay pals and Rupert held his tongue. No more. Now his Twitter account will be up there with Trump’s as a wellspring of embarrassment for Murdoch’s corporate and political cohort.