One of the surreal twists of the past year in American politics has been the rapid realignment in attitudes toward Russia. Democrats, many of whom believe that Russian interference was key to Donald Trump's unexpected victory last November, are now the ones sounding the alarm about the Russian threat. Meanwhile, quite a few Republicans—previously the keepers of the anti-Kremlin Cold War flame—have taken to praising President Vladimir Putin as a strong leader and Moscow as an ally against radical Islam. A CNN/ORC poll in late April found that 56 percent of Republicans see Russia as either "friendly" or "an ally," up from 14 percent in 2014. Over the same period, Putin's favorable rating from Republicans in theEconomist/YouGov poll went from 10 percent to a startling 37 percent.
The dominant narrative in the U.S. foreign policy establishment and mainstream media casts Putin as the implacable enemy of the Western liberal order—an autocratic leader at home who wants to weaken democracy abroad, using information warfare and covert activities to subvert liberal values and to promote Russia-friendly politicians and movements around the world.
In this narrative, President Donald Trump is like the French nationalist Marine Le Pen, whose failed presidential campaign this year relied heavily on loans from Russian banks with Kremlin ties: a witting or unwitting instrument of subversion, useful to Putin either as an ideological ally or as an incompetent who will strengthen Russia's hand by destabilizing American democracy.
At its extremes, the Russian subversion narrative relies on a great deal of conspiratorial thinking. It also far too easily absolves the Western political establishment of responsibility for its failures, from the defeat of European Union supporters in England's Brexit vote to Hillary Clinton's loss in last November's election. Putin makes a convenient boogeyman.