What’s fueling the ‘new Cold War’ — in Russia and at home

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The Russian invasion of Ukraine feels like the beginning of a new Cold War. Only this time, the global enemy is authoritarianism, not communism.

Russia is no longer a communist country, but it continues to pose an authoritarian threat to democracy. China is still communist, but under President Xi Jinping, it has also become increasingly authoritarian. And just as Russian President Vladimir Putin has invaded what he considers the “breakaway territory” of Ukraine, President Xi threatens to take over what he considers the “breakaway territory” of Taiwan.

A new Cold War could have a big impact on American politics. It might help resolve the country’s bitter political polarization, just as it did in the 1950s and early 1960s. So far at least, Democrats and Republicans do not seem to be deeply divided over Russian aggression. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on Tuesday, “What I hope [President Biden] is saying is that we’re going to impose the toughest possible sanctions.” What Biden said was, “Russia will pay an even steeper price if it continues its aggression, including additional sanctions.” And additional sanctions were imposed on Saturday, as Kyiv continued to resist Russian assaults. Clearly Biden is hoping his handling of the Ukraine crisis will give him a new lease on leadership and reverse the images of last year’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan.

What’s driving the new wave of authoritarianism around the world? In a word: resentment.

The U.S. and other democratic societies are experiencing a right-wing populist backlash against “wokeism” — identity politics and domination by educated elites. New groups are emerging — immigrants, minorities, women — and they are demanding recognition and power. Traditionally powerful constituencies — whites, men, workers — are resentful because they feel they are losing influence.

When President Biden promised to name a Black woman to the Supreme Court, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) called it “offensive” — “Black women are, what, six percent of the U.S. population? He’s saying to 94 percent of Americans, ‘I don’t give a damn about you. You are ineligible.’” That’s resentment.

In France, the so-called “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory is widening the boundaries of acceptable political discourse. Far-right candidates in the current campaign for president are denouncing a conspiracy to “replace” traditional French values with those of foreign-born minorities. Valerie Pecresse, the candidate of the center-right Republican Party, shocked the country when she contrasted “the French of the heart” with “the French of papers,” i.e., native-born versus naturalized citizens. Referring to the symbolic figure representing France, Pecresse declared, “Marianne is not a veiled woman.”

In Russia, Vladimir Putin is justifying his invasion of Ukraine with baseless claims that the Ukrainian government is waging “genocide” against Russian-speaking Ukrainians. In 2015, when the Ukrainian government moved to isolate Russian-speaking separatists in eastern Ukraine, Putin called for an investigation of “the genocide of the Russian-speaking population.”

Putin is positioning himself as the savior of the Russian race and the protector of ethnic Russian minorities in former Soviet republics like Georgia, Kazakhstan and now Ukraine. The term “genocide” has powerful resonance in Russia because it recalls the country’s heroic resistance to Nazi German invaders during World War II. 

What we are learning is that there are two varieties of populism, both based on resentment of elites. Left-wing populism draws on resentment of the wealthy. It was apparent in the 2018 “yellow vest” protest movement in France. Yellow vests are a symbol of the French working class — workers who drive for a living and are required by law to carry yellow safety vests in their vehicles. They were protesting high fuel taxes and economic inequality. Their target was President Emmanuel Macron, an upper middle-class technocrat.

Right-ring populism draws on resentment of the well-educated, especially when they claim to know more than you do about what’s good for you. The pandemic has made right-wing populism particularly powerful. It draws on resentment of government experts who impose restrictions on behavior (quarantines, mask-wearing, social distancing, vaccinations) in order to protect public health. Resentment of those restrictions drove the recent trucker protests in, of all places, Canada, normally a moderate and decorous country.

Resentment has always been a powerful force in politics. It is especially powerful today because of social media, which enables people to ally with others who share their resentments. And to act on them. Social media were crucial for the rise of the leading far-right figure in American politics — Donald Trump. Having been banned from major social media sites, Trump is using his wealth to establish his own social media platform

No political figure in the U.S. can compare with Trump when it comes to exploiting resentment. He continues to seethe with resentment over what he considers the “stolen election” of 2020.

Putin, a former Soviet KGB agent, has expressed resentment over the collapse of the Soviet Union more than 30 years ago, calling it “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century.” Guess who has been praising Putin’s invasion of Ukraine? Our own autocrat. “This is genius,” Trump said in a radio interview Tuesday evening. “That’s pretty savvy. He’s going to go in and be a peacekeeper. We could use that on our southern border.”

Bill Schneider is an emeritus professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of “Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable” (Simon & Schuster).

Tags authoritarian regimes Authoritarianism backlash Donald Trump Emmanuel Macron Joe Biden Mitch McConnell new Cold War Populism resentment Right-wing populism in the United States Russia Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian irredentism Ted Cruz trumpism Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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