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Putin’s useful idiot only served one purpose: promoting fascism

Tucker Carlson’s interview with Putin did nothing but inflate the dictator’s ego and advertise his own version of history

Tucker Carlson interviews Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin on February 6. Photo: Gavriil Grigorov/AFP/Getty

There is no recorded instance of Lenin using the term “useful idiots” to describe the Soviet Union’s puppets in the west. The phrase became popular during the cold war as a corruption of the Serbo-Croat koristne budale, which means literally “useful innocent”.

Either way, it is the perfect way to describe Tucker Carlson, who travelled to Russia to film a long, rambling interview with Vladimir Putin last week. At several times during Putin’s perorations, Carlson threw his head back, bared his perfectly polished teeth and laughed hysterically. He looked idiotic. And he was certainly useful.

Since Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the label “useful idiot” has been applied to all kinds of facilitators, apologists and fellow travellers of his ethno-nationalist regime. There’s even a special term in German that means “Putin understander”. But I think the “idiot” jibe is used too broadly.

Bogdan Raditsa, the Yugoslav diplomat who imported the term into the English language in 1946 after defecting to the US, actually described himself as having been a useful idiot. He was a liberal and a democrat who, during the second world war, helped persuade the allies to back Tito and not Yugoslavia’s royalist government in exile. The essence of his idiocy, he wrote, was to believe Tito when he used democratic phraseology, when his gut instinct told him it must be false.

To understand the true nature and value of useful idiots to Putin, his ally Iran, and to their proxies Hamas, Hezbollah, Bashar al-Assad and the Houthis, you have to understand the wider ecosystem such people operate within.

At its centre, emitting influence and disinformation, are the collaborators: the kind of people who have shows on Russian and Iranian state TV stations. At its edge there are people who are simply dupes: people who literally don’t realise that chanting, “Come on Yemen, make us proud, turn another ship around” might in some way be helping both Moscow and Tehran to destabilise the west.

In the middle are the critical friends: like the far-left groups who recognise that Putin is a dictator, but say that he “has a point” when he argues that Ukraine’s borders are illegitimate, and anyway, “we’re just as bad”.

But none of these should be described as useful idiots. A useful idiot is someone who can – either consciously or unconsciously – stifle their critical faculties towards totalitarian regimes, and act as if their intentions were benign.

It’s not that they don’t know that Putin is a mass murderer. It’s that they’re able to compartmentalise that thought and operate, instead, only within a framework where their own government, indeed their own country, is always at fault.

It’s not as crude as “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. It is the conviction that the problems of “here” are what matter, not the problems of “there”.

Carlson’s intervention was, prima facie, driven by the “problems of here”: we’re being lied to by our own media, he told American viewers, and getting dragged into a forever war that is against the USA’s national interest. Best listen then to Putin’s version of history, and for two long hours.

It’s the same when you look at the logic of calling for civilian ships to be sunk by a far-right militia that hates Jews and does the Nazi salute. If you asked the chanters to state these sentiments literally, most would baulk; but because it’s cool to annoy the British state and the Israelis, they can allow themselves euphemisms: “Yemen” instead of the Houthis and “turn around” instead of obliterate.

Into this ecosystem of confused loyalties and self-deception, Russia pumps industrial-scale influence and disinformation. Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s former adviser and the originator of modern information warfare, described the effect in 2019: “Russia is playing with the west’s minds. They don’t know how to deal with their own changed consciousness.”

The basic techniques were there in the Soviet era. But the Soviets needed control over the networks of agents and proxies they deployed – and the bedrock of their information warfare was straight lies: “The grain harvest has surpassed all previous efforts,” for example.

With digital information networks, we have created weapons of intellectual self-destruction far more powerful than anything the Soviets could have dreamed of. Putin doesn’t need or want to give orders to the useful idiots: only suggestions.

And that’s what makes useful idiots so important in today’s disinformation ecosystem. Putin’s aim is to confuse; to make us so tired of trying to distinguish truth from falsehood that we give up. 

The useful idiot makes us tired. We cannot help noticing how idiotic they are and talking about them (“Did you see Tucker’s manic laugh? Did you see his face when Putin talked about the Mongol invasion?”)

In an information system based on rationality, the useful idiot functions like one of those optical illusions you see in magazine puzzles: the man with three legs; the cube with a missing edge. They create a permanent dissonance in our logical brains as we wonder: how could they be so dumb?

Their stock vocabulary consists of unobjectionable terms like “peace” or “negotiations”, and laudable value statements like “surely lives are more important than commerce” – just as Tito spoke only of a multiparty democracy, until he abolished it. But what they’re doing is promoting fascism.

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