On the Enduring Power of Malevolent Leaders

Last Sunday’s newsletter was about Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s leader during the largest land war in Europe since World War II. In it, I tried to explain why Zelensky’s stand had resonated across the world. His moral and physical courage stands out in an age when so many politicians shrink from the moment, when they wilt under pressure, bowing to Twitter mobs rather than maintaining even an ounce of integrity in the face of adversity. 

Zelensky is the uncommon hero, the entertainer-turned-president who is becoming the Winston Churchill of Ukraine. But this week, let’s talk about his enemy, Vladimir Putin: why he’s a common villain, and why men like him are ubiquitous in human history. They rise and fall with almost metronomic regularity, not just because there are always men who are drawn to absolute power and military glory, but because these men connect with specific human needs and unlock the darkness in human hearts. 

It’s easy to forget as the western world unites in revulsion at Russia’s invasion, but as recently as ten days ago significant figures in the United States and the west obviously and openly admired Putin, including Donald Trump, the former president and frontrunner for the GOP nomination. Days before the Russian Army launched its unprovoked attack on Ukraine, Tucker Carlson, the most popular cable news host in America, was so pro-Putin that his remarks were rebroadcast on Russian state media

In the years since his rise, Putin has been admired as a defender of Christian civilization, as a man at the “heart” of the “post-Soviet revival of Christianity in Russia.” In 2017 Christopher Caldwell, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, delivered an address to the Hillsdale College National Leadership Seminar, entitled “How to Think About Vladimir Putin.” Hillsdale, for those who don’t know, is arguably the premier conservative college in America. It reprinted Caldwell’s remarks in Imprimis, a monthly digest that reaches more than five million Americans. 

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