Putin and Doomsday: The Far Right’s Fascination With the Apocalypse

As the Russian military amassed on the Ukrainian border, various voices on the American right rushed to commend or excuse Vladimir Putin, the architect of the coming invasion. Their main motive seemed obvious: to appeal to Trump’s base by projecting onto Putin precisely what appealed to Trump himself—the image of the world leader as super-tough hombre.

Mike Pompeo, Trump’s secretary of state, praised the Russian dictator as “talented” and “savvy.” Likewise, Trump characterized Putin’s strategic maneuvers as “savvy,” throwing in terms like “genius” and “wonderful,” for good measure. (Not that Trump has ever shied away from complimenting or currying favor with the man.) Trump’s Russia-fanboy national security adviser Michael Flynn (who pleaded guilty to lying to the feds—before being pardoned by Trump) made the dubious point that after the Biden White House “ignored and laughed at Putin’s legitimate security concerns, and legitimate ethnic problems in the Ukraine…. President Putin calculated this strategic, historic, and geographic play and made the decision to move.”

Meanwhile, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson torqued the Twitterverse by stating, “It may be worth asking yourself…. Why do I hate Putin so much? Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him?” He followed up, after Russia’s initial air strikes, with the Mother of All Comments That Don’t Age Well (no matter how frantically he’s been backpedaling since): “The invasion of Ukraine is a humiliating defeat for Joe Biden,” adding that U.S. sanctions were “meaningless.”

Why were these men searching for reasons to praise or exculpate Putin, especially in light of the fact that on the day of the invasion he was rattling more than sabers? “Whoever tries to hinder us,” Putin warned, in a clear reference to his nation’s nuclear arsenal, “should know that Russia’s response will be immediate. And it will lead you to such consequences that you have never encountered in your history.”

That’s when I heard an echo. I thought back to 9/11 and all the talk, as the new millennium got under way, about End Times, about “the Rapture”—about how the September 11 attacks, in the view of many, were some kind of prelude to a catastrophic clash of civilizations that would inevitably lead to Armageddon. And I recalled a conversation I had had in 2005 with Roger Ailes, the late head of Fox News, when interviewing him for a book I was writing about 9/11, Watching the World Change.

We spoke, on the phone, about the overarching spiritual implications of such a broad swath of humanity witnessing the conflagrations of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. “The implications from a television standpoint,” Ailes said, “are simply that: When the end of the world comes, we’ll be able to cover it live until the last camera goes out.”

I asked him to explain. “Do you mean that literally or figuratively?”

“I believe I mean it literally,” Ailes said. “If you can witness something like [9/11] by two billion people, live, then there’s nothing that can’t be covered. And if we get into a world war, with nuclear weapons, I assume we’ll be covering it live.”

He was pondering, in effect, a real-time Apocalypse Now. “It’s horrifying to think about. But maybe God set it up that way. You can either figure out how to live in freedom…and hope, or you can watch yourselves burn to death. Nine-eleven is a warning shot that says: Look, this can go either way. It’s your choice, folks.” His remarks, while unnerving, were not hard to fathom. At the time, a Pew poll revealed that more than three fourths of Americans who identified as Christians “believed in the second coming; and 20% expected it to happen in their lifetime.”

Evangelist Pat Robertson, evidently, is one of those believers. This past Monday, in fact, he proclaimed that Putin’s decision to invade came about because the Russian ruler had been “compelled by God. He went into the Ukraine, but that wasn’t his goal. His goal was to move against Israel, ultimately.” In Robertson’s view, apparently, the Kremlin’s battle for Kyiv is somehow setting up the larger battle that will bring on, as Robertson called it, “End Times”—literally Armageddon, as prophesied in the Book of Revelation, a period that would be marked by the return of the Messiah and the arrival of Judgment Day as human life on earth is extinguished.

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