The truth about Vladimir Putin? He’s boring
The Tucker-Putin snoozefest confirmed that both the old right and the new right are wrong about Putin.
So the Tucker-Putin chat has finally landed. And it is oddly flat. The breathless predictions of both Mr Carlson’s fanboys and his noisy detractors turned out to be wrong. His sit-down with Vladimir Putin was neither the most explosive exclusive of modern times nor was it a reckless platforming of ‘evil’ that might have world-shaking consequences. It was just strange. And a tad tedious. That this feverishly anticipated chat between the preppy hero of the Very Online right and the notoriously guarded leader of the Russian Federation had so little spark, and at times felt positively sluggish, requires an explanation.
Of course a two-hour exchange with Putin was never going to be riveting. He isn’t famed for his easy manner. Yet, even by Vlad’s standards, it was bad. Let’s just say it won’t do anything to challenge the stereotype of Russians as stiff and melancholic. Putin hijacked the exchange with his eccentric view of history. He gave that lecture he loves, about how Ukraine is an ‘artificial state’ magicked up by Stalin. On and on he went, tripping through the centuries, perhaps mistaking Carlson’s frozen features – his face ‘froze so hard he barely seemed to blink’, said one body-language expert – for interest. Putin needs a Substack, not Tucker Carlson.
There were moments of comic relief, most of them accidental. ‘Who blew up Nord Stream?’, Carlson asked. ‘You’, said Putin. ‘I was busy that day’, Carlson quipped. Of course Putin meant ‘you’ as in the United States. ‘You personally may have an alibi, but the CIA has no such alibi’, he said. He ribbed Carlson for failing to make it into the CIA, ‘back in the day’. There were moments of cringe, too, like when Carlson tried to get Putin to come out as the Christian warrior that some on the new right madly imagine him to be. ‘Do you see the supernatural at work as you look [at] what’s happening in the world? Do you see God at work?’, he asked. ‘No’, came Vlad’s curt reply. Fellas, your Crusade is going to need a new leader.
Carlson didn’t entirely soft-soap Putin, as his critics predicted, but he didn’t pin him down either. A couple of days ago, Joe Scarborough of MSNBC branded Carlson a Putin ‘puppet’ who doesn’t give a damn that Western journalists are in ‘gulags right now’. He was referring to Evan Gershkovich of the Wall Street Journal who has been jailed in Russia on trumped-up charges of espionage. But Carlson did ask about Mr Gershkovich. He even asked Putin to ‘release him to us and we’ll bring him back to the United States’. Putin said a prisoner exchange might soon happen. Carlson, in that moment, did more for Mr Gershkovich than any of his bloviating haters in the MSM have done.
But there was very little grilling. Jeremy Paxman this wasn’t. Carlson asked for evidence that the CIA blew up the Nord Stream gas pipeline and then just accepted it when Putin said ‘I won’t get into details’. Hold on – the man who just bored us to tears with his fantasy history of Ukraine-Russia is suddenly not big on ‘details’?
Carlson was also far too unctuous on Putin’s haughty dismissal of Ukrainian sovereignty. Putin’s insistence that Ukraine ‘belong[s] to Russia’ went largely unchallenged. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, given Carlson is one of the new right’s Ukraine-sceptics, whose suspicion of US funding for Zelensky at times crosses the line into creepy sympathy for Putin.
It seems to me we didn’t learn anything new. Not really. Putin’s crazy alternative history of Ukraine is widely available, including on his official website. His claim that Boris Johnson scuppered a peace settlement has been made many times before. Russia has been dropping big hints that America blew up Nord Stream for more than a year. I guess it was interesting in an unsettling, uncanny way to see one of America’s best-known journalists grinning and chinwagging with the pale, puffy, pint-sized warmonger of Moscow. But spectacle alone won’t hold our attention. We need revelations, too. And there were precious few.
So all the pre-emptive chatter about the interview, from both Tuckerphobes and Tuckerphiles, was wrong. The hysterical cry that Carlson’s ‘platforming’ of Putin is an outrage, a crime against decency, looks absurd now. The world has not been intoxicated by Putinism. If anything we’ve been anaesthetised by it. Why shouldn’t Carlson, or anyone else, talk to Putin? No one benefits from the erection of a cordon sanitaire around certain world leaders. We’re not children or malleable dimwits who are one Tucker special away from becoming all-out Putin stooges. We can think for ourselves. Let us.
On the flipside, the insistence of the pro-Tucker camp that this interview confirms the death of the MSM doesn’t stack up either. I found myself pining for old-world journalism during this snoozefest. A good producer would have ensured Carlson had snappier comebacks. A good editor would have chopped 45 minutes from the cursed thing. Behold the crisis of Western journalism. On one side we have ‘rebels’ like Tucker being too soft on Putin, and on the other we have the Christiane Amanpours of the ancien régime thinking their slapdown style of interviewing would have made a better fist of pinning Putin down. No it wouldn’t. Such narcissistic showboating that masquerades as hard-ass journalism is rarely enlightening. It’s designed to tell us more about you and your virtue than about your interviewee. It’s hard to think of any modern reporter up to the task of interviewing Putin. Andrew Neil perhaps.
The best thing about the Tucker-Putin chat is that it has revealed a little appreciated truth about Vladimir Putin – he’s boring. This is not to detract from the regional threat he poses, as best illustrated by his criminal and bloody assault on Ukraine. But it is clear now, or it ought to be, that he is neither an all-powerful demonic figure nor a whipsmart cultural warrior from whom Western conservatives might learn a thing or two. He is not a flesh-and-blood reincarnation of the old ‘evil’ Ruskie empire, as fantasised by some on the old right who desperately miss the Cold War and the moral clarity it gifted to the West’s capitalist classes. And he’s not the God-fearin’, horse-riding crusader against woke that the newer right long for him to be.
He’s a bore. A dangerous bore, but a bore nonetheless. He isn’t going to destroy the West and he isn’t going to save it either. You all need to wake up from these dumb Putin fever dreams.
Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. His new book – A Heretic’s Manifesto: Essays on the Unsayable – is available to order on Amazon UK and Amazon US now. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy
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