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Why American conservatives scorn Meghan Markle and root for Vladimir Putin

Cheering for a Putin-Biden debate and defending the British crown? Yeah, that's weird.
Photo illustration of a royal crown on an eagle's head with glitches over it.
Nobody is forcing conservatives to stan for monarchs and dictators, and yet, here we are.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

As you may recall, Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, recently sat down for an interview with Oprah Winfrey, and she and her husband, Prince Harry, accused members of the royal family, along with the press that covers them, of racism.

Amid widespread American criticism of the "institution" that ensued, in swooped the Heritage Foundation, the premiere U.S. think tank on the right, ready to strike back. Through its Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, founded in 2005, Heritage will host a panel Thursday focused on, and I'm not kidding, "why the Left's campaign to cancel the monarchy" is an attempt to undermine Western democracy:

In order to launch an assault on the British monarchy, the American radical Left has seized upon the claims from Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, that the Royal Family created a hostile, racist environment for the couple. Britain’s constitutional monarchy—among the most powerful conservative institutions on the world stage—represents everything the radical Left despises: tradition, authority, hierarchy, patriotism, and the political and religious ideals of Western Civilization.

That sort of double-speaking zeal for what is by definition an undemocratic institution is intense. But perhaps these statements by the Heritage Foundation shouldn't shock us. After all, former President Donald Trump's ascendancy led a lot of American commentators to marvel at how willing the conservative establishment and base alike were to throw in their lot with a man with a clear authoritarian streak. Throughout his term, Trump regularly praised and sided with autocrats and dictators on the world stage, often against American notions of democracy.

Now that we've had a few months with Trump absent from the limelight, conservative groups and media are keeping that same energy. They've just found new ways to channel it — and like Trump, they're looking overseas for inspiration.

There are two ways this is manifesting lately: one in the more traditional, establishment wing of the conservative movement, the other in the rhetorical bomb-throwing, "own the libs" version that Trump embodied. On the surface, it's been baffling to watch American conservatives in the former camp ride a wave of adulation for the British monarchy. And among the latter, it's become fashionable to compare President Joe Biden to Russian leader Vladimir Putin — and come out rooting for Putin.

The former can be explained at least in part by the reactionary streak in the modern strain of American conservatism, formed in reaction to the social changes of the late 1950s and the early 1960s. The defense of the British crown is itself a response to the challenge Meghan presents.

And as a preview, I recommend reading what the moderator, Joseph Loconte, published at National Review on Thursday under the headline "An American Defense of Britain's Constitutional Monarchy."

Author Brandon Tyler had a great thread on Twitter breaking down some of Loconte's most questionable claims, but it's worth reading the whole thing. My favorite nonsense take is that the Magna Carta was actually the monarchy, in the form of King John, capping its own power willingly in a presaging of its later democratic tendencies. "The monarchy agreed that no political leader was above the rule of law. The monarchy asserted the principles of due process and trial by jury," Loconte writes.

In actuality, John was forced to sign the Magna Carta to sue for peace after rebellious barons captured London; he then immediately got the pope to annul the document. The barons rebelled again, and John went to war with them and died of dysentery in the resulting struggle. The caretaker regime, acting as steward for John's young son, Henry III, reissued the Magna Carta in his name to appease the rebels and get them to, you know, not murder him.

It’s using the deceased heads of a fallen empire to explain why racism isn’t such a big deal today.

Now, even if I disagree with it, this stance from Loconte is not out of the mainstream of U.S. politics over the centuries. How much admiration we should owe the English system of governance was one of the bigger debates among the founders, with more conservative early Americans showing the most fealty as possible without being accused of treason. (And during the revolution, it was the more conservative position to stick with the crown, unlike the radicals who wanted independence.)

Still, it's worth stopping to consider why this particular historical revisionism is on display at this particular time. In rushing to the defense of the royal family, the Heritage Foundation is staking its position as "anti-anti-racism." Meghan and Harry's accusations of racism can only be taken as a plot from the left to weaken a small-c conservative institution, not as evidence that racist acts may have occurred and left serious mental scars on their psyches. It's using the deceased heads of a fallen empire to explain why racism isn't such a big deal today.

But back to the latter camp, whose reaction to a challenge from Moscow is both telling and troubling. During an interview with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos on March 17, Biden agreed that Putin "is a killer." Putin's response the next day was to challenge Biden to a debate, immediately, over regional issues. It was an obvious troll move, one that nobody serious could consider with a straight face.

Luckily, the very unserious folks at Fox News were ready to wonder what Biden was hiding by refusing to drop everything and fly off to Russia for a live televised debate. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., went so far as to say that unlike in "Rocky IV," "I don't think the American would prevail" in this hypothetical matchup.

This, too, isn't entirely surprising. A certain devotion to autocracy is baked into certain strains of conservatism, which says the anarchy spawned in the face of weak leaders is far more a threat than eroded freedoms.

We saw that from Trump in 2016 when he said Putin had been "far more" of a leader than President Barack Obama. He then continued to capitalize on tough guy rhetoric during his term, to the delight of hangers-on like Gaetz and Sean Hannity, who could, in turn, use the outrage it spawned for political gain, increased viewership or both.

Just so we're clear, the British monarchy and Putin are worlds apart in terms of current damage to democratic norms. (As for historical impact, well, we can have words after class.) But I think it's worth noting that nobody is forcing these cultural titans to place either Putin or Queen Elizabeth II and her ancestors on a pedestal. These are conscious choices, whether to idealize an institution whose disappearance would do absolutely nothing to harm democracy or to claim that a tyrant who remains in power through brutal suppression is preferable to our own elected leader.

The ideals that they claim to be upholding certainly don't seem American from where I'm sitting.