There is a nasty pattern in American political speech, going back into the 1980s at least: when a senior U.S. official labels you a thug, often times wars follow. Thug is the safest word of American Exceptionalism.
So it is with some concern that lots of folks are pushing each other away from the mic to call Putin a thug (fun fact: Putin has been in effective charge of Russia for 15 years. As recently as the Hillary Clinton Secretary of State era, the US sought a “reset” of relations with him.)
While the current throwing of the term thug at Putin is tied to the weak evidence presented publicly linking a Russian hacker under Putin’s employ to the hacking of the Democratic National Committee computers, there may be larger issues in the background. But first, a sample of the rhetoric.
Putin the Thug
Obama on Putin: “a thug who doesn’t understand his own best interests.”
Mario Rubio on Putin: “A gangster and a thug.”
Paul Ryan’s spokesperson on Putin: “Russia is a global menace led by a devious thug.”
John McCain on Putin: “A bully and thug.”
And for fun, Sir Peter Westmacott, Britain’s ambassador to the US in 2014, on Putin: “A thug and a liar.”
Thugs in American Military Adventurism
That word, thug, seems to be a sort of dog whistle that when blown signals Americans and their media to psyche up for a new fight. For example:
John Kerry on Bashar Assad: “A thug and murderer.”
John Kerry on Islamic State: “Daesh [ISIS] is in fact nothing more than a mixture of killers, of kidnappers, of criminals, of thugs, of adventurers, of smugglers and thieves.”
George W. Bush on al Qaeda: “If we let down our guard against this group of thugs, they will hurt us again.”
George W. Bush on Saddam Hussein: “He is a thug.”
Bernie Sanders on Gaddafi: “Look, everybody understands Gaddafi is a thug and murderer.”
But Why Putin, Now?
Perhaps what we’re seeing here is a realignment for the next iteration of America’s perpetual war. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the conclusion of the Cold War (“the end of history”, as one author called it), there was no global enemy. No big nasty to spur weapons procurement, or to justify a huge standing military with hundreds of bases around the world, or to pick fights with to allow a boring president to morph into a superhero war president.
A lot of people had a lot of power and money in play that demanded some bad guys. An attempt was made in the 1980s to make narco lords the new major bad guys, but they were too few in number and the popularity of drugs among Americans got in the way. Following 9/11, the bad guys were supposed to be “the terrorists.” The George W. Bush administration riffed off that theme, appointing Saddam a massive weapons…