As the embodiment of what the Christian Right fears and despises, Brittney Griner has become a useful part of Vladimir Putin’s strategy to return the Party of Trump to power. Griner is thus another casualty of Putin’s global aspirations; a martyr who stands on a pedestal with the growing number of political prisoners in Russia and the innocent victims of Putin’s assault on Ukraine. Putin will release Griner when she no longer serves as a useful symbol of derision for the Republican base. If Republicans win in the midterms, Griner will be released in a manner that will further metastasize the Trumpist cancer in American politics. Most importantly for Putin, a Republican victory in the midterms will surely weaken if not terminate the support that the US has rendered Ukraine.
Putin, like Hitler before him, understands well that effective politics in the age of the masses centers on appeal to emotions. The corollary emotions that work best are fear and hatred. If a political movement can generate fear, it can then generate anger and hysteria against those deemed to be the cause of that fear. Hitler thus targeted socialists, communists, Jews, and gays as the sources of all that afflicted Germany. Putin, and pretty much every Republican, have generated a similar fear and hysteria against everyone who does not fit within the framework of their religious-based bigotries.
Griner embodies everything the MAGA base despises most. She is a powerful, Black, homosexual woman. Her athletic success and physical prowess implicitly threaten those prone to embrace the “great replacement” theory of White supremacists. Griner’s person is an object of disdain that variously encompasses the racism, misogyny, and homophobia that permeates the Republican Party. This inherent disdain of everything Griner represents explains the universal silence of Republican leaders on Griner’s situation. The Republican Party’s general position on Griner is fully consistent with the despicable take on her condition embraced by its leader, Donald Trump.
Not surprisingly, Trump has fully endorsed Putin’s imprisonment of Griner. Trump called Griner “spoiled” and scolded her for going to Russia “loaded up with drugs.” “Russians,” he said, “don’t like drugs.” The inference in Trump’s criticism of Griner is that Russia is merely upholding its laws in the spirit of the Christian conservatism with which Putin identifies. Trump’s efforts to justify the nine-year sentence issued by Putin’s courts need to be examined in further detail.
Calling Griner “spoiled” is richly ironic considering the source and plays to the inherent racial bigotry and misogyny of the MAGA cult base. Griner is a remarkably gifted and disciplined athlete who has done as much as anyone to elevate the status of women’s sports in the world. She is universally admired by teammates and fellow competitors. She pled truthfully to a very minor “crime” that hurt no one. Contrast that with the man whose lies about the election continue to result in death, injury, and a persistent threat to the future of the Republic.
The fact that she felt she had to go to Russia to play on a team owned by one of Putin’s kleptocrats is a standing indictment of the status of female athletes in the world. Like every athlete in a major professional sport, she realized that the window to maximize her income during the short time of peak excellence is a small one. The fact that the best contract she could obtain involved living in the land of Putin’s zombie capitalism is a tragic circumstance. If Griner is guilty of anything, it is that she failed to properly assess the nature of Putin’s dictatorship. This miscalculation, though, is shared by much of the mainstream media and almost all Republicans. (Please see the Mueller Report and the Republican dismissal of it.)
When Trump falsely asserted that Griner was “loaded up with drugs,” he conjured the racist stereotypes that invoke the fear and hatred of his base. When Putin arrested Griner a week before his invasion of Ukraine, she was carrying one gram of cannabis oil that she had legally purchased in Arizona with a medical prescription. One gram is 0.0022 lbs. It is the weight of a small paperclip or a dollar bill or a single sunflower seed in its shell. Acting once again as Putin’s apologist in the US, Trump thereby justified the nine year sentence handed down by Putin’s courts. Russians, after all, “don’t like drugs.”
Well, Russians don’t like certain drugs used by certain people. Anyone who watched the excellent documentary Icarus knows how systematically Putin’s regime ensured that every Russian athlete “benefitted” from performance enhancing drugs. “Russians” like those drugs. “Russians” also do not apparently object to the use of chemical agents to kill or maim political opposition figures at home and abroad. “Russians” evidently do not oppose the use of Viagra to literally rape Ukrainian women while they figuratively rape the country.
What Trump is doing to Griner echoes what Republicans did to Trayvon Martin. They blame the victim by framing them within the stereotypes of the dominant White culture. In Martin’s case, a white man named George Zimmermann stalked, harassed, and ultimately shot to death the unarmed Black teenager. The shooting occurred even after the police dispatcher told Zimmermann to stop pursuing Martin. A jury ultimately acquitted Zimmermann on the basis of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law.
The Martin case represents a multitude of cases in which it is impossible to imagine the outcome by flipping the racial identities of the characters involved. No one can imagine an armed Black man being acquitted of killing an unarmed white teenager after police had told the Black man to stop pursuing the boy. Putin understands well this racial double-standard in America and seeks to exploit it in any way he can.
Putin would not have imprisoned Megan Rapinoe for nine years for the same offense because it would not have had the same appeal to the people whom Putin needs to support Trump in the US. Megan Rapinoe, even though she is gay, is not Black. It is the combination of homosexuality and, especially, blackness that makes Brittney Griner such an attractive target for Putin in his efforts to secure a Republican victory in the midterms. (I have explained these efforts in more detail in an earlier post.) For Christian Nationalists, the true mass base of the Republican Party, Putin represents the values of traditional European culture against the threat of “strange elites.” Griner’s imprisonment is thus a show of Putin’s strength as a leader along with Trump in the battle against the perception of Western decay.
The imprisonment of Griner is thus an important part of Putin’s plan to swing the midterms in favor of the Party of Trump. Together with his strategy to undermine the global economy in collusion with Saudi Arabia and Big Oil, Griner’s imprisonment is part of Putin’s efforts to sew confusion, chaos, fear, and hatred in the US as a way that would favor Republicans. Griner’s imprisonment not only illustrates Putin’s power to control Black people, gays, and women; it also expresses his ability to manipulate Joe Biden. Trump understands well the predicament that the Griner situation poses for Biden.
The pressure on Biden to do whatever it takes to obtain Griner’s release has been intense and thus far he has admirably resisted that pressure. Trump preemptively revealed the Republican response should Biden trade Griner for the international war criminal and global terrorist, Viktor Bout. Neither Trump nor Putin care about Bout, but they would relish the political fallout that Biden would receive should he make this horrific deal.
It is a win-win situation for Putin. If Putin retains Griner, he is the hero of the culture wars on behalf of Trump’s base. If Biden trades Griner for Bout, Biden looks like an unprincipled weakling. For now, Biden is correct to wait until after the midterms to further negotiate with Putin.
It is fairly easy to predict what will happen to Griner should Republicans win in the midterms. Putin will have achieved his primary goal of putting into power in Washington a party that is not committed to further supporting Ukraine. He will release Griner in a way that will work to the benefit of Trump, much as the Iranians released the Teheran hostages in a way that benefitted Ronald Reagan. Trump will be able to show the power and respect he has in Moscow while revealing his mercy and grace toward a Black, gay woman whom he feels was rightfully imprisoned in Russia. Trump will stand as a magnanimous royal. Kanye and Musk will shake their pompoms for him.
If the Democrats win the midterms, the outcome for Griner is much less clear. A Democratic victory will show Putin that the US is not as gullible and ignorant as he believes it is. At that point, Griner loses much of her value as a political lever. Her further retention will become a matter of pure cruelty, something for which Putin is notorious. His principal concern will be what to do about the mess he has created in Ukraine. A Democratic victory in the midterms will show Putin that the US will remain unwavering in its commitment to support that nation against Russian aggression.
In the meantime, one hopes that Griner can somehow embrace the honor of sharing in the suffering and martyrdom of the tens of thousands of Ukrainians, Russians, Syrians, and others victimized by Putin’s malice. It is not an easy cross to bear.
On a quick but related side note, everyone should be aware that J.D. Vance is a major investor in a far-right social media site, Rumble, that regularly conveys Russian disinformation. His co-investor in this venture is the plutocrat Peter Thiel, whose dark money contributions support the Senatorial candidacies of both Vance and Blake Masters in Arizona. It should never be forgotten that a few days before the invasion this February, Vance stated publicly: “I gotta be honest with you. I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine.” A statement like that should disqualify him both morally and intellectually to represent anyone in the US. But he is also the member of a party whose leading lights are Marjorie Taylor Greene, Tommy Tuberville, and perhaps even Herschel Walker.
God have mercy on us all should Republicans win the midterms. God have mercy on Ukraine. God have mercy on Brittney Griner.