Donald Trump has conquered the GOP as a cult of personality, but the body politic is still trying to reject the foreign objects of Trumpism. As Russia masses troops on Ukraine’s border, an unresolved schism on the right has been exposed: the Russian bear.
In one corner are the Reagan Republicans who don’t trust Vladimir Putin, the ex-KGB agent, and who believe it’s dangerous to allow regimes to invade their neighbors. In the other corner are the America Firsters who would sit on their hands if Russia invaded and occupied Ukraine.
This split was perfectly illustrated recently on an episode of Fox News’s Tucker Carlson Tonight. “Why would we take Ukraine’s side and not Russia’s side?” Carlson asked. “It’s a sincere question.”
Republican Rep. Mike Turner responded by explaining, “Ukraine is a democracy. Russia is an authoritarian regime that is seeking to impose its will upon a validly elected democracy in Ukraine, and we’re on the side of democracy.”
During the Cold War, Ronald Reagan used similar language to rally the world against an Evil Empire, while the Soviet Union engaged in whataboutism. Take, for example, a Soviet-era propaganda lithograph that, according to the Washington Post, “depicted U.S. police beating a black man and a U.S. soldier standing over a dead body, presumably in Vietnam.”
In recent years, rather than channeling Reagan, too many Republicans have taken a page from Russian propaganda. Trump famously defended Putin in 2017 by asking, “You think our country’s so innocent?”
More recently, Carlson suggested NATO was to blame for Russia’s actions. “Imagine if Mexico fell under the direct military control of China, we would see that as a threat of course,” Carlson explained. “That’s how Russia views NATO control of Ukraine. Why wouldn’t they?”
It’s ironic that this isolationist strain is gaining traction (according to Gallup, the number of Republicans calling Russia an ally or friend rose from 22 percent to 40 percent between 2014 and 2018), even as the right increasingly fetishizes political machismo.
For years, foreign policy hawks invoked the icon of appeasement, Neville Chamberlain, to emasculate their more dovish liberal opponents. Today, the macho men on the right are arguing that an illegal incursion by an authoritarian regime into a European nation-state isn’t our business. It’s Chamberlain’s folly delivered with a confident Churchillian swagger.
But why is this happening now? There are multiple reasons, including either grudging or explicit admiration for Vladimir Putin, whose dictatorial strongman persona exhibits many of the stereotypical attributes of masculinity.
Among the “America First” isolationist right, there’s also the argument that Putin is fighting for Christian values, while our “woke” U.S. military is the “armed wing of the Democratic Party,” part of a leftist cabal indoctrinating our young people into godless Marxism.
Consider a recent essay by Richard Hanania, president of the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology (CSPI), arguing that Russia’s 2013 gay propaganda law caused American progressives to turn against Russia. “Russian opposition to LGBT triggers American elites more than anti-gay laws and practices elsewhere because Russia is a white nation that justifies its policies based on an appeal to Christian values,” he wrote.
According to this worldview, hostility towards Russia is a proxy war against Christian conservatives in America (and it would be disproportionately fought by Christian conservatives from America). As conservative writer (and avowed fan of Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban) Rod Dreher writes, “Hanania is right—this cold war with Russia is an extension of the culture war within American society, waged by elites against the American people. Once you understand that, and once you understand which class the American soldiers who would fight this war if it ever went hot come from, you are in a much better position to grasp the pro-war propaganda in our media.”
In other words, to support Putin is to support Christianity, and to support America is to support secularism and sin and leftism.
In reality, the average Joe Sixpack is probably more persuaded by the more pedestrian “America First” sentiments expressed by politicians like J.D. Vance: “The Ukraine stuff just gets more unhinged by the hour,” Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy and Ohio senatorial candidate, tweeted. “You hate America unless you want to send our best to die in a war that has nothing to do with this country? Give me a break.”
No, give me a break. Nobody is arguing that America should “send our best to die” for Ukraine (although, some of the same people making that argument today would have argued that sending troops to Vietnam was patriotic—and probably wanted to jail Iraq war protesters like Cindy Sheehan).
What the so-called interventionists want is moral clarity from an American president, real economic sanctions imposed on Putin (and his government), and weapons provided to Ukraine.
Likewise, Vance’s notion that what Russia does to another sovereign nation “has nothing to do with this country” is naive and shortsighted—but to be expected from a generation that has forgotten the perils of isolationism and appeasement.
Remember when Mitt Romney was mercilessly mocked by President Barack Obama in a 2012 presidential debate for saying Russia was “our No. 1 geopolitical foe”? American conservatism has shifted 180 degrees regarding Russia (and numerous other topics) in the decade since.
To be sure, in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan it is understandable that many Americans are afraid of being drawn into another quagmire. But the opposite impulse—the desire to retreat from the world (or looking the other way while bullies dominate other countries)—is equally dangerous and provocative.
As Neville Chamberlain belatedly learned, Munich was an illusory, temporary fix. Bullies have to be confronted at some point.
Again, I’m not suggesting that Ukraine's border is an existential threat to America. But the notion of favoring Vladimir Putin, who is cynically using the Russian Orthodox Church for political purposes, over your own country, is absurd. Looking the other way at an authoritarian aggression will only invite more aggression.
And the urge to do so is turning America First elites into today’s Neville Chamberlains.