In late January, as Russia’s troops amassed along Ukraine’s borders, many of the GOP’s most Trump-friendly figures preached caution over confrontation. According to Axios’ reporting, the GOP’s up-and-comers feared they would “alienate the base” of the Republican Party by pushing too hard against Russian President Vladimir Putin and his ambitions for Europe. They thought they had their finger on the pulse of an ascendant movement within the Republican Party. They were wrong.
The avatars of populist Republicanism continued to remind right-wing voters that they should care more about cultural conflict than the real thing.
“You’d think we would have learned our lesson by now when it comes to policing the world and ‘democracy building’ thousands of miles away,” said Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters. “I gotta be honest with you, I don't really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another,” Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance asserted, citing domestic border security and opioid addiction as more pressing national emergencies. Even after Moscow moved troops into Ukraine, the avatars of populist Republicanism continued to remind right-wing voters that they should care more about cultural conflict than the real thing. “Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him? Has he shipped every middle-class job in my town to Russia?” Fox News host Tucker Carlson asked incredulously. “Is he teaching my children to embrace racial discrimination? Is he making fentanyl? Is he trying to snuff out Christianity? Does he eat dogs?”
Fact-check: Fox's Tucker Carlson caught amplifying Kremlin claimsMarch 12, 202211:51
If the aperture through which you view conservative politics is narrowed to the point that it is limited to only Trump’s presidency, this is a defensible political strategy. After all, the former president still enjoys the affection of a critical mass of Republican voters, and Trump’s rhetoric when it came to Russia was reliably favorable toward Putin. But the MAGA wing of the GOP misjudged the mood on the American right when it came to Russia.
When President Joe Biden gifted Putin a bipartisan summit in June 2021, CBS News/YouGov found 62 percent of Republicans described the Russian leader as “unfriendly” or “an enemy.” Fully two-thirds of GOP respondents agreed with the idea that Biden “should take a tough stand” against Russia. In late January, the Pew Research Center found that this sentiment had not abated. Most self-identified Republicans called Russia a “competitor,” while another 39 percent described Russia as an “enemy.” Moreover, Republicans were more likely than Democrats to say Russia’s military buildup on Ukraine’s border represented either a “major” or “minor threat” to U.S. interests.
Last month, on the eve of Russia’s invasion, another CBS News/YouGov survey found that only 9 percent of Republicans supported Russia over Ukraine while nearly 60 percent of Republicans accused Biden of being “too friendly” toward Putin. And today, with Russia on the march, Quinnipiac pollsters found that 74 percent of GOP voters don’t think Biden’s response to the invasion of Ukraine has been tough enough. Two-thirds of Republican respondents support accepting Ukrainian refugees into the country and the same number back a ban on importing Russian oil, even if it means higher prices at the pump.
When it comes to Russia, the populist wing of the GOP — and, to a significant degree, their critics and opponents — focused their attention on the shiny objects of the Trump years.
How did the populist wing of the Republican Party so completely misread both the national interests menaced by Russia and the popular response to it? The simplest explanation for this miscalculation is that they misread Trump’s presidency. These Republicans convinced themselves that what right-leaning voters liked about Trump’s approach to Russia was his tendency to flatter the Russian autocrat, and they only tolerated his administration’s otherwise confrontational approach to relations with Moscow. In fact, it was the other way around.
When it comes to Russia, the populist wing of the GOP — and, to a significant degree, their critics and opponents — focused their attention on the shiny objects of the Trump years. They devoted themselves to domestic political conflict over the allegation that Trump had slow-walked the provision of lethal aid to Ukraine so he could secure for himself a favorable political narrative. They argued with each other over Trump’s contemptible attacks on American civil servants while standing alongside Putin in Helsinki. They marveled over the president insisting that “Russia doesn’t want anything to do with Afghanistan,” even after Pentagon brass testified before Congress about the extent to which Moscow was providing material support to the Taliban. And so on.
Trump asks Biden to pass a message to his old friend PutinJune 11, 202103:03
Amid all this, Republicans told pollsters that they had few qualms about the president’s approach toward Russia. Many in the talker class interpreted these responses as affirmation that the GOP had been wholly converted to anti-Reaganism, but that was a delusion. For many on the right, it was the Trump administration’s admirably confrontational policy prescriptions they backed — some of which the president himself adopted with some reluctance.
Even as he criticized the alliance’s delinquent members, the Trump administration presided over the expansion of NATO to include not one but two new nations. He ordered military intervention against Russia’s vassal in Syria, going so far as to deploy troops to the region that subsequently engaged in set piece battles against Russian mercenaries. The Trump White House was the first to implement Magnitsky Act sanctions against Russian "human rights abusers, kleptocrats and corrupt actors.” Trump expelled 60 Russian diplomats from U.S. territory and seized Russian consular property. His administration abrogated defunct treaties like Open Skies and the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty, the terms of which its predecessors in the Obama years warned were no longer being observed by their Russian counterparts. The Trump years saw the imposition of sanctions on Russian energy transit networks like the infamous Nord Stream II pipeline into Germany, all while presiding over an expansion in domestic energy exploration and production not seen for half a century.
Though he has never coddled Putin or his regime in his rhetoric, the Biden administration has in some ways been softer on Russia than his predecessors. Republicans can and should leverage that for political gain. But the nationalists in the GOP’s orbit cannot. When it comes to confronting Moscow, they have somehow managed to position themselves to Biden’s left.
It should be intuitive that conservatives would not warmly regard Biden’s record of shutting down domestic energy transit networks and reducing America’s capacity to explore new oil and gas leases that counter Russia’s petro politics. It should be understood that Republican voters would oppose policies like waiving sanctions on the Nord Stream II pipeline and unilaterally extending outdated arms control treaties with Russia. Biden is undoing the achievements of the Trump years that the MAGA wing has promoted as great successes. A moderately competent political strategy would involve pointing that out. And yet, MAGA Republicans somehow managed to forget these elementary political imperatives.
How did the loudest MAGA voices find themselves in a state of such confusion about what the members of a movement they seek to lead actually believe? Quite simply, they bought their own hype. They convinced themselves that Republican voters no longer viewed conventional displays of strength like force projection as a measure of national potency. They obsessed over the cultural objectives of their domestic adversaries to such a degree that it rendered them vulnerable to emotional manipulation by malignant actors abroad. And they bought into the idea that Trumpism was an epochal Jacksonian realignment rather than a cultish fad.
The nationalist right overinterpreted its moment, and subsequently lost it.