Republicans Split on Putin and Ukraine

I’ve heard that Vladimir Putin’s saber-rattling at Ukraine is about pipelines, or it’s about wanting to put the old Soviet Union back together, or it’s about wanting to break up NATO, or get rid of U.S. influence in Europe, or maybe Putin just wants attention. This is not my area of expertise, so I can’t offer an opinion. I just hope he backs down.

What I can comment on is what the Ukraine crisis is doing to the Republican Party.

Let’s compare the Trump Republican Party to the post-9/11 Republican Party under George W. Bush. Remember the neoconservatives? Jack Hunter wrote in The American Conservative in 2011, “The ‘neocons’ believe American greatness is measured by our willingness to be a great power—through vast and virtually unlimited global military involvement.” According to neocons, any President who hesitates to send troops to address a foreign crisis isn’t “serious.” And the neocons were the main stream of the GOP during George W. Bush’s tenure, and after.

When President Obama failed to order a military strike on Syria for its use of sarin gas in 2013, Republicans attacked him mercilessly as being weak. (Here is some even-handed background on who did what, and why.) Republicans also were outraged when Putin annexed Crimea in 2014, and President Obama responded only with sanctions.

One suspects Republicans were ready to slam Democrats for being soft on Russia in the 2016 elections. But one of the first things Donald Trump did as the GOP presidential nominee was to delete a call for arming Ukraine with lethal defensive weapons from the platform. And one of the first foreign policy things the Trump Administration did was relax the Obama sanctions on Russia. And the GOP was silent.

For four years, the neocons were shoved aside — many became “never Trumpers” — while Trump supporters were taught that Putin is a model leader, and there’s something fishy about Ukraine. Right-wing media outlets like OAN say that the whole “Russia may invade Ukraine” thing is fake news. Here’s a screenshot of their website today:

I can’t tell you which “Ukranian diplomat” is saying this, because I would have to watch a video to find out. It’s true that Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky is telling western powers to chill about Russian troops on his border, because he doesn’t want people to panic. Panic might cause runs on banks and a mass exodus from the country. One also suspects Zelensky is in over his head, but I don’t know the guy personally.

But at Breitbart — to which I do not link — I found an article about Sen. Lindsey Graham issuing a warning that “if you care about world order, you better get the Ukraine right.” Graham wants NATO troops to be deployed to the Baltic regions. Graham’s concern was met by derision from Breitbart commenters, who called Graham a RINO who supports amnesty for illegal aliens (?). And the Ukraine crisis is being blamed on President Biden’s warmongering.

At Talking Points Memo, Josh Kovensky writes that the GOP can’t decide what to do about Ukraine.

A yawning split has emerged. On one side is the MAGA right, skeptical of any U.S. support for Ukraine. On the other are Republicans animated by ideas that linger from the pre-Trump GOP, including a blind commitment to American intervention overseas, regardless of the cost.

At Axios, Jonathan Swan writes that the GOP’s usual tough-on-Russia talk has nearly been silenced.

Republican hopefuls who vow not to assist in any potential conflict in Ukraine are reflecting — and fanning — anti-interventionist sentiments in the modern GOP. …

… There’s a stark split in the GOP over how to handle Russia’s threat to Ukraine. It’s less useful to think “doves” versus “hawks” and more illuminating to view it as a divide between Republicans who are responsive to their base and incumbents who feel they can afford to maintain some distance from GOP primary voters.

For example, Lindsey Graham isn’t up for re-election until 2026.

One repeated point made by the Breitbart commenters and elsewhere is that nobody cares about Ukraine’s border, but why isn’t somebody (Biden; NATO) protecting the U.S. southern border? This may have something to do with the claim I saw at Breitbart that by calling for NATO troop deployment in Baltic regions, Graham is taking the side of illegal aliens in the U.S. Breitbart readers tend not to be the sharpest crayons in the box.

You see the same thing at Gateway Punidt — I don’t link to it, either.

Of course, President Biden has said there would be no U.S. ground troops in Ukraine. I haven’t heard anyone call for U.S. troops in Ukraine.

I can’t say I’m sorry that the old neocon crowd is finding itself without a political home, but it’s being replaced by unadulterated idiocy, which doesn’t seem to be an improvement.

And it could be worse. Greg Sargent writes that the split between the old neocon hawks and the apparently isolationist MAGA heads may not be isolationism at all. “Something more pernicious is going on,” he writes. “The [Tucker] Carlsonian stance is perhaps better understood as alignment with a kind of right-wing Internationale, a loose international alliance of authoritarian nationalists who despise liberal internationalist commitments.”

Carlson has gone to extraordinary lengths to buttress Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s perspective on the brewing conflict. His depictions of Putin’s fears of NATO expansion into Ukraine are larded with great sympathy for Putin’s plight. …

…While Carlson piously suggests he is driven by a desire to prevent U.S. lives from being wasted abroad, he has also suggested we should take Russia’s side. He has even attacked U.S. media figures for suggesting Ukraine is a U.S. ally whose territorial sovereignty should be defended.

Tucker Carlson has gone overboard praising far-right dictators of late. He has a new documentary at Fox that’s actually called Hungary vs. Soros: The Fight for Civilization. According to Zack Beauchamp at Vox,

… it purports to tell the story of how a plucky little democracy in Central Europe has carved out a conservative model in the face of a relentless assault by the forces of global liberalism personified by George Soros, the Hungarian-American financier.

The story is a lie. Hungary is nominally a democracy but it has made a turn toward authoritarianism in the last decade; Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has painted Soros as a scapegoat whose allegedly nefarious influence justifies Orbán’s anti-democratic moves. The documentary amplifies this propaganda, treating the Jewish philanthropist as the spider at the center of a global web of conspiracy.

The Anti-Defamation League is not pleased.

At Daily Beast, Matt Lewis compares Carlson’s position to that of Neville Chamberlain.

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.

See above about unadulterated idiocy. I can’t even begin to describe all the ways that’s bleeped up.

But if we want to talk about history repeating itself, let us not forget that in the 1930s many American conservatives thought Mussolini was a swell guy who was showing America the way forward. Do see this fascinating review of a recent book from Princeton University Press, The Machine Has a Soul: American Sympathy with Italian Fascism by Katy Hull. This admiration didn’t come from the fringe but from many mainstream figures in the U.S., “From Henry Ford to the esteemed, path-blazing New York Times foreign correspondent Anne O’Hare McCormick.” The reviewer, Justin H. Vassallo, writes,

From the start, Hull’s subjects took Mussolini at his word, believing fascism would resolve the country’s postwar instability. But equally important for Americans were the lessons fascism offered the United States. “These observers,” Hull writes, “asserted that fascism produced a different kind of modernity from that which prevailed in the United States—one that upheld traditions, restored connections between government and the governed, and rebalanced the relationship between men and machines.” For them, Italian fascism could decouple technological progress from decadent consumerism and harmonize the humble, spiritual qualities of agrarian life with the martial pursuit of world stature. It thus stirred romanticized notions about the U.S. preindustrial past, even as the arrival of corporatism suggested Italy would surpass America’s own Progressive Era strides toward technocratic government. In essence, fascism simultaneously augured the antidote to and the fulfillment of the American experiment. As U.S. society confronts the ways the powerful have sanctioned rightwing extremism in our own time, this history uncovers a troubling legacy worth reckoning with.

The issues then and now are not identical. But if you scratch beneath the surface you see a lot of the same elements — racism, antisemitism, xenophobia — basically, a deep fear of diversity challenging White hegemony, all framed in slogans about patriotism and traditional values.  See also David Smith How Tucker Carlson and the far right embraced Hungary’s authoritarian leader at The Guardian.