Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis recently told Fox News host Tucker Carlson that the US should avoid deeper involvement in the Ukraine War. It is a ‘territorial dispute’ between Russia and Ukraine. It is not a ‘vital’ interest, compared to issue like US border security or ‘wokeness’ in American institutions.
It is unclear if DeSantis genuinely cares about the Ukraine War or has strong foreign policy beliefs. DeSantis has evinced little interest in foreign affairs, and in the pre-Trump era, he titled toward the generic hawkishness of the old Republican party. But former President Donald Trump changed that. He was significantly more parochial in his understanding of US foreign interest, and this sparked an emerging civil war in the GOP over foreign policy.
The Ukraine War illustrates this well. The traditional GOP establishment – figures like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney – have supported American aid to Ukraine.
But the post-Trump generation – such as Congresswoman Margorie Taylor Greene and Senator J. D. Vance – have claimed the US is helping too much.
The split has even made its way to the preeminent conservative media organ, Fox News. Its hosts have been all over the place on the war, with Carlson clearly hoping for a Russian victory—meanwhile, Sean Hannity just suggested that the US shoot down Russian jets.
Ron DeSantis is Probably Triangulating
US elections – indeed, the elections in most democracies – are decided by domestic issues. The voters just do not care that much about foreign policy. A genuine national emergency, like 9/11, can push these issues briefly to the fore. But normally, presidential candidates have far less to say about foreign policy, and American presidents give it little time in their annual state of the union addresses.
DeSantis almost certainly realizes this. He is clearly a disciplined politician. Indeed, his great appeal to Republican elites is his focus and lucidity compared to Trump. Trump’s public acting out – his rants, weird stories, insults, and so on – thrill his voters but made him a poor president for the achievement of actual conservative policy priorities. This is likely the reason for the generous treatment of DeSantis in conservative media this year, despite Trump’s overwhelming popularity with the GOP base. (I have predicted that Trump will beat DeSantis in the primary, and I still think that analysis is correct.)
Ron DeSantis likely sees the GOP 2024 presidential primary divided into two ‘lanes’: a traditional, pre-Trump, post-Reagan approach, and a post-Trump, ‘populist’ one. The Reaganite lane appeals to traditional GOP elites; it is libertarian on economics, hawkish on foreign policy, and mildly traditionalist on cultural issues.
But this ‘lane,’ post-Trump, is narrow. Trump beat a dozen of these sorts of candidates in 2016. Trump demonstrated rather clearly that GOP voters like the welfare state – they do not want Medicare and Social Security cut – and dislike foreign policy interventionism. And Trump has promised that yet again this year. Worse, this narrow lane is filling up. Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley is offering the standard Reaganite package, and former Vice-President Mike Pence, who is expected to enter the race, is talking up the same.
The Trump lane, by contrast, is wide and populated only by Trump himself, who is somewhat damaged goods after leading the GOP to multiple election defeats since 2016. DeSantis is smart enough to know that GOP primary voters – not necessarily the centrist voters needed to win the general election though – are clustered around Trump. To win the primary, he needs them, not the Reaganite elites and a few anti-Trump holdovers.
Hence DeSantis has been performing – whether he believes it or not – trumpism. He has doubled down on the culture war red meat the GOP base loves – attacking Disney, transgender athletes, professors, and so on. He has practiced Trump’s hand gestures for his speeches.
And part of this performative act is mirroring Trump on foreign policy.
Neoconservatives and hawks in the GOP are in disarray. The have never quite recovered from the catastrophes of the war on terrorism. Trump realized that in 2016, and he has doubled-down on it since then. Haley and Pence have offered the old hawkishness, but politically it has not helped at all. Both are mired in single digits against Trump and DeSantis.
An interesting follow-on question is whether DeSantis actually believes his language on Ukraine. I doubt it, but ultimately, this is probably irrelevant. DeSantis is mimicking Vance here. Vance was a known critic of Trump until he ran for office, when he suddenly fell in line with trumpism.
Ron DeSantis is doing the same, and soon his personal beliefs, whatever they are on Ukraine, will not matter.