Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has emerged as a surprisingly big faultline inside the American Republican party. In the House of Representative, the conservative wing of the party — those members most closely aligned with former President Donald Trump — has turned sharply against sending aid to Ukraine to resist the Russians. Traditional pre-Trump Republicans, such as Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConell, continue to support aid to that beleaguered country.
This intra-GOP split is not mirrored in Congress as a whole. With Democrats included, there are large majorities in both houses of Congress in support of aid. But the GOP controls the House, and its caucus leader — Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy — needs the anti-Ukraine firebrands to maintain the majority behind his office. The administration of President Joe Biden will likely try again soon, and aid will likely be confirmed. But the debate is getting tougher.
The GOP’s Trumpist Turn Inward
The Republican Party has long been the home for isolationist voters, especially in rural and small-town America. The country was founded on the principle that it was unique, and many of the framers warned against sullying the American experiment with an internationalist foreign policy. For most of U.S. history, American interests were limited mostly to the Western Hemisphere. Even after World War I, the U.S. chose to come home rather than participate in the League of Nations.
World War II and the rise of the Soviet Union changed this. The last major Republican voice for isolation, Senator Robert Taft, was pushed aside by Republican President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s. The GOP turned internationalist to fight Communism. After a brief dalliance with retrenchment in the 1990s, the GOP once again supported forward intervention after 9/11. But that push waned as the War on Terror flew off the rails, opening space for Trump’s message of belligerent isolationism.
Trump clearly dislikes international institutions and rules. He sees them as constraints on U.S. power and uncompensated obligations. He famously complained that U.S. allies were “ripping off” the U.S. by not paying for American protection. He sought to remove the U.S. from structures such as NATO and the U..S-South Korea alliance. He failed, but he will probably try again if re-elected. All of this fell under the rubric of his “America First” foreign policy. But Trump’s particular fascination with Russia has been very marked, and he has pulled the GOP dramatically in his direction.
The Pro-Putin GOP
As late as 2012, the Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, could call Russia America’s greatest geopolitical threat, knowing Republicans stood behind him. With Trump came a volte-face which is still hard to explain. Trump has very noticeably never criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump, of course, is famously lashing and harsh in his language, making it all the more obvious how he has spared Putin. No one quite knows why. There are rumors of Russian kompromat on Trump, or financial interests at play. Whatever the reason, Trump has moved GOP opinion substantially on Russia — to the point where now much of the GOP would now abandon Ukraine to Russian aggression.
Trump’s personal concerns aside, it seems increasingly clear that the GOP’s rising pro-Putinism reflects ideological shifts. Putin represents the values the Trump-reshaped GOP prizes. He acts the part of a tough, masculine leader, an image Trump cultivates himself. Putin aligns his conservative government with Russia’s reactionary Orthodox church — a closeness of church and state which American evangelicals long for in the US. Putin is relentlessly “anti-woke.” He has cracked down on homosexuals and transsexuals. He has no patience for feminism and regularly uses racialized language Americans cannot, without censure. And Putin’s authoritarianism — his repression of dissent and the media — is obviously attractive to the Trump-beholden right, which is itself sliding toward authoritarianism.
Will the Pro-Putin GOP Survive a Trump Defeat in 2024?
Putin represents the kind of leadership and ideology to which the Trump wing of the GOP aspires. Trump very obviously admires him, as does the hard right in Congress. This has turned aid to Ukraine — which claims a very small amount of America’s enormous national economy — into a hugely divisive issue. The Trumpist wing of the GOP wants Russia to win.
The big test of this Putinist reorientation of the far right’s foreign policy will be a defeat of Trump in next year’s presidential election. If Trump loses, the personal Trump connection to Putin will be lost. We will know then if GOP pro-Putinism is enduring.