To understand politics in 2022, consider two tweets from yesterday. The first comes from a progressive Democrat—sorry, former Democrat—known for, among other things, supporting aggressive gun control and divestment from fossil fuels. A person occasionally described in Russian state media as “our girlfriend Tulsi.”
The second comes from a lifelong Republican who held not one but two Cabinet positions in the Trump administration.
After Gabbard’s tweet was published she was promptly booked on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, a program on which she’s appeared many times and even guest-hosted during her not-very-long journey across the horseshoe from left-wing Assad apologist to the nationalist right’s favorite political “maverick.”
Pompeo, meanwhile, was savaged in the replies to his own tweet for wanting to continue supporting Ukraine. No doubt there were a few far-left tankies in that mix, eager to seize an opportunity to pummel an interventionist Republican on Putin’s behalf. But the most common critique of him in the reply thread was sticker shock at federal spending on Ukraine, and it is right-wingers who are more likely to feel, or feign, that.
It’s also right-wingers who are more apt to care what Pompeo has to say about anything as he moves toward an implausible presidential candidacy.
The chilly reception to his tweet and the prospect of him running in 2024 has me wondering: Assuming we avoid a Trump coronation, will there be any loud-and-proud Ukraine boosters in the next Republican presidential field? The war will be over by then, God willing, so U.S. support will no longer be a live issue. But whether a candidate did or didn’t back the effort to arm the Ukrainians might be.
Given how populist broadcasters dominate conservative media and populist voters punch above their weight in primaries, we should start considering the possibility that Reaganesque hawks will be extinct at the presidential level two years from now.
At least with respect to Russia.
Outcomes matter, of course.
As a wise man observed recently, Ukraine’s continued success on the battlefield is the most compelling argument for keeping up Western support. The dovish case for pulling back is never more persuasive than when the word “quagmire” begins bubbling up in media reports, but we haven’t seen much of that since the Ukrainians chased Russia out of Kharkiv province, pushed deeper into Kherson, and (maybe) bombed the Kerch Bridge. The idea that Ukraine’s resistance is futile and we’re therefore fools for funding it is, if not dead, at the “slipping in and out of consciousness” phase.
Defeat is an orphan but victory has a thousand fathers. So long as the Ukrainian advance continues, none but the staunchest authoritarian ideologues on the right will want to forfeit their right to claim eventual paternity of that victory by insisting that the U.S. cut aid immediately. Even Donald Trump, a man who reportedly chattered about pulling out of NATO in his second term, won’t stand on a debate stage in 2024 and call American support for Ukraine a mistake if the Ukrainians sweep the Russians away. In Trump’s cosmology, all great successes are somehow attributable to him while all great failures are attributable to his enemies. He won’t miss the boat if the Ukrainian victory cruise sets sail.
He’ll stand in the bow like Leonard DiCaprio in Titanic howling that no one believed more strongly in Ukraine than him. Many people are saying it was the strongest belief they’ve ever seen.
The logic of “everyone loves a winner” applies to voters too. In August, when Ukrainian troops were paralyzed by a ferocious onslaught of Russian artillery, Reuters found 53 percent support among Americans for backing them until Russian forces withdrew. One month later, after a series of stunning advances, that number had risen to 73 percent. Republican backing jumped from 51 percent to 66 percent over the same period. I’m guessing Pompeo has seen those numbers, done the calculations on the probability that Russia will turn the tide of the war (slim to none), and tailored his tweet yesterday accordingly. Not only is the GOP still a hawkish party, he may have concluded, it’ll be even more hawkish a year from now!
We’ll see about that. There are reasons to doubt.
Start with the midterms. The only people watching election polls more closely than American political junkies are Ukrainian officials, who understand too well what a Republican takeover might mean for their ability to defend their country. “The U.S. midterms are one of the factors that have us concerned about the winter,” said one to the Washington Post. “Russia will gain an advantage with the new Congress and with Europeans as they blackmail them on energy policy. That’s why the current offensive is so important.” A Republican congressional aide told the paper that he’s hopeful aid to Ukraine will continue once his party controls the House but admitted “there is a question mark.”
I won’t elaborate on that “question mark” here, having written about it last week. It’s enough to say that negative hyperpartisanship will inevitably heighten the contradictions between the parties on Ukraine once the GOP has a legislative veto over the matter. The new Republican House majority will feel obliged to thwart Biden’s agenda by blocking spending of all stripes. Populist right-wingers will zero in on Ukraine aid as money for “Biden’s war” despite its bipartisan support and insist that the funds be redirected to help Americans, as if the federal government didn’t just spend $6 trillion domestically during the pandemic.
Trump might come off the sidelines, too, and start pressuring Kevin McCarthy to hold up Ukraine funding depending on how things look on the battlefield and how insistently Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene are whispering in his ear. Lately he’s taken to demanding immediate peace negotiations, coincidentally just as the Ukrainians have gone on offense and begun recovering territory.
“We have to very smart and nimble. We have to know what to say, what to do. And we are saying exactly the wrong thing. We’ll end up in World War III,” Trump said at a rally in Mesa, Ariz., to stump for gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake and Senate candidate Blake Masters.
“We must demand immediate negotiation of a peaceful end to the war in Ukraine, or we will end up in World War III and there will never be a war like this,” he said at the rally. “We will never have had a war like this and that’s all because of stupid people that don’t have a clue. And it’s also because of the kind of weaponry that’s available today.”
Only Trump knows whether he’s urging peace because he’s too weak to resist nuclear blackmail or because he’s desperate to rescue an authoritarian kindred spirit from a battlefield humiliation, but it doesn’t matter for our purposes or for McCarthy’s. Unless the Ukrainian advance continues steadily, Trump and his populist flying monkeys will use any setback on the field as an excuse to push House Republicans to cut aid.
And the advance won’t continue steadily. Winter’s arrival will slow its progress. If the Ukrainians do end up retaking Kherson, it won’t happen in a matter of weeks the way it did in Kharkiv. As I write this, plans may even be afoot for Russia’s new conscript army to reopen a new front around Kyiv by invading from Belarus. Some U.S. officials have told the Post starkly that “neither Russia nor Ukraine is capable of winning the war outright.” Meanwhile, NATO’s resolve to continue supporting Ukraine may begin to crack as Europeans struggle to heat their homes this winter without access to Russian gas. If Europe pulls back, Ukraine will ask the United States to pick up the slack and take the full burden of funding their war.
All of these forces will conspire to move opinion within the GOP. When Ukraine’s counteroffensive finally falters, when gas prices tick up again for several more months, when all of their populist heroes begin hooting at them that Biden’s a warmonger and it’s time to put America first, the right’s support for the war will begin to melt down. Defunding Ukraine will become the latest in an infinite series of litmus tests of whether one is a true conservative or not.
By next summer, barring consistent Ukrainian battlefield gains, Republican opinion on the war will have turned decisively sour just in time for the start of the 2024 primary campaign. Who wants to be the hawk onstage at the first primary debate in that climate? Mike Pompeo? Tom Cotton?
What’s tricky about this for Republican candidates is that, even if they’re anti-war, they can’t really be anti-war.
Tucker Carlson can, I guess, since he has no electoral skin in the game. (Yet.) But the Republican obsession with strength requires that the party’s nominee be pugnacious toward belligerents even if he’s inclined to avoid foreign adventures. That obsession predates Trump, of course. Whether it was Barry Goldwater as a staunch Cold War hawk, Richard Nixon and the “madman theory,” or Ronald Reagan as the Soviets’ worst nightmare, it’s important to Republican voters to know that their candidate is the tough guy in the race while the bleeding-heart Democrat is the wimp. George W. Bush, the only Republican to win the popular vote in 30 years, did so by accusing the other party of wanting to shoot spitballs at al-Qaeda.
A campaign in which Joe Biden gets to play leader of the free world by championing Ukrainian self-defense while Donald Trump offers to gift Ukraine’s version of the Sudetenland to Putin if he’ll kindly not nuke us would be … uncomfortable for the right. Isolationists, especially the anti-anti-Putin strain, are willing and sometimes eager to appease authoritarians, but you’d sure better not call them appeasers.
Only Democrats are appeasers. Republicans are a party of fighters.
Somehow, then, the 2024 Republican field will try to position itself as anti-war yet stronger than the weak-kneed but hawkish Democrats. But how? One way, favored by Trump, is to insist that Republican strength would have so intimidated aggressors abroad that they wouldn’t have dared start conflicts in the first place. He’s made that argument many times when asked about Russia’s invasion.
It’s a rehash of the “madman theory.” And in fairness, he fits the bill.
But it’s never made sense with respect to Ukraine. Trump sought detente with Russia repeatedly and made no bones about his skepticism of NATO. The idea of him rallying Europeans to impose devastating sanctions on Putin and to arm Ukraine in the name of defending the liberal order from fascist expansionism is comically absurd. His first and last thought about Russia’s invasion would have been how the war might affect the Dow Jones average and ultimately his job approval, especially if gas prices began going up. We would have been lucky if he didn’t try to align America with Moscow against Kyiv; either way, it’s a cinch that he would have been pushing Zelensky to make territorial concessions from the start.
Even now, as a private citizen, clips of his comments on Ukraine are turning up in Russian propaganda. Last week he accused Biden of all but “taunting” Putin into having launched his invasion. Absolving Russia from any agency when it commits crimes is a venerable tradition of useful idiots.
The reason Putin didn’t invade Ukraine during Trump’s term isn’t because he feared that the madman might nuke Russia. It’s because he thought Trump might win a second term and withdraw from NATO voluntarily, shattering the alliance and leaving any potential western resistance to an invasion of Ukraine in disarray. As David Frum put it, “the criminal doesn’t mug the old lady when he’s got her on the verge of signing her entire estate over to him.”
Another way Republican candidates might balance foreign policy strength with hostility to Ukraine is by claiming they’re not anti-war, they’re anti-this-war. Ask a dovish American nationalist about China and Taiwan and watch as his inner hawk begins to spread its wings. It’s true, of course—China poses a far greater threat to American hegemony than Russia does, militarily and especially economically. To the extent there’s been even the tiniest chance of Russian global hegemony since the end of the USSR, it’s lying dead in a sunflower field somewhere in Ukraine.
Every dollar we’re spending to help Ukraine is a dollar we’re not spending to help Taiwan, populists will tell you. Well, maybe. But some Taiwanese seem to believe that dollars spent to help Ukraine are helping them too by showing China that the Western alliance isn’t to be underestimated. Invading a small power that enjoys economic and military support from NATO countries could be more painful for Beijing than it expects. Before the war in Ukraine is over, Russia may have lost control of its near-abroad and Putin may have lost control of his government. Dollars spent on this war may be deterring much bigger wars.
Out-hawking Biden on Taiwan will also be difficult for Republican candidates considering that he’s the most hawkish president on that issue we’ve ever had. As recently as three weeks ago he said, and not for the first time, that the U.S. military would intervene in the event of a Chinese attack on the island, a sharp break with the “strategic ambiguity” the U.S. government has traditionally practiced on the issue. Good luck turning Biden into a traditional Democratic wimp on Taiwanese defense.
I wonder, frankly, if the populist right’s hawkishness toward Taiwan will last. It makes no sense that an “America First” movement would oppose military aid to a European ally in a war in which no American lives are at risk while supporting military intervention in defense of an Asian ally that would cost American lives—many of them. By the time China gets serious about making its move, perhaps the Tucker Carlsons and Steve Bannons will have moved on from wondering why Americans should pay for Ukraine’s resistance to wondering why Americans should die for Taiwan’s.
But maybe not. One could, I suppose, contrive an economic argument to justify distinguishing between the two wars (no blood for Ukrainian grain … but some blood for Taiwanese semiconductors) but the distinction probably has more to do with ideology. Taiwan is battling communists, the death’s-head of godless leftism, and the American right is always up for that. Ukraine is battling fascists and, well, there’s a certain amount of mixed emotions there, never mind how granddad spent his youth when he was stationed in France in the mid-1940s.
If you doubt that there’s a strong ideological component to nationalists’ disdain for funding Ukraine, imagine that Biden and the Democrats suddenly agreed to populist demands and yanked all support for the Ukrainians. No more money, no more weapons, no more reason to wring one’s hands about the cost to the American taxpayer. All of us would be free to develop a rooting interest in the war based on the balance of moral equities. Do you think populists who have groused for months about the cost of the war would begin cheering on the plucky Ukrainians once they’d been unburdened of worrying about the price tag? Or do you think they’d barf up some new reason to condone Kyiv’s immediate capitulation?
But I digress. Republican candidates will stick with a hawkish position on Taiwan for as long as they can because doing so lets the GOP maintain its pretension that it’s the tough-guy party despite the fact that Democrats are turning more interventionist. Irony of ironies, in 2024 Trump may end up echoing Barack Obama by insisting that he’s not against all wars, like Taiwan, he’s against dumb wars. Like Ukraine, for some reason.
Forget Trump, though. If you want to know how the next Republican presidential field will position on foreign policy, watch Ron DeSantis.
There’s no weathervane in America, Trump included, more sensitive to the political currents whirling among right-wing populists than the governor of Florida. Last year, while Trump was trying to talk sense to Republicans about getting vaccinated, DeSantis was backpedaling furiously to get right with anti-vaxxers. He had been too enthusiastic in promoting the vaccines initially, they insisted. He heard them and took care to never make that mistake again.
The recent stunt he pulled by dropping asylum-seekers off in Martha’s Vineyard is another case of him being oh so thirsty for base approval. Reportedly DeSantis has told donors how lucky Greg Abbott is to have a border crisis on his hands in Texas since that leaves him with endless opportunities for creative partisan grandstanding on immigration. The Martha’s Vineyard operation was a case of the weathervane detecting a breeze and deciding he couldn’t let Abbott own this issue ahead of 2024, even if he had to trick migrants into boarding an airplane to get a cut of the political action.
The point is, if and when the Republican base begins to turn irretrievably isolationist, you’ll know because DeSantis will be saying dovish things within six minutes of it happening.
He’s been quiet about the Ukraine war so far, and why shouldn’t he be? He’s a governor, not a president. He’s been busy managing hurricane relief and setting post-Roe abortion policy for his state and running for reelection and sporadically demagoging Disney. He has his hands full. But I do find it interesting that a weathervane as well calibrated as him has passed on a chance to earn any brownie points with the Republican base by offering his thoughts occasionally on the war.
I assume that’s because he’s concluded—rightly—that Republican opinion is too divided for him to benefit by taking a position. If he says something discouraging about the Ukrainians he’ll be on the wrong side of most of the country and the party. If he says something encouraging about them, he risks getting the Pompeo treatment from MAGA reply guys. And that would be fatal potentially for a man who’s hoping to out-populist Trump on every major issue ahead of 2024.
DeSantis did speak for a few minutes about the war back in March, shortly after Russia’s invasion. It’s worth watching to see where he was at the time, both as a benchmark of comparison for the next time he discusses the subject and as a preview of how he might try to balance pandering to Republican hawks and doves as a presidential candidate.
Politico called that the “Blame Putin and Biden” approach. DeSantis was clearly pro-Ukraine (and gratuitously anti-French, of course) but also clearly anti-Democrat, lashing Biden for his foolish energy policy and treating his disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan as an instance of provocative weakness. That bit of triangulation might suffice to appease MAGA populists in 2024 when the topic of Ukraine comes up. If you scream “Democrats are bad” loudly enough, will they let you slide on whispering “Ukrainians are good”? If you’re willing to fight the “communists” here at home, will the base indulge you in fighting the fascists abroad?
DeSantis will tell you where this is all headed by his behavior. If he’s out on the stump next spring and conspicuously still avoiding the subject of Ukraine, then the Republican divide on the war abides. If instead he’s whacking Biden for not using the money we’ve spent over there to instead dump illegal immigrants on the Hamptons and Beverly Hills, the Ukrainian war effort is in deep trouble.