How succinctly can you summarize the Republican identity crisis in the age of Trump?
I can do it in two tweets. One, since deleted:
Two, answering the outcry that ensued:
Tweet one sounds like it was written by Такер Карлсон, although I don’t know that even Tucker would stoop to describing the provinces claimed by Russia in its preposterous Anschluss as “Ukrainian-occupied.”
Tweet two sounds like it was written by Lindsey Graham.
Pity poor CPAC, forced to square that circle when pandering. Traditional Republican hawks believe in power projection, fear and loathe Russia after decades of Cold War conditioning, and sympathize with moral arguments for foreign intervention. Modern Republican doves believe America is chronically overextended abroad, view Russia as a distraction from the rising threat from China, and regard intervention as at least as likely to produce immoral outcomes as to prevent them.
Beneath those differences lies a philosophical rift. At the risk of oversimplifying, right-wing hawks tend to be classical liberals, willing and often overeager to make the world safe for democracy. Right-wing doves tend to be populist and post-liberal. It’s not just skepticism about America’s ability to project power effectively that makes them suspicious of foreign adventures. It’s the fact that, when we do project power, unfailingly we do so at the expense of illiberal regimes like Vladimir Putin’s.
Post-liberal Republicans don’t view illiberal regimes as something to be reflexively opposed and contained. In some respects, they’re to be emulated. Why fight Putin, a self-styled warrior against Western decadence, instead of learning from him?
The differences between the two Republican camps on Ukraine have been papered over so far by Democrats’ total control of government. So long as there are 10 traditional GOP hawks in the Senate to help Chuck Schumer beat a filibuster, and there are, U.S. aid to Kyiv will continue to flow. But that will change if Republicans take back one or both houses of Congress this fall, as is likely. And depending on how big Kevin McCarthy’s majority is, it could change drastically.
Would U.S. support for Ukrainian self-defense continue with Republicans in charge?
The two camps are about to fight their own war to answer that question.
Most Americans still support the war after seven months of conflict. After years of intense partisan polarization, we’ve all become inured to polling in which one side lands 80/20 on an issue while the other lands 20/80. Ukraine is different. In late August, Reuters found majorities in both parties believe the U.S. should continue to back the Ukrainians until all Russian forces withdraw from Ukrainian territory. More recently, Gallup reported that 66 percent of Americans support Ukraine in its effort to reclaim lost territory even at the price of a prolonged war.
But the hairline cracks in partisan opinion are starting to widen. In the Reuters poll, 66 percent of Democrats said they’re with Ukraine until it achieves its goals versus 51 percent of Republicans who said so. Gallup’s survey found Republican opinion particularly close-run: Just 50 percent of GOPers would tolerate a prolonged war in order to see Ukraine recover territory versus 46 percent who want to see the conflict end quickly and are willing to have Ukraine cede territory to Russia toward that end. Across 13 different demographic groups, Republicans were the only one in which more than 40 percent answered that way.
Gallup also asked Americans whether they think the U.S. has given too much aid to Ukraine, not enough, or the right amount. “Too much” was the least popular position at just 24 percent of all respondents. A plurality of 38 percent said we haven’t given enough aid, and 36 percent thought we’ve given the right amount. Among Republicans, the trends reversed. A plurality of 43 percent said we’ve given too much aid versus 30 percent who said we haven’t given enough and 26 percent who felt we’d given the right amount.
The hawkish optimist’s take on those numbers is that, even within the GOP, a majority still resists the “too much” position. The pessimist’s take is that Republicans once again far outpace every other demographic group in their skepticism about helping the Ukrainians. After the GOP’s 43 percent, the next largest cohort to say that the U.S. has given too much aid to Kyiv stood at just 31 percent.
The distinct sense one gets from the polling is that Republicans are shifting from solid support for Ukraine’s war effort to tepid support, and will in short order shift to tepid opposition and then solid opposition.
What you think is primarily driving that shift depends on how cynical you are about the modern Republican Party.
The innocuous explanation is that the more fiscally conservative of our two factions is reverting to form. America has, to be sure, spent an exorbitant amount on Ukraine by the standards of foreign aid. The $12 billion appropriated in the government-funding bill that passed last Friday brings the total given to the Ukrainians this year to some $67 billion, “the highest amount of military aid the United States has committed to any country in a single year in nearly half a century, since the Vietnam War.” It approaches 10 percent of the Pentagon’s annual budget. And we’re shelling it out amid rising anxiety about a new global recession that’ll shrink federal tax revenue and soaring interest rates that will make America’s debt that much more expensive and unsustainable.
It’s a lot of money, especially under the circumstances.
On the other hand, when the history of this era is written, I wonder if aid to Ukraine won’t be seen as one of the most freakishly cost-effective military expenditures in the history of the United States. We spent $2 trillion on a war in Afghanistan that began and ended with the Taliban in charge. We’re in the hole for $400 billion and counting on the F-35 fighter jet. If I told you a year ago that for $100 billion or so we could decimate Putin’s military, cause Russia to lose its status as a great power, and do so without losing a single American life, would you have taken that deal? If we could swing the same deal with Taiwan and get the same outcome with respect to China, wouldn’t we?
As liberals will happily remind you, Republicans traditionally haven’t been sticklers about fiscal responsibility when it comes to defense spending. I don’t think sticker shock is the core reason GOP voters are leery of more Ukraine aid.
A more plausible reason is that “America First” Republicanism has scrambled both parties’ respective tolerances for indefinite foreign adventures. It’s the left, not the right, that spearheaded humanitarian intervention in Libya and (almost) Syria under Obama. It’s the right, not the left, that sought engagement with Putin’s Russia and questioned the utility of NATO under Trump. As the Ukraine war drags on, right-wingers may increasingly perceive it as a Democratic-led do-gooder initiative that lasts forever, goes nowhere, and ends up costing a boatload of cash we don’t have. The fact that Trump disclaimed Bush’s legacy so eagerly in 2016 also unmoored Republican voters from feeling obliged to defend interventionism as a matter of consistency or strength. “We are ending the era of endless wars,” Trump told West Point grads in 2020. That mindset makes it easy for some right-wing populists to view Ukraine as a “Democratic war” despite the fact that polls show bipartisan support.
The parties’ instinct to polarize around issues may force them further apart once Republicans take power in Congress, like magnets repelling each other at the poles. In the first flush of outrage over Russia’s invasion, with the GOP all but powerless to block outlays of military aid, that instinct was blunted. But once McCarthy or McConnell has veto power over legislation, it will reemerge with various “America First” fig leaves offered to explain Republicans’ sudden reluctance to fund the Ukrainians. “We can’t continue to send all of our assets to Ukraine,” said GOP Rep. Roger Williams recently, as an example. “A lot of what we’ve sent to Ukraine should be down at the border.” I don’t know what he thinks the Border Patrol would do with HIMAR systems, say, but his excuse is more palatable than the truth—namely, that House Republicans will be expected to obstruct Ukraine funding simply to demonstrate that divided government means no more blank checks for Joe Biden. Giving the White House everything it wants for Ukraine would be letting Democrats “win,” and insofar as the new Republican majority has any mandate from the base, it’s to make sure that Democratic “winning” ends. Whatever that means for the Ukrainians.
The two impulses described above, obstructionism and isolationism, converge in the party’s nationalist wing. And unfortunately for McConnell and especially McCarthy, that wing punches above its weight in its influence over grassroots Republicans. Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego recently told Politico, “I’ve talked to a couple of [Republican] members that have voted for pro-Ukraine legislation in the past. They have town halls now where they come and get yelled at using Tucker Carlson talking points. And of course at some point they’re going to have to deal with primaries.” Populist media stars have been making unhappy noises about Ukraine aid for months while the molten MAGA core in the House has already taken to voting against legislation about it. Eventually this will catch up to what Tim Miller of The Bulwark calls the House Republican “fear caucus,” the members who don’t share populists’ sympathies for authoritarian regimes but who do fear the electoral repercussions of voting against Vladimir Putin if it means voting with Joe Biden.
Very soon the Russia apologists on the right will begin arguing that, inasmuch as appeasing Putin is the only way we all get out of this alive, any Republican who votes for Ukraine aid is voting for nuclear war. Do we think an invertebrate like Kevin McCarthy is prepared to stare down the Tucker Carlsons and cast that vote anyway? Bear in mind that unless Republicans win a surprisingly large majority in November, the only way McCarthy will be able to pass future Ukraine funding bills is with the help of House Democrats. If plowing billions into Ukraine to defeat Russian authoritarianism weren’t bad enough, in other words, he’ll have no choice but to partner with the dreaded libs to do it.
All of this augurs badly for future Ukraine aid and would seem to portend a populist rout in the coming Republican civil war over the issue.
But don’t count out traditional Republican hawks yet.
The first thing they have going for them is popular support. Opposition to Ukraine funding may be roughly evenly split among Republicans in polling but independents solidly favor sending aid to Kyiv. In the Gallup poll mentioned above, 64 percent of indies said the U.S. should continue to support Ukraine as it seeks to reclaim territory even at the expense of a prolonged conflict. Only 34 percent want America to convince Ukraine to cede territory to Russia as a means of ending it quickly. And a mere 28 percent of independents believe the U.S. has given “too much” support to Ukraine. McCarthy and the fear caucus will have to weigh the risk of alienating swing voters by blocking aid against the risk of alienating Tucker Carlson by supporting it.
Hawks also have a robust GOP bloc in the Senate that continues to vote for Ukraine aid in the name of containing Russia. The new government funding bill containing $12 billion for Kyiv attracted the support of no less than 22 Republicans, more than twice what would be needed to beat a populist filibuster in the next Congress. Thanks to their sizable cohort of “mavericks,” Senate Republicans may be the only entity in the party that’s managed to build and maintain a political identity distinct from Trumpism over the past two years. Again and again, they’ve defied the MAGA base’s demands for obstructionism on major votes – infrastructure, the gun bill, the CHIPS Act, reform to the Electoral Count Act (soon), and of course Ukraine aid. Key to that spirit of independence is the person of Mitch McConnell, who’s managed to shield many of his members from Trump’s attacks by becoming a lightning rod for them himself. And although McConnell is careful not to return fire, the fact that he continues to join the “maverick” caucus on big votes is his way of showing populists that a caucus led by him won’t bow to their pressure.
Which means no matter who controls the Senate next year, a House Republican majority intent on defunding Ukraine may find itself in the uncomfortable position of being attacked by Schumer and McConnell. It’s easy for McCarthy to rally the GOP against a funding bill whose congressional support breaks down along party lines, it’s trickier to do so when McConnell is out reminding people that you can support more funding for Ukraine and still consider yourself a Republican in good standing.
Remember, although many hawks in the caucus are louder than Mitch, he took the step of visiting Volodymyr Zelensky personally in Kyiv a few months ago. He’s a hawk’s hawk. Frankly, I think he’d relish an intramural foreign policy debate in which he’s on one side and the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz are on the other. Particularly knowing that he’ll get to accuse them of being soft on China inasmuch as cutting funding to Ukraine would signal to Beijing that U.S. allies can’t count on sustained support after they’ve been invaded.
By far, however, the greatest asset that hawks have in the coming funding fight is the battlefield momentum that Ukraine has built over the last few weeks. It would be easy to defund the Ukrainians if they were in the process of retreating, after all. Doves would argue that the war had become a money pit, giving us nothing to show for our generosity. Pulling the plug in those circumstances wouldn’t be stealing defeat from the jaws of victory, it would be a prudent matter of cutting our losses after all hope had been lost.
Instead, as I write this on Monday afternoon, the news is brimming with reports of new Ukrainian advances. The key logistics hub of Lyman fell over the weekend. Breakthroughs are being reported in the south. Panicky Russian troops who’ve come under fire are resorting to social media to beg for air support. The Kremlin can’t define the borders of some of the Ukrainian provinces it’s supposedly “annexed” and can’t hold its ground against Ukrainian forces in others. Russian propagandists sound depressed and furious, with some angrily calling for generals to be sent into combat. (“Send all these pieces of garbage barefoot with machine guns straight to the front.”) A desperate Putin has begun micromanaging the war and reportedly is denying requests for tactical retreats despite the risk to his men. Rumors are circulating that a major collapse in the lines may be looming.
As they continue to lose troops and access to supply lines, the possibility that Russia will halt the Ukrainian advance looks increasingly remote. The war has turned shambolic.
Americans are paying attention.
That poll was published in mid-September, after Ukraine’s dramatic advance in the northeastern part of the country but before the capture of Lyman and push into Donetsk. It’s a safe bet that the share of Americans who believe the Ukrainians are winning has since risen.
That being so, yanking funding from an army that’s on the move and achieving its goals wouldn’t play like a matter of cutting one’s losses or declining to throw good money after bad. It’d play like an act of sabotage against an ally that’s put the aid we’ve sent to good use and remains en route to dealing a major American enemy an unimaginable defeat.
As the Ukrainians regain more ground, the moral case for continued support will become increasingly clear as well.
To grasp the strength of the hawkish Republican position as the Ukrainians advance, consider the relative silence of Donald Trump about the war. As the country’s foremost right-wing nationalist and a proponent of rapprochement with Russia, one would expect him to have spent the last few months pounding the table about the fiscal and moral irresponsibility of sending billions to Ukraine. But he’s held his fire, likely for two reasons. First, he doesn’t want to be on the wrong side of public opinion about a popular war, at least until it turns unpopular. Revisit his early comments about Iraq for evidence of that. Second, he hates losers and it surely hasn’t escaped his attention that Russia is increasingly likely to lose. We’re all familiar with his habit of endorsing the frontrunner in polling a week or so before a Republican primary election, teeing him up to claim after the election that it was his endorsement that made the difference. There may be a similar dynamic happening with Ukraine. He won’t “endorse” Russia so long as it’s trailing badly in the “polls.” He wants to back a winner, as always.
The hawks are going to win. Although Trump probably won’t “endorse” Ukraine regardless, as it will grieve him on a personal level to see a strongman whose ruthlessness he admires humiliated in combat by the Biden-led “woke” West.
The Republican civil war is coming. And it’s a long way to January, when the new Congress will be seated and that war begins in earnest.
The best thing the doves have going for them now is the coming Ukrainian winter. Advancing will become harder. Eventually Putin’s new conscripts will enter the battle and the sheer mass of corpses that piles up will slow Ukraine’s forward progress. A lull of several weeks or months will come to the battlefield, handing Republican defunders an opportunity to claim that the war has at last bogged down and the best efforts of the liberal order to defeat Russian authoritarianism have failed after all. That’s our cue to pull the plug on future aid packages.
But Ukraine will hopefully continue to regain ground this fall, cheering Republican hawks and steeling them for the coming political fight over the next round of funding. Presumably Republican differences will resolve in the end with a compromise in which McCarthy’s House majority insists on some smaller amount of Ukraine funding than Biden is seeking, just to show that they’re “fighting,” while demanding that the sum appropriated for Ukraine be paid for via cuts to other programs. Which shouldn’t be a problem given how tiny a fraction each outlay for the Ukrainians is relative to the total federal budget.
If I were Mitch McConnell or Mitt Romney or some other Republican who’s invested ideologically in Ukraine’s success, though, I’d find a reason to visit Zelensky sometime this fall and take partial credit for their military’s success. The more Americans—Republican voters, specifically—feel that this is their victory too, the less likely they’ll be to pull the plug before Ukraine has finished the invaders off.