If you listened to some Republican politicians’ reactions as the Ukraine crisis was developing, you could be excused for thinking the late Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy may have been retroactively right when he claimed in the 1950s that Soviet spies, sympathizers and advocates had infiltrated the U.S. political system.
Paradoxically, 70 years later, it turns out that those sympathizers are not communist saboteurs undermining the American republic, but Republican activists, influencers, political operators and even members of Congress.
The point of departure of any analysis of Republican positions on Russia is that there is a generally familiar and known commodity called “the Republican Party,” and that it has discernible foreign policy principles and values. If such an analysis was conducted in the 1980s or ’90s, the reference would be clear and the term “Republican” recognizable. But today, this is an erroneous and misleading assumption: that Republican Party is no longer in existence.
The entire party has turned RINO, meaning “Republican in Name Only.” The word Republican has lost all its previous meanings. Instead, there is a conspiracy-inclined, angry Trump cult that goes by the name “Republican.” It is mostly white, predominantly rural and constitutes the “Red America” that voted twice for Donald Trump. It is not remotely connected to the entity previously known as “the Republican Party.”
The new version is first and foremost an antidemocratic party: its values, principles and policies are negatively defined by what they are against, not what they are for.
They are anti-“coastal elites” dictating cultural norms and language, anti-liberal, anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-immigrant, anti-minorities and, most importantly, anti-government.
This most certainly is not “the party of Reagan,” nor that of George H.W. Bush, nor even George W. Bush. This is a new political phenomenon, molded, shaped and willingly taken over by Trump, Trumpian populism and cultural Trumpism.
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The last Republican presidents – the Bushes, Reagan, Gerald Ford, together with the likes of Henry Kissinger, James Baker III, George Shultz, Brent Scowcroft, Colin Powell and John McCain – would today not be regarded by Republican voters or members of Congress as “real” Republicans.
This background is important for understanding why eight Republican members of the House of Representatives voted against stripping Russia and Belarus of their preferred trade status with the United States in light of the Ukraine war. All eight are shiny and noisy debris in the Trump orbit.
Then there is Republican Rep. Madison Cawthorn, who last month called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy a “thug.” A Republican senator, Rand Paul, meanwhile, said that his Republican colleague Ted Cruz only supported sanctions on Russia’s energy exports to help the oil industry in his home state of Texas.
That Trump adored, admired and was enchanted by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s autocratic, bullying, brutal, police-state-style of governance is not new.
“Putin is very smart. … When he declared a part of Ukraine ‘independent,’ I said, ‘How smart is that?’” said an astute American president who wanted to buy Greenland, exchanged love letters with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, considered himself a “stable genius” and recommended that Americans drink delicious bleach in order to fight the “Chinese virus.”
But what is new is Trump’s success in instilling his adulation of Putin and derision of NATO into the minds of so many other Republicans, from voters to lawmakers. In fact, a recent poll showed that among Western nations, the one in which the largest percentage of the population blames the United States for the war in Ukraine is … the United States.
That is why the denunciations of Putin by some senior Republicans suggest the party is exhibiting schizophrenia. Because while its undoubted leader, Trump, admires Putin, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell – aka “Moscow Mitch” – recently described Putin as “a ruthless thug” who “invaded another sovereign country and killed thousands of innocent people.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, who went out of his way over the years to prove his complete servitude to Trump, suggested in a recent tweet that Russian generals should assassinate Putin, while Nikki Haley, Trump’s UN ambassador when he praised Putin repeatedly, is now calling the Russian invasion “a war for freedom” and not just a war for Ukraine. Where was she when Trump wanted to stop all military aid to Ukraine unless it opened an investigation against the son of his political opponent?
The remnants of the “old” Republican Party, the establishment wing that has failed to stop its takeover by the Trump grassroots element, is trying to talk tough on Ukraine. But there is a strong and enduring sentiment among Republicans to be suspicious and averse to “liberal internationalism” – which invariably involves foreign intervention, often with a substantial military component to it.
This feeds into another conservative-Republican tradition: isolationism. That is why the Trumpist Republican Party is equally hostile to both liberal democrats and neoconservatives who find themselves in the same foreign policy category.
Some have adopted a convenient, middle-of-the-road “Putin is bad, but…” approach. On the one hand, they blame the United States for sponsoring and encouraging NATO expansion that allegedly caused the war. And on the other, they criticize the Biden administration for not arming Ukraine early and heavily enough with sophisticated platforms and systems.
All this shows that, right now, there is no Republican Party in terms of the political party that once represented and expressed American conservatism. Furthermore, the new mutation has no coherent foreign policy other than one principle: opposing whatever step is being taken by President Joe Biden.