This week at New York I wrote about an important trend that is becoming more apparent every day:
When Russia first launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, most Americans and their political representatives immediately identified with and sought to assist the beleaguered victims of Vladimir Putin’s aggression, while condemning the crude neo-tsarist imperialism it represented.
But from the get-go in the dark heart of MAGA-land, there was dissent and considerable grumbling. Some of if took the form of America First whataboutism, best expressed by Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance; on the brink of the invasion he said, “I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine” because he was too absorbed with fentanyl coming across the U.S.-Mexico border. But others were really struggling to abandon their affection for Putin, who had, with Donald Trump, Victor Orbán, and Jair Bolsonaro, represented a sort of right-wing authoritarian network. Then-Congressman Madison Cawthorn parroted Russian propaganda by saying “the Ukrainian government is incredibly corrupt and is incredibly evil and has been pushing woke ideologies,” and his colleague Marjorie Taylor Greene called the Ukrainians “neo-Nazis.” Fox News’ Tucker Carlson was a constant font of bitter hostility toward U.S. aid for Ukraine.
Now, nearly a year later, it’s harder to find Republicans expressing a crush on Putin, but neo-isolationist disdain for any U.S. role in aiding Ukraine has been steadily rising in the GOP and may have reached a tipping point where it has real-life consequences. When putative House Speaker Kevin McCarthy reached a handshake agreement with his right-wing critics to roll back appropriations for the current fiscal year, defense hawks in his party were appalled. It quickly became apparent that the “defense cuts” many House Republicans had in mind involved the new tranche of military aid to Ukraine that had been included in the omnibus spending bill Congress approved in December. It’s no accident that a majority of House Republicans skipped Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s address to Congress on December 21, even as opinion leaders on the right were attacking him (e.g., Donald Trump Jr.’s dismissal of Zelenskyy as an “ungrateful international welfare queen”).
This sort of attitude isn’t as common among Senate Republicans (whose leader, Mitch McConnell, said in support of the omnibus bill, “providing assistance for Ukrainians to defeat the Russians is the No. 1 priority for the United States right now”). But the idea of abandoning Ukraine is now an acceptable point of view among GOP elected officials. And it’s spreading to rank-and-file Republicans. FiveThirtyEight’s latest polling overview found “a growing partisan divide on the issue:”
“In [a] YouGov/CBS News poll, a narrow majority of Republicans (52 percent) wanted their representative in Congress to oppose aid [to Ukraine], whereas 81 percent of Democrats wanted theirs to support it. A mid-December poll from CivicScience also showed a wide partisan gap, with 83 percent of Democrats supporting military aid to Ukraine versus 53 percent of Republicans. At the beginning of the war, though, support among Republicans was almost as high as it was among Democrats: In March, another YouGov/CBS News poll showed that 75 percent of Republicans and 80 percent of Democrats supported sending weapons and supplies to Ukraine.”
There’s nothing terribly novel about voters (and politicians) from one political party growing cool toward a U.S. military engagement or alliance associated with a president from the opposing party. Many once-staunch Vietnam war hawks in the Democratic Party changed their minds once it became “Nixon’s War.” And many hyperhawkish Republicans began sounding like cooing doves when Bill Clinton pushed NATO into military action against Serbia. That may be what’s going on now with respect to Ukraine.
The darker possibility of an underlying MAGA longing for solidarity with authoritarians near and far shouldn’t be entirely ruled out. Maybe Putin — once the object of particular idolatry on the U.S. Christian right for his homophobia and Islamophobia — is beyond the pale for the time being. But people who see the world as characterized by a global battle to the death between conservative patriarchal Christianity and a global conspiracy of “woke” elitists aren’t going to abandon that vision just because of some Russian war atrocities.