The Looming GOP Crisis Over Ukraine
Like much of his social media work, Trump the Younger craved clicks and attention (mission accomplished!). Yet his attack, wrapped in a bow shaped like a dog whistle to fellow Tories, represented more of a substantive critique on a signal foreign policy issue than his father has dared to in recent weeks.
More importantly, the invective, from a devoted troll who is obsessed with properly channeling the identity of the right, was a reminder of the heated debate within the Republican Party – one of the putative presidential favorites of the party is indeed absent, but it is only intensifying.
After six years of defeat and two decades since one of their standard-bearers claimed the popular vote, the GOP is in the midst of an identity crisis.
He has to wonder if he will keep the Reagan-like form that most of his elites prefer, a light touch in the market and a firm hand abroad, or change to better reflect an increasingly working-class coalition. without doctrinal allegiance to free markets and free people Gospel of Paul (Gigot). Or, the more likely outcome: try to forge a hybrid between the two approaches while emphasizing issues of tribal consensus – confronting the left at home and the Chinese abroad – and hope the Democrats come up with a weak candidate.
« A lot of people, I think, have been trying to push this political debate away for years now saying, ‘Well, this is all just a question about Trump,’ and it’s like, ‘Oh no, that’s not. It’s not. » Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) told me that. « He was elected president because he tapped into our new coalition and took advantage of it, but that’s good. beyond anyone, to take nothing from him. »
Hawley is perhaps the party’s leading exponent of realignment toward what he calls cultural conservatism and economic and foreign policy nationalism. Few Republican lawmakers are more eager than Hawley to move away from the libertarian, interventionist approach favored by so many Republican donors and their allies in the Senate and on the Wall Street Journal editorial page run by Gigot.
However, Hawley has also been a staunch, misguided ally of Trump, is vying for re-election in increasingly red-hot Missouri in 2024 and has no appetite to trigger the former president.
So he won’t quite say this: the sooner Trump fades as a political force, the sooner the party’s account will come.
As long as Trump dominates the GOP, the conversation will center on his personality — and all the scandals that ensue — rather than political deliberations.
It’s more than a little ironic, of course. The former president’s triumph in the 2016 Republican primaries, his nationalist rhetoric since, and the series of electoral losses he oversaw that culminated last month led to this moment of crisis and fostered the authorizing structure of a debate about what it means to be a Republican.
Yet as GOP defeats mounted and Trump’s interests turned to legal survival and profitability, it is increasingly clear that he was more of a symptom and accelerator of the change underway in his adopted party as the leader of a newly imagined majority. coalition. (There’s also the fact that Trump’s real interests lie more in golf and television than movement building.)
« What voters constantly want, they’re going to get and our voters have tried to send a message when it comes to our economic and foreign policy and I think you’re going to see that reflected more and more over time. « Hawley said, arguing that working-class voters who now elect Republicans like him are « in the driver’s seat. »
Now the question is where they, or the traditionalists trying to keep their hands on the wheel, will lead the party.
Pre-Trump Republicans are not going quietly.
In preparation for the upcoming debate, an influential coterie of defense hawks, led by a group called the Vandenberg Coalition, commissioned an extensive survey earlier this month to test voters’ views on foreign policy issues.
I obtained a set of slides from the unpublished survey, conducted by Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies.
« Republicans remain much more hawkish than Democrats on some of the big national security issues, » said Carrie Filipetti, who leads the nonpartisan Vandenberg coalition. Filipetti noted that the group’s research found that Trump voters were far more supportive than Biden supporters of increased defense spending to confront China, unease over the administration’s Iran nuclear deal Obama and the willingness to use force to prevent a nuclear Iran.
However, when it comes to the most serious foreign policy problem facing the West, she delicately conceded that GOP voters are less eager to send more money and weapons to Ukraine.
“Our poll suggests Ukrainian hawks from both parties will need to emphasize oversight and accountability to bring a Republican House to the new Congress,” Filipetti said.
Some of the right’s split opinion on foreign policy issues can be attributed to the predictable partisanship of a polarized era – 82% of Trump voters in the survey disapproved of the president’s handling of Ukraine Biden. « Kamala and Pelosi are waving a Ukrainian flag in the House well and it’s no wonder, » a Republican hawk fumed, explaining to me that the Democrats weren’t helping his cause.
There’s more to the job than just tribalism, however.
Although there is still a latent contempt for Russia among many older Republicans, this enmity is not shared among the party base.
On the one hand, Rupert Murdoch’s influential media empire is divided. Its print properties in the United States are broadly supportive of Ukraine while Fox News, with its broader reach, is rolling out a pair of primetime anchors to Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham who are deeply concerned about American efforts to strengthen its defenses.
Other influential figures on the popular right, including Charlie Kirk and his youth-focused Turning Point USA, are equally dismissive of sending more money and materials to Kyiv.
« We shouldn’t underestimate the appeal of the Trumpy side here among young conservatives, » said William Kristol, the neoconservative writer and former Republican, highlighting their rise in six years. « What’s so distressing for Ukraine is that Trump isn’t leading the opposition, he’s the grassroots. »
For a glimpse of the GOP’s new guard on the issue, check out the response to Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell when he posted a picture of him alongside Zelenskyy on Capitol Hill and proclaimed that supporting Ukraine is both « morally right » and « a direct investment in cold, hard American interests. »
« McConnell continues to drive football up, » Ingraham replied. « I think he enjoyed the ’22 election more than Biden. »
All this to say that when young Trump belittles Zelenskyy, it’s because there’s a receptive audience for such ridicule among the very online right.
What gives hope to the new guard is that some members of Congress clearly get the message.
Trumping the combined opposition of Senate and House Republicans to the omnibus spending bill just passed, Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.) measures full of both assignments and the kind of defense spending hikes that Republicans would once have been unable to resist.
“We get a little religion,” Roy said.
Hawley is more cautious in his optimism, in part because Senate Republicans reflect more of a Bush-era party, as the lack of support in their ranks for the railroad workers earlier this month made clear.
« Why would we ever be on the side of the costumes rather than on the side of these people who are our people? » Hawley questioned his caucus’ reluctance to sweeten the contract for rail workers’ unions who nearly went on strike.
Yet even the frosty Senate is changing, in part because of retirements and succession. Seven of the 11 Senate Republicans who opposed an additional Ukraine aid bill last spring were elected in the previous two election cycles. (Look no further than the votes of Tennessians Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty, who replaced Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander, respectively, both committed internationalists.)
Hawley got another boost this election from Ohio, where JD Vance was elected to succeed Sen. Rob Portman, a consummate setter.
Hawley said he had already started talking to Vance, whom he called « a fellow traveler », about how they could push the party and said confidently there would be more than 11 foul votes the next time a Ukrainian aid bill is introduced in the Senate.
The issue at hand, however, is far bigger than the war in Europe. There’s what Republicans should stand for on trade, immigration, and the role of government in general in the economy.
National security, however, has long been the glue that held together a sometimes unwieldy conservative coalition. The threat of Communism united Republicans during the Cold War, and after 9/11 Islamic terrorism maintained this unity among factions. Then came Iraq.
The GOP’s Ukrainian divide is so resonant because it’s here and now and because it’s carefully dividing up much of the party’s old and new guard. But it also cuts deeply because it represents a stand-in for the internal party debate that never took place over the war in Iraq, the long shadow of which still hangs over the GOP nearly 20 years after the invasion. American.
« There are a lot of people in elected offices who don’t really want to consider foreign policy failures and, in some cases, outright lies to the American people – that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, turns out it was a lie, » Hawley said. me, adding that « we will have to » come to terms with this story.
This is, to put it mildly, of little interest to most Republican officials, who would like to embark on rebuilding the party, defeating the Democrats and reclaiming the presidency.
And many of those Republicans think there’s an obvious way to do it.
« The two wings [of the GOP] are close enough to China that it can be emphasized,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Adding that the border and a potential recession under Biden’s watch will also unify Republicans. This trio of issues, Cassidy said, « may mask other differences. »
More quietly, for now, other traditionalist Republicans have the same solution to their internal divide that they have for all the rest of the party’s ills: Ron DeSantis.
While he may present himself as a style Trumpist, the party’s hip hawks and doves are convinced that he tends to be more interventionist. The hawks are reassured by those around DeSantis and the doves, well, they’ve just read his first book.
« Dreams From Our Founding Fathers » is a response to Barack Obama, not because he was too willing to project American force abroad.