Tucker Carlson has created a thorny dilemma for Republicans running in 2022 primaries: How can they cast President Biden as “weak” on Russia and Ukraine when the nation’s most-watched right-wing TV commentator is enforcing a new orthodoxy suggesting that the U.S. must not defend Ukraine against Russian aggression in any way, shape or form?
A striking new report from Axios captures the problem Carlson has created. Republicans are split between those who want to attack Biden as weak by demanding a more bellicose stance toward Russia as it masses for an invasion of Ukraine, and MAGA-friendly Republicans catering to Carlson’s pro-Russian stance.
This conflict, however, is being widely misrepresented as one pitting conventional GOP “hawks” versus Trumpist “isolationists.” Something more pernicious is going on: The Carlsonian stance is perhaps better understood as alignment with a kind of right-wing Internationale, a loose international alliance of authoritarian nationalists who despise liberal internationalist commitments.
Carlson has gone to extraordinary lengths to buttress Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s perspective on the brewing conflict. His depictions of Putin’s fears of NATO expansion into Ukraine are larded with great sympathy for Putin’s plight.
As Axios reports, this is driving a split among Republicans that has become an issue in GOP primaries:
GOP operatives working in 2022 primary races tell Axios they worry they’ll alienate their base if they push to commit American resources or troops to help Ukraine fight Russia.
Some very high profile 2022 GOP candidates are toeing this line. They include J.D. Vance and Blake Masters, who are running for Senate in Ohio and Arizona. And numerous House Republicans are adopting this line as well.
Incredibly, Carlson is a key reason for this. As Axios reports: “GOP offices have been fielding numerous calls from voters echoing arguments they heard on Carlson’s 8 p.m. ET show.”
While Carlson piously suggests he is driven by a desire to prevent U.S. lives from being wasted abroad, he has also suggested we should take Russia’s side. He has even attacked U.S. media figures for suggesting Ukraine is a U.S. ally whose territorial sovereignty should be defended.
What’s amusing about this situation — if “amusing” is the right word — is how Republicans are struggling mightily to get around the complications this creates.
Right now, the Biden administration is threatening sanctions to deter a Russian invasion and has rebuffed Putin’s demand for a veto on Ukraine joining NATO. But Biden has also hinted at diplomatic off-ramps by suggesting such a move by Ukraine is far off.
The problem for Republicans under Carson’s influence is they want to keep attacking the Democratic president’s posture as “weak.” But Carlson has complicated this by requiring them to oppose doing anything at all toward Russia in defense of Ukraine.
To solve this, those Republicans are seeking a new safe space. It entails hitting Biden as “weak” on Russia but without getting specific about what they think the United States should do toward Russia in Ukraine’s defense, since detailing that would attract Carlson’s ire.
Underscoring the absurdities here, one GOP aide candidly notes that GOP candidates are adopting that balance to keep Carlson happy, but without going “full Tucker.” Yet Carlson himself won’t allow this. He’s calling on GOP voters to punish GOP primary candidates who don’t fully toe his line:
“I really hope that Republican primary voters are ruthless about this,” Carlson told Axios, and vote out any Republican “who believes Ukraine’s borders are more important than our borders.”
In other words, to remain in Carlson’s good graces, Republicans must comprehensively abandon any defense of Ukraine toward Russia. But how can Republicans revert to their usual attack on the Democratic president as “weak” no matter what he does, if they must adopt the posture that the U.S. must do nothing at all?
Really, this couldn’t be happening to a bunch of nicer scoundrels.
The best way to understand this situation is provided by the progressive perspective on it. Capitol Hill progressives see certain positive elements in Carlson’s influence on Republicans, in particular the willingness to pump the brakes on the typical Washington rush into hawkishness and displays of “strength.”
But the progressive view is that Carlson’s positive influence ends there. Whatever Carlson’s genuine proclivities toward sparing U.S. lives and treasure in foreign conflicts, his unwillingness to defend Ukraine’s sovereign right to determine its own fate, and his apparent willingness to abandon Ukraine to Russian aggression, are rooted in far less admirable instincts.
“Tucker’s argument against escalation is essentially based on the idea that Ukrainian lives don’t matter,” Matt Duss, a foreign policy adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), told me. By contrast, Duss notes, progressives “are wary of military escalation” but support using other “policy approaches and tools” because "Ukrainian lives do matter.”
Indeed, unlike Carlson, progressives believe defending Ukrainian sovereignty has immense stakes. As a Center for American Progress paper details, to uphold the liberal democratic order and to deter creeping strongman authoritarian nationalism, the U.S. should be prepared to deploy maximal soft-power leverage.
But this may be exactly why Carlson opposes defending Ukraine at all costs: He sees Putin as a kind of ally in that international cabal of right-wing nationalists. As Duss told me: “In the Carlson-MAGA worldview, Putin is an avatar of white Christian nationalism.”
So Carlson’s pull on the GOP base is far more pernicious than merely being a new “isolationism.” But regardless, in denying Republicans the space to reflexively blame the Democratic president for “weakness” without saying how they would handle an intensely complex geopolitical situation, it’s giving them exactly what they deserve.
This piece has been updated.