The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Kim Reynolds shows the true face of the GOP — but not the one she intended

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R). (Charlie Neibergall/AP)
5 min

Just after Donald Trump was impeached for withholding military aid from Ukraine to strongarm its president into doing his corrupt political bidding, Kim Reynolds took note of how badly the whole saga reflected on our nation.

“I think it was a sad day for history in America,” the Republican governor of Iowa told the Des Moines Register in 2019.

You’ll be startled to hear that the occasion for Reynolds’s sadness was not Trump’s extortion of a vulnerable ally pleading for help against Russian aggression. It was his impeachment, which she termed “ridiculous.”

When Reynolds delivered the GOP response to President Biden’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday night, she bent over backward to declare her party’s “solidarity” with Ukraine, as well as its outrage against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “tyranny.”

So it’s fitting that long before Reynolds was tapped for this national moment, she offered that absurd whitewashing of Trump’s appalling corruption, which was only one of an extensive series of official acts that aligned with Putin’s interests against those of Ukraine, the West and democracy.

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Reynolds represents the face of the GOP that party leaders want to present in the midterms. She’s a soft-spoken conservative mom with small-town rural roots who, just like you, is anxious about how out-of-control things feel: We’re teetering on the edge of a major global conflagration; inflation is rampant; racial activism has taken on a vaguely threatening aura.

In Republicans’ response to President Biden’s State of the Union address on March 1, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds blamed Democrats for rising prices. (Video: The Washington Post)

So in her speech, Reynolds described herself as a “mom and grandmother of 11” who’s speaking for parents everywhere who worry about “what their kids are being taught.”

“It feels like President Biden and his party have sent us back in time — to the late ’70s and early ’80s,” Reynolds lamented. “When runaway inflation was hammering families, a violent crime wave was crashing on our cities, and the Soviet army was trying to redraw the world map.”

It’s telling that Reynolds’ first reference to the Russian invasion was to lump it in with a series of negatives meant to invoke the chaotic 1970s. The play is to paint Biden as another Jimmy Carter — which you’ll be hearing a lot between now and November.

But alas for Republicans, Biden’s performance is drawing comparisons to a different historical epoch — the early 1940s. And this doesn’t reflect particularly well on Republicans.

In his own speech Tuesday night, Biden sought to rally the world against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, casting this as another existential battle over the future of democracy. In it, Biden insisted we will defend “every inch” of NATO territory and vowed a response from the “united West” that will leave “Russia weaker and the rest of the world stronger.”

Numerous reporters and commentators have compared this to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s efforts to build the case for an international response to “tyranny” in 1941. As CNN’s Stephen Collinson put it, Biden’s speech suggests “a hinge in history to compare with other great presidential moments.”

The comparison is apt, not because Biden will necessarily prove to be another FDR, but for another reason: Because the contours of the larger dispute right now are similar.

“In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the key question was, are you an internationalist in terms of forming alliances with other liberal democracies," Eric Rauchway, the author of several books about the New Deal, told me.

Rauchway noted that the Trump movement’s treatment of Putin resembles the “America First” movement of the World War II era. This isn’t to compare today’s Trumpists with supporters of Adolf Hitler. It’s to argue that there are historical echoes in the broader dispute over how aggressive an international response should be mounted in defense of democracy, and against autocracy.

“We’re looking at an expansive nationalist in Putin, and the nationalists in this country are sympathetic to that cause,” Rauchway told me. “The people who are rallying against this believe in international institutions and the rule of law.”

Trump, who heads his own “America First” movement, is plainly sympathetic to the former cause, and he’s the leader of the Republican Party. He might run again for president in 2024, and if so, Republicans will support him.

Republicans like Reynolds want us to pretend none of this exists. In her speech, she reached for all kinds of absurd ways to blame Russian aggression on Biden’s alleged weakness, while declaring solidarity with Ukraine. But in the real world, while Biden has drawn a line against sending in troops, he has led an international response that has been far more robust than most observers expected.

In contrast, Republicans like Reynolds want to align the GOP with Ukraine while burying the GOP’s record of apologizing for Trump’s embrace of Putin throughout the Ukraine scandal. As MSNBC’s Joyce White Vance puts it, the fact that nearly the entire GOP unreservedly shielded Trump from accountability throughout that sordid saga is “the authoritarian elephant in the room.”

“Until the Republican Party examines the way Trump’s enthusiasm for Putin and expansive nationalism led to this moment,” Rauchway told me, “they can’t effectively stand with Ukraine.”