When it comes to isolationism in America, I have some good news and some bad news.
The Ukrainian crisis has followed that template. A Pew Research Center poll found that 75 percent of Americans support strict economic sanctions on Russia and 71 percent support sending weapons to Ukraine. Roughly a third say we are not providing enough aid — even though Congress has committed a whopping $54 billion since the invasion began. The latest tranche of aid, $40 billion, was just approved by overwhelming majorities — 81 to 11 in the Senate, 368 to 57 in the House. Not a single Democrat voted against the legislation, even though they have a Bernie Sanders-led noninterventionist wing. Every “nay” vote came from Republicans.
That brings us to the bad news: Isolationism — or is it Putinism? — remains disturbingly resilient within Republican ranks. In the Pew poll, more than twice as many Republicans as Democrats said that the United States is providing too much aid to Ukraine. Roughly a quarter of House Republicans and a fifth of Senate Republicans share that view. Some of the influential voices opposing aid to Ukraine include former president Donald Trump, Fox “News” host Tucker Carlson, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), Heritage Action for America (the lobbying arm of the Heritage Foundation), and FreedomWorks (the Koch-supported advocacy organization).
The irony is that all of these right-wingers claim to be fans of Ronald Reagan. Yet they reject a modern-day version of the “Reagan doctrine,” which called for aiding “freedom fighters” resisting Soviet aggression.
It’s hard to take the nationalists’ arguments at face value. They claim that we can’t afford to aid Ukraine because we have to deal with pressing problems at home, such as a shortage of baby formula. But all of the U.S. aid to Ukraine represents just 1 percent of the federal budget. Where were all of these supposed fiscal conservatives when Trump was adding $7.8 trillion to the national debt?
Many of the original “America Firsters” in 1940 and 1941 were actually pro-Nazi. Likewise, many of today’s MAGA militants are actually pro-Putin. They favor a hard line against leftist dictatorships such as those in Cuba, Venezuela and China, while advocating de facto appeasement of Russia’s right-wing dictatorship.
In 2018, seven Republican senators and one Republican House member — the Red Square Republicans, my colleague Dana Milbank called them — spent July 4 in Moscow. In 2019, Tucker Carlson said: “Why shouldn’t I root for Russia? Which I am.” In February, Trump called Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s preparations for invasion an act of “genius,” “savvy,” and “smart.” In April, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) excused the Russian attack by saying that the Kremlin invades only countries that “were part of Russia.” (Should Alaskans be worried?)
The attraction of Putin’s Russia for many on the right is the same as Viktor Orban’s Hungary (site of the recent Conservative Political Action Conference). They consider right-wing autocracies — with regressive policies on immigration, multiculturalism, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights and other culture war issues — as models for the United States to emulate.
Seeing Russia as an exemplar of “family values” involves, as Anne Applebaum pointed out in the Atlantic, a large dosage of self-deception. Russia actually has a region (Chechnya) governed by sharia law, very low levels of church attendance and an abortion rate twice as high as in the United States. But Putin has been skillful in playing to his American sympathizers by utilizing their own buzz phrases; he even claims that Russia is a victim of “cancel culture.”
Beyond shared beliefs, the MAGA affinity for Putinism is rooted in sordid self-interest: The Kremlin helped Trump win office in 2016 and is likely to aid him again if he runs in 2024. The GOP has become a cult of personality, and the cult leader not only admires Putin but enjoys a mutually beneficial relationship with him. So the cult followers fall into line.
The extent to which pro-Russia sentiment has become embedded within the MAGA movement means it’s hard to take much satisfaction from the rejection of isolationism among most Americans and even most Republicans. If Trump takes power again, Putin’s fellow travelers will again be in control of U.S. foreign policy — and Ukraine, NATO and the rest of the “Free World” will be out of luck.