The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Conservatives turn to a new message: ‘God bless the Ukrainian people’

Kateryna Lieshok holds a sign during the fourth day of the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando on Feb. 27. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

ORLANDO — They cheered for Canadian truckers and parents who’d stood up to suburban school boards. They flew Trump 2024 flags and pinned “Trump was right” buttons on their lapels.

And as the images from Ukraine rolled across their screens, those attending the Conservative Political Action Conference celebrated their newest, unexpected heroes: The people fighting back against Russia, a country some of those in attendance had been defending as a proudly un-“woke” nation run by a tough, smart patriot.

“Amazing things are happening in Ukraine today,” Glenn Beck told the audience at CPAC’s Ronald Reagan dinner on Friday.

Those at the nation’s largest conservative conference frequently linked the Ukrainian fight for national sovereignty to their own battles against liberalism and coronavirus restrictions.

“God bless the Ukrainian people! May they make those Russian invaders bleed and die!” radio host and former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka told attendees Saturday. “So, what does this have to do with that diminutive little fascist, [Anthony S.] Fauci?” His answer: Americans should have told government officials to “go to hell” when they announced covid-19 restrictions in 2020.

The televised display of Ukrainian bravery in the face of tanks and missiles has prompted an international denunciation of Russian aggression. Over the weekend it also forced the turn among the Republicans and right-wing activists who in recent years have showered praise on Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But it was movement only to a point. They still lauded former president Donald Trump, who in his Saturday night appearance continued to praise Putin, whom he has defended since Russia began its advance on its neighbor.

There was no visible discomfort that Trump’s first impeachment centered on him conditioning military aid to Ukraine on President Volodymyr Zelensky supplying damaging evidence against President Biden and his son, Hunter, who had worked with a Ukrainian company. Indeed, Biden was blamed for emboldening Putin.

“He takes advantage of the weak, the infirm,” Donald Trump Jr., the former president’s oldest son, said on Sunday. “No one is weaker, no one is more infirm, than Joe Biden.”

A straw poll of attendees, released on Sunday, found just 3 percent saying that Russia posed the greatest national security threat to America, compared with 61 percent who cited “President Joe Biden’s incompetence.” In the same poll, 97 percent of attendees said they approved of Trump, and 59 percent picked him as their preferred 2024 nominee.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began hours before CPAC opened, first crashing its culture war agenda, then being merged into it.

“Freedom and liberty are being threatened again, but no one here is being asked to die,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told the conference on Friday. “No one here is being asked to take up arms to defend it. We’re being asked to win elections.”

Until Wednesday night, when Putin announced a military campaign to “demilitarize and denazify Ukraine,” American conservatives had notably shifted their views on modern Russia and its autocratic president, casting aside the skepticism with which decades of Republican politicians had approached the Cold War foe.

Eight years ago, after Russia’s invasion of Crimea, former Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin described President Barack Obama as a weakling in “mom jeans” and Putin as a leader who “wrestles bears and drills for oil.” During the 2016 election, when Democrats said that Russian hackers were behind damaging leaks of internal campaign emails, Republicans celebrated, and Trump urged “Russia, if you’re listening” to find emails from Hillary Clinton’s private server. (In 2019, a probe led by former FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III linked Russian intelligence to the 2016 hacks.)

Those themes continued during Trump’s presidency — mainstream Republicans mocking the Democrats’ obsession with Russia, and conservatives sometimes taking Putin’s side in culture wars. The Kremlin’s embrace of “traditional moral and spiritual values,” as Russia’s Ministry of Culture put it last month, was praised by some right-wing leaders in western Europe and in the United States.

“Has Putin ever called me a racist?” Fox News host Tucker Carlson asked in a Feb. 22 monologue. “Is he teaching my children to embrace racial discrimination? Is he making fentanyl? Is he trying to snuff out Christianity?”

The Feb. 24 invasion changed that narrative, and at CPAC, the change was visible in real time. On Thursday, just a few of the Republicans who spoke to the conference mentioned the invasion. Talk of “authoritarian” governments focused less on Russia than on Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases doctor, or on Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who moved against truckers protesting a vaccine mandate. When either was mentioned, boos and jeers filled the ballroom.

But as the fighting between Russians and Ukrainians raged 5,500 miles away, more attendees began praising the government in Kyiv — and blaming Biden for giving Putin the idea that he could conquer a former Soviet Republic without resistance.

Trump, who’d said at a Wednesday fundraiser that Putin had been “smart” to take advantage of Ukraine, reiterated that sentiment Saturday night.

“The problem is not that Putin is smart — which, of course he’s smart — but the real problem is that our leaders are dumb,” Trump said. “Dumb. So dumb.”

As the audience of thousands cheered, Trump falsely blamed the crisis on having the 2020 election “stolen” from him; the applause was more muted when Trump seemed to suggest that sanctions wouldn’t stop Putin from taking what he wanted.

“I stand as the only President of the 21st century on whose watch Russia did not invade another country,” Trump said. He recast his 2019 phone call to Zelensky, with its conditions on military aid, as evidence that he strengthened Ukraine against Russian aggression.

Still other Republicans talked more warily about the conflict, and the questions around it, from the debate over bringing Ukraine into the NATO alliance to whether Russia was entitled to any of the country’s territory. Prominent conservatives renewed their argument that the Ukraine crisis was a distraction from illegal crossings on the U.S.-Mexico border.

“I don’t want to hear lectures about why we need to send our troops halfway across the world when we are being invaded,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.).

George Santos, a candidate for Congress in New York, said that Putin had “played the long game” during the Trump presidency, realizing that it would be a mistake to move on Ukraine until a weaker commander in chief took office. But it was also a mistake, he said, for Americans to venerate one country and demonize the other.

“Look, if the Ukrainians really hated Russia so bad, the eastern border of Ukraine wouldn’t have welcomed Russians into their provinces. They feel more Russian than Ukrainian,” Santos, 33, said, echoing an argument made by Putin before the invasion and by British politician Nigel Farage at CPAC. “It’s not like Ukraine is a great democracy. It’s a totalitarian regime. They’re not a great bastion of freedom.”

Bullish on their chances of winning control of Congress this year and setting up a Trump comeback, some Republicans said that the questions about the Biden family and Hunter Biden’s work with the Ukrainian firm Burisma were more important than ever.

Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-Tex.), a former White House physician who has said that the president should take a cognitive test to prove his fitness for office, said that “the Russians and the Ukrainians and the Chinese” are likely to have dossiers on the president and his son. “I can’t help but wonder if there’s something there. Hopefully, when we get the House back in November and we get oversight authority, we’re going to be able to do some investigations and find out what’s really there.”

As they rooted for Ukrainians to defeat their invaders, conservatives saw people resisting tyranny — just like them, battling to liberate Americans from vaccine mandates, gender ideology and Biden.

“Why should Americans have to pay the cost of freedom elsewhere when our leaders won’t stand up for freedom here?” asked Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) on Saturday. “I’m not for sending Americans to Ukraine — except maybe one. If Russia wanted to destabilize Ukraine, they didn’t need to send tanks. They could have sent Dr. Fauci.”