The Coming Crisis For The GOP Over Ukraine

The most telling thing Trump said this month wasn’t about his legal troubles, taxes, or even the get-yours-now NFTs he started selling for $99 each before the holidays.

Donald Trump wasn’t even the one who said it. “Zelensky is an international welfare queen who doesn’t appreciate it,” the former president’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., said on Twitter just before the Ukrainian president went to Washington.

Like many of what his father does on social media, Trump Jr. wanted clicks and attention (mission accomplished!). But his attack, shaped like a dog whistle for his fellow conservatives, was a more profound critique of a critical foreign policy issue than anything his dad said in the past few weeks.

More importantly, the insults came from a dedicated troll obsessed properly channeling the right’s id. They were a reminder of the roiling debate within the Republican Party, which the party’s likely presidential frontrunner is avoiding but is only getting worse.

The GOP is going through an identity crisis because they have lost six straight elections, and it has been almost 20 years since one of their candidates won the popular vote. It has to decide if it wants to keep the Reagan-shaped form that most of its elites like, with a light touch on the market and a firm hand abroad, or if it wants to change to represent better an increasingly working-class coalition that doesn’t believe in the free markets and free people Gospel of Paul (Gigot).

Or, the more likely outcome is to try to find a middle ground between the two approaches while focusing on issues of tribal consensus — like dealing with the left at home and the Chinese abroad — and hope the Democrats nominate a weak candidate.

Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) told me, “I think a lot of people have tried to put off this policy debate for years by saying, ‘Well, this is all just a question about Trump,’ but it’s like, ‘No, no, no, it’s not,'” “He became president because he appealed to and tapped into our new coalition, but it’s not just him, and that’s not to take anything away from him.”

Hawley is probably the most vocal party member about moving toward what he calls “cultural conservatism, economic nationalism, and foreign policy nationalism.” Hawley wants to move away from the libertarian and interventionist approach that many Republican donors and their allies in the Senate and on the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which Gigot like leads.

But Hawley has also been a loyal Trump supporter to a fault. He is up for re-election in 2024 in Missouri, which is becoming more conservative, and he doesn’t want to upset the former president. So he won’t say this: The sooner Trump’s political power fades, the sooner the party may face the consequences. As long as Trump is in charge of the GOP, people will talk more about him and the scandals surrounding him than they will about policy.

This is funny in more ways than one, of course. The former president’s win in the 2016 Republican primaries, his nationalist talk since then, and the string of election losses he’s been in charge of, the most recent of which was last month, have all led to this moment of crisis and set the stage for a debate about what it means to be a Republican.

Yet, as GOP losses have piled up and Trump’s focus has shifted to staying out of jail and making money, it’s becoming more apparent that he was more of a sign and a driver of the change in his party than the leader of a new majority coalition. (There’s also the fact that Trump is more interested in golf and T.V. than building movements.)

“Voters will get what they want if they keep asking for it, and our voters have been trying to send a message about our economic and foreign policy, and I think you’ll see that more and more over time,” Hawley said, arguing that working-class voters who elect Republicans like him today are “in the driver’s seat.”

Now, the question is where they or the traditionalists trying to keep a hand on the wheel will take the party. The Republicans from before Trump are not going away quietly.

To prepare for the upcoming debate, an influential group of “defense hawks,” led by the Vandenberg Coalition, paid for an extensive survey earlier this month to determine what voters think about foreign policy issues. I got a set of slides from the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies’s survey, which hasn’t been released yet.

Carrie Filipetti, who runs the non-partisan Vandenberg Coalition, said, “Republicans remain much more hawkish than Democrats on some of the big national security issues.” Filipetti noted that the group’s research showed that Trump voters were much more willing to use force to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon than Biden supporters. This was because Trump voters wanted to spend more on defense to stand up to China, were worried about the Obama administration’s Iran nuclear deal, and were willing to use force to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.

But regarding the most critical and long-term foreign policy problem facing the West, she softly admitted that GOP voters don’t want to spend more money and weapons on Ukraine. “Our polls show that Ukraine hawks in both parties will have to stress oversight and accountability if they want to win over a Republican House in the new Congress,” Filipetti said.

Part of the right’s divided views on foreign policy can be explained by the fact that we live in a polarized time. For example, 82 percent of Trump voters in the survey didn’t like how President Biden handled Ukraine. “Kamala and Pelosi put up a Ukrainian flag in the House well, and it’s no wonder,” a Republican hawk yelled as he told me that Democrats are not helping his cause.

There’s more going on than just being from the same tribe, though. Many older Republicans still have a hidden dislike for Russia, but the rest of the party does not share that dislike.

The Coming Crisis For The GOP Over Ukraine
The Coming Crisis For The GOP Over Ukraine

Rupert Murdoch’s powerful media empire is split, for one thing. His print media in the U.S. are primarily supportive of Ukraine. At the same time, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, two primetime anchors on Fox News, are worried about American efforts to strengthen Ukraine’s defenses. Other essential people on the right, like Charlie Kirk and his youth-focused group Turning Point USA, don’t like sending more money and supplies to Kyiv.

William Kristol, a neoconservative writer and former Republican said, “We shouldn’t underestimate the appeal of the Trumpy side here among younger conservative types.” He was referring to the rise of these people over the past six years. “What’s so scary about Ukraine is that Trump isn’t leading the opposition. Instead, it’s the people on the ground.”

Look at how Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell was received when he posted a picture of himself with Zelenskyy in the Capitol and said that helping Ukraine is “morally right” and “a direct investment in cold, hard, American interests.” This will give you an idea of where the new GOP is on the issue.

“McConnell keeps throwing the ball,” said Ingraham. “I think he had more fun with the ’22 elections than Biden did.” All this means that when the younger Trump makes fun of Zelenskyy, it’s because the far right online likes it when people do that. Some people in Congress are getting the message, which gives the new guard hope.

Representative Chip Roy (R-Texas) said it was a “pretty damn big deal” that 229 of the 263 Republicans in the Senate and House voted against the just-passed omnibus spending bill. The bill was full of earmarks and defense spending increases that used to be hard for Republicans to oppose.

Roy said, “We’re getting a little bit of religion.” Hawley’s optimism isn’t as strong, partly because Senate Republicans are more like the party from the Bush years. This was clear when they didn’t support the rail workers earlier this month.

“Why would we ever be on the side of the suits instead of these people? Who are our people?” Hawley wondered why his caucus wasn’t willing to improve the rail workers’ unions’ contracts, even though they were about to go on strike.

Even so, even the slow-moving Senate is changing, partly because people are leaving and new people are coming in. Seven of the eleven Republicans in the Senate who voted against a bill to give more money to Ukraine last spring were elected in the two elections before that. (Look at the votes of Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty, both from Tennessee. They replaced Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander, both strong supporters of international cooperation.)

This election brought Hawley another supporter from Ohio. J.D. Vance was elected to replace Sen. Rob Portman, a staunch supporter of the establishment.

Hawley said he had already started talking to Vance, who he called “a fellow traveler,” about how they could push the party. He said he was sure there would be more than 11 no votes the next time a bill to help Ukraine comes before the Senate. But the issue at hand is much bigger than the war in Europe. This is what Republicans should stand for when it comes to trade, immigration, and the role of the government in the economy as a whole.

On the other hand, national security had long been the glue that held together a conservative coalition that was sometimes hard to control. During the Cold War, the threat of communism brought Republicans together, and after 9/11, Islamic terrorism kept them together across party lines. Then Iraq happened.

The GOP’s split over Ukraine is essential because it’s happening now and divides the party’s old and new guards transparently. But it also hurts a lot because it’s a stand-in for the debate within the party that never happened about the Iraq war, which still casts a long shadow over the GOP nearly 20 years after the U.S. invasion.

“Many people in elected office don’t want to face up to foreign policy failures and, in some cases, outright lies to the American people,” Hawley told me. “That Iraq had weapons of mass destruction turned out to be a lie,” he added. “We’re going to have to” face up to this history, he said.

To put it mildly, most Republican officials don’t care much about this. They’d instead get on with rebuilding the party, beating the Democrats, and taking back the presidency. And many of these Republicans think it’s clear how to do that.

“The two wings [of the GOP] are close enough on China that this can be emphasized,” said Senator Bill Cassidy (R-La. ), adding that the border and a possible recession on Biden’s watch will also bring Republicans together. Cassidy noted that those three things “can cover up other differences.”

For now, other traditionalist Republicans are doing things more quietly. Still, they have the same answer for their internal disagreements as they do for everything else wrong with the party: Ron DeSantis. Even though he has a Trump-like style, both hawks and doves in the party who know him well think he is more of an interventionist. The people close to DeSantis comfort the hawks, while the doves have only read his first book.

“Dreams From Our Founding Fathers” responds to Barack Obama, but not because he was too eager to use American power abroad.

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