GOP strained by Trump-influenced shift from Reagan on Russia

It’s not Ronald Reagan’s GOP anymore.

The Republican Party’s shift from Russia hawk to something softer is straining the GOP at a crucial juncture, highlighting the ascendency of former President Trump’s “America First” approach and exasperating old-guard conservatives who long for a return to the assertive foreign policy championed by the party through generations prior.

It’s created nothing short of an identity crisis for those Republicans who still identify with the party of former President Reagan, a Cold War president long lionized within the GOP ranks for his aggressive confrontations with the Soviet Union.

“Ronald Reagan would not recognize today’s GOP,” said John Conway, head of strategy for Republicans for Ukraine, a group pressing GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill to provide more military aid to Kyiv.

“The fact that the Republican Party now has elements that are openly pro-Putin, that they have abandoned faith in American leadership in the world, it’s disgusting,” he continued. “It’s something Ronald Reagan couldn’t possibly ever believe would happen to his party.

“He would be disgusted by today’s GOP.”

The GOP divide over Russia is playing out in real time on Capitol Hill, where Congress is at an impasse over another round of aid for Ukraine’s beleaguered forces. While the Senate passed a bipartisan, $95 billion foreign aid package earlier this month, with $60 billion earmarked for Ukraine, Trump opposes the new funding and House GOP leaders have refused to consider the bill.

The issue is proving to be an enormous headache for Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), a Putin critic who says he supports the Ukraine aid but faces heavy pressure from conservatives not to vote on it. At least one of those conservatives, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), has threatened to launch an effort to remove Johnson from power if he brings the aid to the floor.

The standoff has infuriated the more traditional Republican guard — including prominent figures like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), former Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and former Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) — who warn American isolationism will result in a more dangerous world, even as they’re forced to acknowledge they now stand as outliers in a party under Trump’s firm grip.

“I’m frankly an anti-establishment Republican, and I think you can safely argue — I don’t enjoy acknowledging this — that Trump is the establishment,” Ryan said last week in a televised interview with The Washington Post.

“Trump populism is this more isolationist strain that I think is wrong and dangerous, and I don’t support, but that does represent a large swath of Republican voters.”

Experts say a variety of factors have led to the GOP’s more lenient approach to Moscow, some of which preceded Trump’s arrival on the political scene. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance, soured many voters on the pursuit of an aggressive foreign policy, for fear of the U.S. getting bogged down in another long and costly overseas conflict.

Trump, these experts say, first tapped into that isolationist vein when he was elected in 2016 and has since broadened the appeal of nationalism throughout the GOP.

“There has been a growing neo-isolationist strand of the GOP that greatly accelerated after the calamitous war in Iraq, where neoconservatism was greatly damaged politically,” said Julian Zelizer, history professor at Princeton University. “But it accelerated when Trump gave it legitimacy, and for reasons we don’t fully understand, he focused this on Russia.”

Dalibor Rohac, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, agreed that the GOP’s increasing reluctance to confront Putin reflects “a deeper shift” in the party towards not only isolationism but also “a purely transactional view of foreign policy.”

“The failures of Iraq and Afghanistan provided a fertile ground for such arguments,” he said.

But Rohac noted several other factors driving the trend, not least the fact many Republicans view Putin’s Russia as a champion of conservative values in an era when America’s culture wars tend to dominate the political debate and GOP attacks on migration, “wokeism” and gender fluidity are ascendant.

“Russia-friendly narratives have made inroads with many Republicans as Putin has tried to present Russia as a bastion of traditional values and as Republicans have prioritized prosecuting their case against Hunter Biden in ways that have made them receptive to the idea of Ukraine as of a uniquely corrupt country in cahoots with the Democratic Party,” Rohac said.

Conway said the evidence of the shift has been made clear in the focus groups his organization has conducted since Russia invaded Ukraine. At the start of the conflict, there was overwhelming support for U.S. military support for Kyiv, even among Republicans. Two years later, that support has waned and GOP opinion is split — a trend supported by national public opinion polls.

“Trump fundamentally changed the Republican Party with ‘America First’ foreign policy,” Conway said. “And voters are in a push-and-pull between traditional Reaganite values of supporting our democratic allies abroad, and the new MAGA-fied version of the Republican Party that’s telling them that Ukraine is a corrupt country, we need to take care of ourselves first, we cannot be involved in foreign affairs.”

Trump’s relationship with Putin has been notably friendly over the years. As president, he famously sided with the Russian president over his intelligence officials regarding Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election. And this year, as the front-runner to win the GOP presidential nomination, he suggested he would not protect NATO allies from Russian attacks if those allies are “delinquent” in maintaining their military spending.

“I would encourage [Russia] to do whatever the hell they want,” he said at a campaign stop in South Carolina.

Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor who’s also seeking the GOP nomination, has sought to make Trump’s leniency toward Russia an issue on the campaign trail — to little effect. Last weekend, Trump defeated Haley in her home state primary by more than 20 points.

Trump’s popularity has only encouraged other Republicans to adopt a soft-gloves approach to Russia. That message was on ready display last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) outside Washington, where the theme was “Where Globalism Goes to Die.” And it was evident in Tucker Carlson’s recent visit to Moscow, where the popular conservative pundit suggested the culture is superior to that of any city in America.

Charging into November’s elections, Trump’s allies are hoping to secure more wins from like-minded lawmakers — “to REPLACE the droves of retiring members with America First Patriots,” in the words of Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) — while Trump’s GOP critics are hoping Trump’s inward-looking foreign policy evaporates when he leaves the political scene.

The outcome of November’s election, some predict, will dictate the direction of the party for years to come.

“Should Trump be reelected, it is clear that vestiges of internationalism will be purged,” said Rohac, of AEI. “Should he be defeated, there might be an opportunity for revisiting some of the more eccentric foreign policy beliefs that he has helped entrench in the party.”

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