Putin leaves Republicans splintered and confused

Russia may successfully fracture Republicans, but a growing faction yearns for a white, nationalist strongman here

By Heather Digby Parton

Published February 23, 2022 9:59AM (EST)
Updated February 24, 2022 2:11PM (EST)
Mitch McConnell and Vladimir Putin (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Mitch McConnell and Vladimir Putin (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

It's always distasteful to speak about war and peace in political terms but it's just as inevitable. Politics are involved whether we like it or not. And in America for the past 60 years or so, it has usually broken down on predictably partisan lines. The hawks have tended to be on the right and the doves tended to be on the left, with some notable exceptions in both cases. Centrist Democrats have often been hawkish and on occasion we would see left-wing Democrats support humanitarian interventions and far right Republicans agitating against war from an isolationist viewpoint.

But over the last quarter-century, we've seen those lines break down, particularly on the right.

Back in the 1990s when NATO intervened in the Balkans, many of the usual hawks were suddenly unwilling to support military action as they usually did (and had just done a few years earlier in the first Gulf War) because they just couldn't get worked up about a strongman dictator committing genocide in Europe. In that respect, they resembled their "America First" forebears in the 1930s. And after decades of support for all wars, big and small, in the name of anti-Communism, this stance came as something of a shock. One of the GOP congressional leaders at the time, Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, an aggressively hostile right-winger, remarked on the House floor:

Bombing a sovereign nation for ill-defined reasons with vague objectives undermines the American stature in the world. The international respect and trust for America has diminished every time we casually let the bombs fly. We must stop giving the appearance that our foreign policy is formulated by the Unabomber.

Hard right Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., actually said "give peace a chance."

Not long after that came 9/11 and the entire GOP reverted back to its usual warlike attitudes, supporting the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq under a Republican president with savage fervor, cheering on the "Shock and Awe" bombing campaigns and enthusiastically supporting torture and rendition. (Of course, the enemies in those cases weren't their kind of guys, if you know what I mean, like Serbian dictator Slobodan Milošević.)

Then after years of endless jingoistic warmongering, the GOP seemed finally to run out of gas in 2016 when they voted in Donald Trump, who swaggered around on stage like Benito Mussolini but also promised to "end the forever wars," suggesting that America's adversaries would simply swoon and surrender at the mere sight of his manly visage. At the same time, he and his followers, were likewise swooning over Russian President Vladimir Putin, a man they'd been warming to for over a decade, largely on the basis of his muscular domestic leadership, which they greatly admire, and as a continuation of their domestic opposition to Barack Obama. 

The leadership of the Republican Party stood silently by as Trump basked in extravagant flattery and flamboyant pageantry from dictators and tyrants around the world who knew they had the man's number. It was so very easy to get him to do their dirty work for them, they had no need to take action. He was more critical of his own country than they were.

Now that Trump is out of office, the Republicans are confused and off-balance when it comes to Vladimir Putin. They want to say he is a bad man taking advantage of a feeble Joe Biden but it's uncomfortable because they like him so much. More importantly, their own Dear Leader does too. As Salon's Igor Derysh reported on Tuesday, Donald Trump finally weighed in with his views on the Russian invasion of Ukraine on a podcast.

"I went in yesterday and there was a television screen, and I said, 'This is genius.' Putin declares a big portion of Ukraine — Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that's wonderful. I said, 'How smart is that?' And he's gonna go in and be a peacekeeper. ... We could use that on our southern border."

Trump also described Putin as "very savvy," echoing the words of former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has been extolling Putin's virtues to anyone who will listen, including Russian television:

And then there's the MAGA Muse, Tucker Carlson, insisting daily that Vladimir Putin is nothing more than a docile pussycat, even as he declares Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to be a ruthless authoritarian tyrant. Last night he suggested in his usual oleaginous way that mean people on Twitter are worse than a dictator who poisons and imprisons his political adversaries.

Still, some elected Trumpers don't seem to have gotten the memo:

Meanwhile, Ohio GOP Senate candidate J.D. Vance says "I gotta be honest with you, I don't really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another," while Pennsylvania GOP Senate candidate Mehmet Oz declares "Putin is a thug who has violated the sovereignty of a free country. ... The U.S. and our allies must take immediate actions to cripple his regime."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy both railed against Biden's "appeasement" while Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., blamed it all on Donald Trump: "Former President Trump's adulation of Putin today — including calling him a 'genius' — aids our enemies. Trump's interests don't seem to align with the interests of the United States of America."

Trump activist Candace Owens went the other way:

I can't help but be reminded of a very famous speech by former UN ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick during the Reagan administration. A longtime Democrat, Kirkpatrick spoke at the 1984 Republican convention and said her fellow Democrats "always blame America first." Conservatives often referred to liberal critics of American foreign policy as the "blame America first crowd," even as recently as 2020 in the Wall Street Journal — long after Donald Trump infamously said, "there are a lot of killers. You think our country's so innocent?" when questioned about Putin's penchant for killing his enemies. Now the Journal is running op-eds with headlines like "How the U.S. and Europe Lost the Post-Cold War."

The Republicans are confused about who they are in many ways, and they're all over the place with their reaction to this aggression by Russia. But the rest of us shouldn't be. The various factions in the party have one thing in common and only one thing: oppositional partisanship. If the Democrats are for it, they are against it and vice versa.

But there is a very strong strain within that group that really, really likes a white, nationalist strongman, whether it's Milošević, Viktor Orbán or Vladimir Putin. That group is gaining power within that coalition and they are yearning for someone with more Putinesque gumption than the aging brand name in a baggy suit and red tie they had to settle for. I sense there are quite a few young up-and-comers who are closely observing this phenomenon and will be ready to deliver when the time comes.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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Commentary Donlad Trump Foreign Policy Gop Joe Biden Mike Pompeo Republicans Russia Ukraine Vladmir Putin