Our latest book is titled Divided We Stand: The 2020 Elections and American Politics. Among other things, it discusses foreign influence and Trump's attack on democracy. Russia helped Trump through 2020. As Russia began its latest invasion of Ukraine, Trump lavished praise on Russian dictator Vladimir Putin.
[N]othing provided a better window into the ideological ferment of the GOP — and the staying power of the Trump wing of the party — than the daylong conference at the Marriott Hotel. Throughout, it became clear that the war on Ukraine is not prompting the Trump-aligned right to back down. Quite the contrary.
The participants generally described themselves as “realists” and “restrainers,” and the meeting featured what amounted to realist royalty — politicians and thinkers, ranging from GOP Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Reps. Thomas Massie (Ky.), Dan Bishop (N.C.) and Matt Rosendale (Mont.) to Michael Anton, Sohrab Ahmari, Mollie Z. Hemingway, and, of course, Vance. It was organized by the American Conservative magazine and American Moment, whose self-described mission is to “identify, educate, and credential young Americans who will implement public policy that supports strong families, a sovereign nation, and prosperity for all,” and which features Vance on its board of advisers. Their explicit aim is to create a young counter-establishment to the hawkish national security network that has flourished in Washington over the past several decades, one that could funnel ideologically reliable appointees into a future Trump, DeSantis, Cruz or Hawley administration.
It was notable that at the conference, speaker after speaker targeted the GOP hawks more often than they spoke about Ukraine itself. Indeed, Kyiv itself was essentially MIA — serving more as a proxy for a dispute about America nationhood than about the country’s own fate as it’s mercilessly pummeled by Putin. The basic argument, outlined in a manifesto titled “Away From the Abyss” appearing in the new Compact magazine, is that aiding Ukraine is tantamount to hurting Ukraine. In resisting deescalation, the U.S. and its allies, so the thinking goes, run the risk of encouraging hapless Ukrainians to battle to the last man, all in the hopes of pursuing a Western-led regime change policy toward Moscow that might well trigger a global cataclysm.
Nearly every conference speaker, including those on its final forward-looking panel, failed to provide a clear alternative to the foreign policy approach they decried. Former New York Post editor Sohrab Ahmari argued that more conservatives that share the speakers’ perspectives needed to move into government roles, but he never clarified what those people would do. Conservative speechwriter Michael Anton said these views would eventually prevail within the GOP because younger Republicans backed them and would eventually outvote the older, Cold War-era members of the party. But he did not explain exactly what these voters were for other than rejection of Bush-Obama era interventionism.
Only William Ruger, Trump’s nominee to be ambassador to Afghanistan (though he was never confirmed), accepted the challenge to lay out an alternative foreign policy. He argued for limited U.S. involvement abroad, with military power only used to protect the United States’ few vital interests. But even Ruger did not clearly delineate what those interests are and which current entanglements should be discarded.
American conservatism has long had a libertarian and paleoconservative minority that eschewed active and consistent global engagement. That faction’s hero, Ohio Sen. Robert A. Taft, even opposed NATO’s creation in 1949 because he viewed it as unnecessarily provocative to the Soviet Union. Most conservatives, however, rejected these views long ago. They will continue to reject them so long as modern adherents fail to provide an alternative vision to make America more secure
There are times when conservatives need to stand up and say things that hardly anyone wants to hear, that run counter to the overwhelming opinion of the world. Churchill himself did that over appeasement during his Wilderness Years. Yet sometimes I feel that there are some in our movement who enjoy being contrary for its own sake—out of perversity or a desire for attention—regardless of the cost to the wider movement and how it looks to ordinary people. They fail to heed the enormous damage done to the right in denouncing Mr. Zelensky and the favorable opinion that is strongly held by many millions, perhaps billions, of people around the world who have been profoundly moved by Ukraine’s plight.
Consider David Stockman, Ronald Reagan’s budget director, who last month wrote that “we were already getting sick and tired of this Zelensky clown,” that “Zelensky should resign and make way for a collaborationist government that will sue for peace,” and that Ukraine’s government is made up of “anti-Russian fascists and oligarchs.” (At least he didn’t mention drug addicts.) Mr. Stockman went on to argue that Ukraine isn’t a real country and has no genuine sovereign independence.
The event wasn’t a Putin apologia like those found in some corners of the right. Instead, the phrase of the day seemed to be “Putin is bad, but …” The attendees, who included paleocons, libertarians, and hard-core MAGA acolytes, offered variations on that tune according to their policy preferences: Putin is bad, but we don’t want a nuclear war. Putin is bad, but why should we trust the American foreign-policy establishment? Putin is bad, but the media is in thrall to the U.S. intelligence apparatus. The broad consensus: Putin is bad, but why is that our problem?
“This is not an ism-based movement. There is a specific policy outcome motivating the type of factions we brought here today, which is that we don’t want another war,” Sharma said. “And people have their own isms that they bring to the table.” The result was a conference of the right where Tulsi Gabbard was invited but figures such as Ted Cruz were absent.
In fact, Cruz was the target of a jab onstage from a fellow Republican senator, Rand Paul, who suggested that the Texan’s advocacy for sanctions on Russian energy was simply intended to boost the bottom line of the energy industry in his home state. President Joe Biden, though, received some praise for his comparatively restrained response to the crisis. Saagar Enjeti, a conservative pundit and podcaster, went so far as to say that Biden’s “79-year-old ailing heart may be the only thing standing in between us and World War III.”