The Trump party blames America first

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As Americans awake to the glowering reality of resurgent Russian imperialism, our political parties seem to be trading places. Democrats have rallied behind President Biden’s policy of military aid to Ukraine, while Republicans are torn over the wisdom of U.S. intervention.

The sheer ferocity of Russia’s assault, including deliberate massacres of civilians, seems to have quieted the anti-interventionist left. Even leaders of the House’s ultra-progressive Squad support sending U.S. arms to help Ukraine to defend itself against Russian ruler Vladimir Putin’s bloody rampage. That’s put them at odds with their allies in the Democratic Socialists of America, which by force of habit if not logic blame “American imperialism” for the conflict.

While Democrats bask in a rare moment of unity, Republicans are all over the ideological map. GOP congressional leaders mostly have backed Biden’s Ukraine policy but try to conceal that from their wrathful base by heaping abuse on him for being too weak to prevent the invasion.

That’s rich coming from party leaders who dared not protest former President Trump’s fawning attempts to befriend the Russian dictator, or his frequently expressed desire to quit NATO — which would have been the strategic equivalent of handing Moscow the keys to Europe.

Nor were they unduly troubled by Trump’s threat to withhold weapons Ukraine desperately needed to defend itself against a second Russian invasion until President Volodymyr Zelensky agreed to dig up non-existent dirt on Trump’s domestic political rival.   

Such hypocrisy aside, GOP leaders seem to be reverting to Reagan-style firmness toward Moscow. But backbenchers such as Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and House Freedom Caucus bomb-throwers strongly dissent, saying the party should focus instead on the “real” threats to America — illegal immigration and China.

If Republican 2022 candidates such as Ohio’s J.D. Vance, Missouri’s Eric Greitens and Arizona’s Blake Masters are any indication, outside Washington Trump’s “America First” doctrine is holy writ.

That was the long-discredited slogan of U.S. isolationists and pro-German sympathizers, who lost their argument that the United States should stand aloof from overseas conflicts after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Following the war, a remarkable bipartisan consensus congealed around the idea that America could best safeguard its interests and ideals by using its power to shape an international environment more hospitable to free markets, civil liberties, democracy and the rule of law.

This U.S. strategy helped prevent great power conflicts, possibly leading to nuclear war, for seven decades. But Trump, cynically transactional to the core, thinks U.S.  international leadership is a sucker’s play. Behind all the lofty talk about human rights and democracy, he and his acolytes see unfair trade treaties, subsidies to wealthy allies and constraints on the unfettered exercise of U.S. power to get our way in the world.

Attempting to put an intellectual gloss on this amoral vision for U.S. diplomacy are rightwing theorists who call themselves “national conservatives.” Echoing the antiwar left, the natcons see hubris in America’s attempts to defend free societies and uphold global order. They favor a value-free diplomacy that focuses narrowly on tangible national interests.

Says nationalist gadfly and former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, “We don’t have any interest – no one in the Trump movement has any interest at all in the Russian-speaking provinces of eastern Ukraine. Zero.”

The natcons oppose themselves to the “neocons” — conservatives who supported George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in the name of spreading freedom and democracy. For natcons, Bush is an easier target than the previously canonized Reagan, who regarded the Cold War as a moral struggle between liberal democracy and communism.

Like conventional foreign policy realists, the natcons view Washington’s support for NATO enlargement as impinging on Russia’s “legitimate security interests.” Such interests apparently include Moscow’s rights to control the destinies of hundreds of millions of formerly captive people in Eastern and Central Europe. This is the logic of empire: Since Rome if not before, all empires justify their territorial expansion in the name of security.   

But Trump and the natcons go farther, embracing the ethno-religious nationalism of authoritarian leaders like Putin and Hungary’s Viktor Orban. While carping endlessly about America’s free-riding NATO allies, Trump showered Putin with praise and even seemed to envy the Russian strongman.  

For his most zealous supporters, to be pro-Trump is to be pro-Putin. A February poll taken just before Russia’s invasion found that GOP voters trusted Putin more than President Biden.

Then there’s Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who slams the Biden administration for its “provocative behavior” toward Putin and continues to recycle the thoroughly debunked conspiracy theory that the United States has been building biological warfare labs in Ukraine. Who needs Russia Today with Carlson parroting Kremlin talking points?

What’s most unsettling about the America Firsters and natcons is their fondness for    autocrats who rise to power by channeling nativism and illiberal cultural resentment, and their contempt for open, pluralistic and multiethnic liberal democracies — including our own.

In a devastatingly effective speech to the 1984 Republican National Convention, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations, inveighed against Democrats who “always blame America first” for foreign troubles caused by the Soviet Union and its proxies.   

Today, the impulse to blame America first when things go awry overseas has migrated clear across the political spectrum, from the antiwar left to Donald Trump and the hyper-nationalist right.

Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI).

Tags america first Biden China Hungary Joe Biden NATO Reagan Russia Russia-Ukraine war Russian invasion Ukraine

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