How Putin Co-Opted the Republican Party

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How Putin Co-Opted the Republican Party

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In the mythologies of the modern conservative movement, no figure stands taller than Ronald Reagan. But his shadow is shrinking faster than a lot of Republicans realize.

Reagan was the voice that placed Barry Goldwater’s name forward for the presidential nomination in 1964. He inaugurated what was then known as the Conservative Political Action Conference—which is now known as CPAC and starts today—with a landmark speech in 1974 that employed the “city on a hill” rhetoric that would pepper so many of his remarks over the next 15 years. Once he was in the White House, Reagan was perhaps the most effective American Cold Warrior, helping guide almost a half century of antipathy between democratic Washington and communist Moscow to an end. Reagan’s agenda benefited from a sincere friendship with his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, whom he ordered in Berlin to “tear down this wall”—even over objections from the U.S. State Department and National Security Council. For close to 40 years, Republicans across the spectrum have found a way to somehow invite comparisons to The Gipper, including his Cold War victory over a geopolitical rival he branded “The Evil Empire.”

Reagan, it has to be said, was pretty spot-on when it came to his assessment of the then-Soviet Union and prescient about its next stage. Its heir, modern Russia, never fully shed its inclinations toward autocracy or foreign meddling. It’s why even in the cooled rivalry between the two capitals there has never been a full thaw. Last week’s Munich Security Conference began hours after news broke of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s death. The German Chancellor devoted his entire speech at the “Peace Through Dialogue” confab to the threats from Moscow. Here in the United States, Navalny’s death drew Reaganesque condemnation in stark moral terms from all corners of the political arena.

Well, nearly all corners.

Donald Trump, the former President and current Republican frontrunner for renomination, has stubbornly refused to condemn Russia or President Vladimir Putin for their role in Navalny’s death in a remote arctic prison. In turn, he blamed Navalny for returning to Russia after an earlier attempt on his life—he would have been better served “staying away and talking from outside of the country”—and then baselessly likened his own legal woes to those of Navalny, who as Putin’s chief critic never stood a shot at a fair trial in Russia.

Those comments came just days after Trump’s admonition that Russia should feel free to attack any NATO member that isn’t paying its fair share, further casting doubt on his—and, in turn, U.S.—commitment to the defense alliance that requires any attack on a member be met with a response from all. “I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want,” Trump said.

For years, the party treated Trump’s Putin adoration as something to be ignored or grudgingly tolerated. That’s no longer a tenable position. With Russian forces capturing Avdiivka while a desperate Ukraine waits for U.S. aid blocked by the House GOP Caucus, Trump’s apologist posture toward Russia and the Republican Party’s position are essentially indistinguishable; it’s a dynamic that has enormous consequences across the globe.

The clearest sign of the party’s shift may be apparent at this week’s CPAC, where a who’s who of conservative luminaries will deliver speeches, most of which are likely to either avoid mentioning or waive away inconvenient stories like Navalny’s death, the stakes of Ukraine’s fight for self-determination, or the bombshell news that the GOP’s drive to impeach President Joe Biden may have been largely orchestrated by Russian intelligence.

Trump has been consistently against helping Ukraine defend itself against the Russian invasion and onslaught. Back in 2019, Ukraine’s leader didn’t bend to Trump’s request to weaponize the justice system in Kyiv to hurt Biden, so this is personal.

Republicans have tried to have it both ways, striking a critique of Putin’s regime while saying Biden cannot counter Moscow’s aggression. Antagonizing Trump is not a good gambit, as so many vanquished rivals have learned the hard way. It’s why Sen. J.D. Vance, an Ohio Republican, has aggressively tried to sour his new colleagues on spending in Ukraine, suggested Ukraine concede with land transfers to Russia, and most recently, floated the notion that the proposed money for Ukraine was actually a backdoor scheme to begin impeachment proceedings against Trump should he win. (No, really.)

Speaker Mike Johnson, whose grip on the Speaker’s gavel is weak given his party’s razor-thin majority, has been offering his own master class in compliance. As long as Trump opposes sending desperately needed help to Ukraine, there will be no immediate vote—a reality that could complicate even keeping the government open in the coming weeks.

That’s not to say Trump’s takeover is absolute. Down in her home state of South Carolina, former Gov. Nikki Haley has been on a slow-and-steady effort to block Trump from another nomination, starting with the state’s primary on Saturday. After nearly a year of prevaricating, Trump’s former envoy to the United Nations has finally dropped the pretense of trying to be MAGA Minus the Red Hat. “Of course, many of the same politicians who now publicly embrace Trump privately dread him,” Haley said. “They know what a disaster he’s been and will continue to be for our party. They’re just too afraid to say it out loud.”

Haley’s diagnosis is not wrong, especially in the norm-favoring Senate. Donors don’t love Trump but see him as the most viable option these days to make Biden a one-termer. House lawmakers may harbor some of these same inclinations, but they fear their constituents who may decide defiance of Trump or his allies is sufficient justification for a primary challenge. 

Which, taken as a snapshot, reveals a party far removed from Reagan’s soaring rhetoric: “We raised a banner of bold colors; no pale pastels.” Reagan viewed communism as a direct threat to what he saw as America’s greatness and called the Soviets “the focus of evil in the modern world.” The United States supported anti-communist efforts in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Angola, and Cambodia. He told aides before the famous summit with Gorbachev in Reykjavik that he wanted to “get rid of those atomic weapons, every one.” And when Reagan got it wrong—as he did when his administration engaged in the arms-for-hostages Iran Contra Affair that left only 12% of Americans believing he was telling the truth about an effort driven by a desire to confront communism—he fessed up. And when he left office, Reagan was the most popular President heading into retirement since FDR.

Trump is no Reagan in ways great and small. Trump defended Putin in the face of proof that Russian-linked operations meddled in the 2016 election; as he departed the Oval Office, highly classified documents related to that investigation went missing. While President, Trump shared sensitive intelligence documents with a Russian ambassador widely believed to be a spy. Where Reagan sought to spread democracy far and wide, Trump tried to hold onto power by subverting it at a rally that turned violent on Jan. 6, 2021.

And Republicans have gone along with all of it. They looked the other way on intelligence breaches, and failed to convict Trump during a record two impeachment trials. And, even in the face of evidence that their impeachment payback of Biden is based on an FBI informant now indicted for telling lies that he alleges started in Russia to hurt Biden, House Republicans say they’ll plow forward regardless. The fact that the cornerstone of their case against Biden originated with Russian spooks and bogus claims of checks sent to Biden family members from Ukraine is inconsequential in their march to help Trump’s chances of returning to Washington. And as Ukraine struggles in its fight against Russia, it seems those Republicans are ready to abandon the former Soviet republic because Trump has a grudge.

It’s quite an act of intentional forgetting on the part of the Republican Party to set aside their lionized legend of Reagan in service of another TV talent, one who seems to hold Reagan-era precedents in contempt and share little of his admiration for democracy. Yet this is the current work of a large cut of the contemporary GOP. For a lot of conservatives, it has not been easy to get over their first crush, but they have another charismatic figure at the ready. Or at least one refusing to retreat.

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