With the Ukraine crisis dominating headlines and sparking fears of a global conflict, Republicans are scrambling to convince voters that the tense geopolitical situation is President Joe Biden’s fault. But conservatives just can’t agree on what Biden is doing wrong.
The party’s most powerful elected figures, like top House Republican Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), say Biden is too weak. They want him to take tougher actions to frighten Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has deployed more than 100,000 troops to Ukraine’s borders in recent weeks in apparent plans to invade.
Biden has shipped military equipment to Ukrainian forces, threatened Putin with unprecedented sanctions and rejected Moscow’s demand to forswear new alliances with countries such as Ukraine that were formerly part of the Soviet Union. But Biden has emphasized that he wants to defuse tensions diplomatically, offering to make concessions on Russian concerns, including U.S. deployments in Europe, and supporting European allies’ efforts at negotiation between the Russians and Ukrainians.
Still, conservative luminaries (and GOP power brokers) Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham of Fox News say Biden is moving toward an all-out nuclear war with Russia to aid the hawkish military-industrial complex and argue Ukraine is irrelevant to Americans. Some of their far-right allies, notably commentators Candace Owens and Benny Johnson, claim the flare-up in Europe is being driven by shadowy elites, including Biden’s own family, whom Republicans have baselessly accused of profiting off U.S. policies in Ukraine.
“There is quite literally no Russian threat. Biden crime family is trying to expand their business empire in the region,” Owen tweeted on Monday. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) endorsed that theory on Tuesday, saying Biden wanted to spark a war ― as Moscow carried out fresh military exercises.
Adding to the confusion, some Republicans want to have it both ways. According to Donald Trump Jr., Biden is both too feeble to deter a Russian invasion and too eager to start a war for his own corrupt reasons.
The GOP’s mess is the latest result of its ongoing identity crisis. That Republican dilemma could help Democrats shed their fear of being seen as soft on national security, allowing them to offer a strong alternative message, and could change the shape of the U.S. foreign policy debate for good.
Breaking with Republican orthodoxy, former President Donald Trump slammed America’s traditional claim to global leadership and its longstanding allies, instead frequently trying to withdraw from international involvement and endorsing the narratives of rivals, particularly Putin. That approach bolstered the minority in the party, chiefly libertarians, who want the U.S. to be more restrained abroad, and Trump’s constant repetition of those ideas highlighted them for GOP voters.
Today, Trump still dominates the GOP. And whether from personal conviction or simply for ambition, some conservatives are still pushing ideas that echo his ― often in shocking ways.
According to The Washington Post, one Republican lawmaker serving on the House Foreign Affairs Committee recently outraged their colleagues by texting a group chain about an article on arms supplies for Ukraine’s defense and asking, “Why is Biden being allowed to provoke Russia?”
Conservatives are creating sympathy well beyond Washington for Moscow’s viewpoint, which overlooks the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and Russian support for Ukrainian separatists to instead portray Ukraine and its Western partners as threatening Russia. On Monday, multiple people called the office of Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) to urge him to support Russia’s position.
Some callers said they learned about the situation from Carlson’s Fox News show, Malinowski told HuffPost in a Tuesday interview.
“Callers are being spun up to believe… that we’re about to go to war with Russia for Ukraine, and of course that’s not true,” Malinowski said. “We’re taking Ukraine’s side appropriately and mobilizing our allies to impose sanctions against Russia while giving Ukraine arms and ammunition to defend itself. That said, it’s been America’s policy in the world since World War II to try to prevent dictatorships from changing borders with tanks.”
There is no obligation that could force the U.S. to enter a war to defend Ukraine. But, according to Carlson, who has millions of viewers, a conflict could occur due to American hubris and lobbying by Ukrainian politicians and U.S. defense firms. In his telling, Americans should not see any difference between Ukraine and Russia ― or any Russian responsibility for potential bloodshed.
Ingraham, who follows Carlson on Fox News’ daily broadcast schedule, is telling her fans that the U.S. risks “another hopeless crusade” and Republicans must “resist the war machine’s temptation.”
Ironically, it was during Trump’s presidency that the U.S. most recently neared the kind of “extinction level confrontation” that conservatives now pin on Biden. In mishandling the complex U.S. relationships with Iran and North Korea, Trump flirted with major wars at least twice while elsewhere encouraging more brutal American military action abroad and impunity for violence by America’s partners.
Most elected Republicans have an entirely different narrative on Ukraine. Casting Biden as feckless, they are pushing for immediate new sanctions on Russia ― an escalation before an invasion rather than the threat of punishment if Moscow does interfere further in Ukraine.
But it’s bizarre for the GOP to claim it is the party of standing up to Putin after Trump broke the law to blackmail Ukraine for his reelection campaign and told his foreign counterparts he believed Moscow was correct to claim Crimea, the Ukrainian territory it seized in 2014.
“Most congressional Republicans agree with Democrats on the fundamental principle that we should be on Ukraine’s side and what Putin is doing is dangerous and wrong, but there is this strain in their party ― that Tucker Carlson is encouraging and that the former president was obviously sympathetic to ― that asks, ‘Why can’t we be friends with Russia? Why do we need troops in Europe? Why can’t the big countries just get together and carve up the small countries?’” Malinowski said. “A lot of my Republican colleagues, even those who are very strong on Ukraine, are in denial about the power of this strain in their party.”
Dan Caldwell of Stand Together, a nonprofit group that often works with conservatives, sees the shift in Republican thinking on national security policy as generational and likely to continue.
“It’s more complicated than this just being a Trump phenomenon; it’s a broader questioning across the right of American foreign policy over the past 30 years,” said Caldwell, the vice president for foreign policy at the organization, which is backed by longtime GOP donor Charles Koch.
He pointed to a survey that his group conducted in December in partnership with the well-respected polling group YouGov. In asking Americans their view of a possible war with Russia to defend Ukraine, they found that 55% of Trump voters opposed that idea, compared with only 44% of Biden voters.
“It’s another example of how often Republicans in Washington are out of step with their base on these issues,” Caldwell said, adding that GOP lawmakers could instead say the U.S. should not take on more security commitments or reflexively oppose Russia. Shifting in that direction could align them on some issues with antiwar progressives, who, on issues like the U.S. role in the devastating civil war in Yemen, have worked with conservatives to force changes.
Caldwell believes the split will become a major factor in the party’s selection of its presidential candidate for the 2024 election ― and Republicans could then finally settle on a united direction on global affairs.
For now, as Biden tries to defuse the tension in Europe and bolster his standing at home, the clear divide weakens Republicans’ attacks on his policy of diplomacy and limited support for Ukraine.
It’s not often that a Democratic president can tout that conservative thinker Sohrab Ahmari is boosting him in the pages of The Washington Post, arguing: “Ignore the hawks, Mr. President. You’re right on Ukraine.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.