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The coming Republican flip on Ukraine

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An LGM commenter whose nym I can’t remember has noted at least a couple of times that, when faced with a sufficiently sudden and severe crisis, the contemporary GOP will be shocked into acting like a normal political party for a little while. Nevertheless it will soon backslide into the morass of bottomless cynicism, incoherent rage, and frank insanity, that now characterizes it as anything but normal.

The COVID pandemic is a perfect example of this pattern, and we’ll soon see it repeated in regard to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Former Republican Rick Wilson gives a preview of how this will happen:

Republicans specialize at turning Democratic successes overseas into disasters. It’s a slow-burn strategy designed to trigger an outrage culture that doesn’t stop at the water’s edge. GOP leaders don’t care about reality; their audience doesn’t care about the truth, and their political media apparatus always stays on message.

Donald Trump bungled the 2020 negotiations ending the war in Afghanistan, freeing the Taliban at scale and setting a date certain for U.S. withdrawal. When Biden stuck with that commitment to exit, Republicans leveraged the inevitable chaos in Kabul into a cataclysmic political fable; if only the weak Democrats had held on for another year, victory was ensured.

Similarly, the terrorist attack on the Benghazi facilities in 2012 was another faux scandal-in-a-box because it gave Republicans — me included — a populist tale to be weaponized, embedded in the right’s mythos and deployed repeatedly. I distinctly recall being in a focus group that year and watching the pollster tease from participants how Benghazi could be used to offset the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden under Barack Obama and transformed into a political millstone for Hillary Clinton.

The go-to notion that “Democrats have endangered your family” in every international moment from Vietnam to 9/11 is not about altering Democratic foreign policy or improving our national security; it is about peeling off White, working-class (and lately, Hispanic working-class) voters and turning them into reliable Republicans. The idea that Democrats are overcommitted to diplomacy and international institutions became standard GOP messaging long ago.

This is all perfectly predictable, and indeed has been happening since the beginning of the invasion: The reason Putin invaded in the first place is because Donald Trump, the big strong manly man who stood up to Putin in a stronger and more manly way than anyone had ever stood up to a dictator was replaced by bumbling senile woke feminized Joe Biden, who doesn’t understand that you have to be big and strong and manly to Keep America Safe.

This message will get louder as the war drags on, and will be repeated no matter how it ends, because that has been the standard Republican foreign policy message since the days of Richard Nixon’s secret plan to end the Vietnam war.

Yet at the very same time, a very different Republican criticism of Biden’s handling of this war is already starting to emerge:

But let’s also be honest about the landscape: A not-so-secret faction of the GOP is rooting for the bad guys in this one. We’ve already heard that from the Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) wing of the party. Many Republican base voters are dictator-curious and believe Russian President Vladimir Putin is the savior of White, straight, law-and-order Christianity; the virus of Trumpian hyper-nationalism, with its constant call to reject alliances, diplomacy, smart power and multilateral action, has deeply infected the GOP.

Not long ago, the two parties worked together to face down, contain and repudiate Russian aggression and Moscow’s oppression of free peoples. From Truman to Eisenhower, from JFK to Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the Soviets respected American resolve. A few Republicans might yet hear the call to that unity in the face of Putin’s war, aware that Biden is leading the fight about the shape of the world in the coming century.

But if you think the majority of today’s GOP will leave politics at the water’s edge much longer, think again.

Wilson is very cynical about the state of his former party, but he isn’t nearly cynical enough. What he doesn’t make clear is that these two diametrically contradictory messages — Biden is being too soft on Putin and too hard on Putin — are not only going to co-exist within the GOP: they are going to be melded into a single message, that will be repeated over and over again, as if doing so doesn’t violate elementary logic.

This, of course, is Donald Trump’s speciality. Trump will tap into the nostalgic cold war memories of tens of millions of older Americans regarding the necessity of resisting the Evil Empire, at the very same time that he constantly amplifies the message that it’s a Good Thing that Putin is so strong, because he’s not Woke and Sissified and doesn’t have He/Him after his email signature, and isn’t afraid to stand up for the interests of the (white) Russians etc. etc.

That this message is totally incoherent on its face is not only not a problem: it’s why Donald Trump is going to be the Republican nominee for president in 2024. Shamelessness is his — and their — superpower.

Dictatorships foster oppression, dictatorships foster servitude, dictatorships foster cruelty; more abominable is the fact that they foster idiocy.

Jorge Luis Borges

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