Originally posted by Real Clear Policy
Republican officials criticizing American support for Ukraine are abetting Russian aggression, mimicking the 1939-1941 American First isolationists like Charles Lindbergh who similarly appeased Nazi Germany’s aggression against its neighbors.
Russian President Putin’s strategy to break the military stalemate centers on weakening European and U.S. support for Ukraine. Central to this strategy is exploiting conservatives. In the U.S., Putin was doubtlessly flabbergasted when the Republicans in 2016 nominated the transactional Donald Trump. Putin seized the moment, with Russian interference on behalf of Republicans widespread in 2016 and since, including 2022. For his part, Trump welcomed Putin’s campaign support as documented in the Mueller Report (Putin also aided the Green Party’s Jill Stein). And his scheme scored a remarkable success when Trump reciprocated by normalizing Putin (“strong,” a “genius”).
The Republican Fifth Column
Trump is a master at conjuring grievances about President Biden, including most recently criticizing his support for Ukraine. Trump has legitimized Putin’s invasion including through the America First Institute managed by loyalists Lawrence Kudlow and Linda McMahon. His criticism has been adopted by the Republican grassroots where he remains popular – forcing political competitors such as Florida Governor DeSantis and click-bait obsessives like Tucker Carlson and Marjorie Taylor Greene to mimic him. They regularly repeat Russian propaganda – antics tarring them as Russian Fifth Columnists.
Yep, those are strong words but the behavior of Putin’s shills is precisely analogous to American First criticism of U.S. aid to Britain in 1940. Moreover, these loud voices are influential, contributing to an erosion of U.S. support for Ukraine, mostly among Republicans watching Fox News. Recall that 57 Congressional Republicans voted last year against aid to Ukraine. By a margin of 46% to 34%, Republicans today reject the Biden administration policy of full-throated support for Ukraine. And many share Trump’s admiration of Putin, envious of his authoritarianism. A Pew survey recently found that one-third of Republicans would not be too concerned or concerned at all should Russia “take over” Ukraine. And 56% of Republicans believe that little if any inflation is worth enduring just to defend Ukraine.
The election of a Republican Congressional majority last November was a great stroke of luck for Putin. His fifth column in Congress now has leverage on important issues such as the debt ceiling increase and aid to Ukraine – and are the center-piece of his strategy to prevail in Ukraine.
The Fifth Column’s Assault on Democracy
Putin is at war with global democracy – a war he appears to be winning, with authoritarians seizing 36 countries like Hungary and Venezuela in recent decades. In addition to its criticism of aid to Ukraine, Putin has been empowered by the Republican Party mocking the legitimacy of U.S. elections. In 2020, for instance, Republicans broke the centuries-old covenant that while political parties fiercely compete, they respect the rule of law and the peaceful transfer of power. Instead, Republicans are now comfortable abandoning the norms of democracy – rejiggering election rules to reduce ballot access by Democrats: 24 of the 25 states with the most restrictive voting rules have Republican legislatures. And many of its leaders go further, admiring the election-law shenanigans behind a democratic veneer engineered by the Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban. They hope to replicate his success in retaining power in 2014 and 2018 despite losing elections.
Count the Supreme Court Republican majority in this camp, repeatedly issuing decisions that suppress Democratic voters to aid Republicans. This includes rulings limiting ballot access based on race, imposing unequal ballot access rules, allowing gerrymandering that favors Republicans and supporting the unwarranted purging of voter rolls. In their current term, the six Justices may further reduce the voting rights of Democrats by freeing state legislators of adult oversight by governors or courts regarding election law.
Strengthen Democrats to Neutralize the Fifth Column
Rejection of authoritarianism was the Constitutional Framers’ foundational vision drawn from John Locke for their new nation. Yet, Republicans have come to have little or no respect for democracy, thrilling Putin. Recentering that Party is vital to U.S. democracy but is a formidable challenge. For one thing, its loudest voices at Fox News are monetizing the distrust of elections by the Republican base. Some 70% of Republicans believe Democrats steal elections and many support laws to suppress Democratic voters. A second problem is that its Party leaders, Trump and DeSantis, openly admire authoritarians.
Republican moderates will strengthen over time if Trumpian extremists continue losing elections as in 2022. But that remedy is problematic because the Democratic Party brand itself is tarred, too many voters viewing its leaders as incompetent. Indeed, Democrats prevailed in 2020 and 2022 by the narrowest of margins in a handful of swing states thanks to shifting independents and youths.
U.S. Democracy is on tenterhooks.
Strengthening democracy in this environment hinges on Democrats over-performing at the ballot box in 2024. That necessitates candidates who enhance the Party brand and a more populist agenda. That also means repeating their 2022 message about abortion rights and endangered democracy – importantly reminding independents and moderate Republicans that far more is at stake at the ballot box than partisan gain.