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Ukraine, Putinism, isolationism and the GOP

Populist sentiment of 1930s and 1940s finds new currency in today’s politics

Samantha Power, left, U.S. Agency for International Development administrator, and Oksana Markarova, Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S., attend a rally at the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday to mark the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Samantha Power, left, U.S. Agency for International Development administrator, and Oksana Markarova, Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S., attend a rally at the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday to mark the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

“Ukraine is the new Iraq. Our country is run by stupid warmongers that are so clueless and disconnected with what the American people want that they are literally leading us into World War 3,” tweeted Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene this month, almost one year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

And Greene has not been alone in criticizing support for Ukraine. Arizona Republican Rep. Paul Gosar said “We have no business in Ukraine. Not our fight,” while Montana GOP Rep. Matt Rosendale argued, “We must address our border crisis at home before defending the borders of other countries.”

Pew Research Center polling in late January found:

“The share of Americans who say the U.S. is providing too much support has grown. About a quarter (26%) now say the U.S. is providing too much support to Ukraine, while 31% say it is giving the right amount and 20% would like to see the U.S. give Ukraine additional assistance. The share of adults who say the U.S. is providing too much aid to Ukraine has increased 6 percentage points since last September and 19 points since shortly after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine last year, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted Jan. 18-24 among 5,152 U.S. adults. This shift in opinion is mostly attributable to the growing share of Republicans who say the U.S. is providing too much support to Ukraine. Today, 40% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents hold this view, up from 32% in the fall and much higher than the 9% who held this view in March of last year.”

Still, Greene’s position has limited support on Capitol Hill, even among the GOP leadership. For example, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, are staunch supporters of Ukraine and its president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. If anything, they want the United States to do more, not less.

But it is difficult to ignore the voices on the American right who sound isolationist themes — themes that are not new. 

Going back to at least the 1930s, many Republicans were concerned about the financial costs involved in internationalism and the risk of getting the United States involved in foreign wars.

That’s why the late Ohio Sen. Robert Taft, often referred to as “Mr. Republican,” opposed U.S. involvement in World War II until Pearl Harbor. It’s also why he opposed U.S. membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United Nations. Taft naively believed that the Atlantic and Pacific oceans would protect the United States even if Germany took control of Europe.

Today, former President Donald Trump and his acolytes are heirs to the isolationist wing of the GOP of the 1930s. But they are also heirs to the America First movement of the 1940s. 

That movement wasn’t merely populist and isolationist. It included some, like Charles Lindbergh, who had antisemitic views and strong sympathies for Nazi Germany. (For a fascinating account of the period and the threat to democracy, see Rachel Maddow’s podcast “Ultra.”)

Today, some on the right seem to have similar sympathies for Putin and Russia. No longer preaching socialism and undermining religion, post-Soviet Russia is a political force that preaches nationalism, populism, tradition and religious orthodoxy — the same messages offered by some in the United States.

As Connecticut Sen. Christopher S. Murphy observed in a recent floor speech: “Turn on Tucker Carlson virtually any night and you’re going to hear him lionizing Putin, and pushing, often line for line, Russian disinformation. Elon Musk uncritically blasts out Russian propaganda about the war to his 120 million-plus followers. Steve Bannon says that Putin is the leader of the anti-woke fight globally. … QAnon sites say that Russia’s war in Ukraine is righteous because it’s just the next front of the war against these global sex traffickers that apparently are operating out of pizza parlors in Northwest D.C. and Ukraine.”

It’s important to remember that what we see now from some on the right — from the Greenes, the Gosars and the Bannons of this world — is not new, not unique. We have heard it before. Or at least our parents and grandparents did.

Another day, another time, the greatest threat to democracy may come from the left. But now, forget all the false equivalency about the threat coming from both the far right and the far left.

Today’s threat comes primarily from elements within the Republican Party that use social media to radicalize and organize — and too often sound like an isolationist populist propaganda machine of the late 1930s and early 1940s. 

History reminds us that we have seen populism, isolationism and America Firsters before. They just have different names now.

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