Among conservatives who fancy themselves populists, a beloved conceit—indeed, a primary source of identity—is that it is they who represent the sentiments of most Republican voters. This presumption informs their attempts to lobby against the West’s ongoing efforts to deter Russia from executing another land-grab in Europe and possibly starting a disastrous war on the continent in the process. That, they insist, is what the folks in Real America want. For all the populists’ bluster, though, the Real Americans for whom they presume to speak don’t seem to agree.
“Republicans running in high-profile primary races aren’t racing to defend Ukraine against a possible Russian invasion,” Axios reported on Thursday. “They’re settling on a different line of attack: Blame Biden, not Putin.” But the populist activist class does not “blame Biden” for rewarding Putin’s aggression with summitry and sanctions relief, which has emboldened the revisionist autocrat in Moscow. No, the nationalists are promoting the convoluted idea that any effort to contain an expansionist Russia is not just reckless but a product of darker ulterior motives only they can deduce.
From television personalities like Tucker Carlson to GOP candidates like Blake Masters, J.D. Vance, and Bernie Moreno, among others, self-styled populists are supposedly “leery” of offending GOP voters by advocating a harder line against Russian aggression. “GOP operatives working in 2022 primary races tell Axios they worry they’ll alienate the base if they push to commit American resources or troops to help Ukraine fight Russia,” Axios concludes. It is entirely unclear what “base” they’re talking about. All evidence suggests the populists are courting a Republican voting “base” they’ve made up in their own minds.
A Pew Research Center survey published this week found that there is virtual bipartisan unanimity in this country over the potential threat a Russian invasion of Ukraine presents to American interests and the need to prevent that outcome. Indeed, Republicans are slightly more likely than Democrats to understand what’s at stake. That poll found that only 9 percent of Republicans viewed Russia as a “partner.” Thirty-nine percent of self-described GOP voters labeled the country an “enemy,” and a majority called it a “competitor.” Similar shares of Democrats and Republicans describe Russia’s military buildup on Ukraine’s borders as a “major threat” to American interests (26 and 27 percent, respectively). Another 36 percent of Republicans say these events represent a “minor threat,” joined by 33 percent of Democrats. Republicans are six points more likely than Democrats to say they know precisely how Russian brinkmanship affects U.S. interests.
This sentiment among GOP voters didn’t materialize overnight. A June 2021 CBS News/YouGov survey produced results similar to Pew’s. That poll, which was taken in the wake of another Russian buildup on the Ukrainian border that was only defused after Biden agreed to a bilateral summit with the Russian leader, found 62 percent of Republicans describing Putin as either “unfriendly” or “an enemy.” Fifty-seven percent of GOP voters said Biden had been “too friendly” toward Moscow, and a staggering two-thirds of GOP voters agreed with the idea that the president “should take a tough stand” against the Kremlin. In that poll, only 14 percent of Republicans had a “favorable” impression of Putin.
To all this, the good-faith populist-nationalist conservative might say, “so what?” Even if their views aren’t popular among Republican voters, the policy they prefer is the right one. There’s nothing wrong with advocating unpopular positions you believe best advance American interests (I do that all the time). Yet, the nationalist front’s loudest voices never entertain the notion that theirs is a minority view because to do so would be to commit to persuading voters rather than hectoring their fellow conservatives. Instead, they rely on ponderously elaborate heuristics that simplify a complicated conflict abroad and expose the motives of their political opponents at home. In fact, they’ve only confused the issue and, it seems, their conservative audiences.
The narrative preferred by the nationalist right is one that maintains any efforts to deter Russian aggression in Europe all but commit the United States to war with Russia. Few distinctions are made between preemptive economic sanctions, the provision of lethal and non-lethal aid to Ukraine, or the deployment of NATO forces to NATO-aligned nations that border what could soon become the front lines—none of which constitute a commitment to defend Ukraine against a Russian attack. To make those distinctions would demonstrate the illogic of their position, which rests on the idea that preventing war in Europe authorizes America’s participation in one.
It’s a slippery slope argument, and that is how slippery slope arguments work; they elide how you get from point A to point B. Indeed, point B—a shooting war with a preeminent nuclear power—is universally recognized as an undesirable outcome. The nationalists have assumed the slope into existence, but they have not convinced conservatives that mitigating this threat is worse than the threat itself.
When members of this contingent aren’t trying to convince their audience that deterring war is equivalent to starting one, they maintain that the only reason anyone is interested in preserving peace on the European continent is because they are irrationally invested in cultural combat with their fellow Americans. Columbia University research fellow Richard Hanania provides us with an example of this sort of analysis, which has garnered the praise of the populist right. He adopts the Obama-esque argument that elites—Democrats and Republicans alike—are “stuck in the 1980s.” They are only hawkish toward Russia because it has anti-gay statutes on the books. Consciously or otherwise, America’s political influencers are so obsessed with identity politics that it has led them to subordinate American interests and grand strategy to their desire to wage domestic cultural combat in proxy theaters abroad.
If there was a better real-world example of psychological projection, I’m not familiar with it.
It’s surely the populist right’s hope that they will persuade the rest of the right to believe that Joe Biden has been too hard on Vladimir Putin. But this advocacy has exposed the extent to which the nationalists do not speak for the silent majority of Republican voters. They have so far failed to convince the “base” that the threat posed by Russian aggression is simultaneously a myth and a menace that can be neutralized if only we yelled at our fellow Republicans more. For now, the “base” remains beholden to a conventionally conservative belief in preserving the peace by demonstrating the capacity and willingness to impose costs on those who would threaten it.
Thus, it is the nationalist right that has lost touch with average Republican voters and fails to represent their interests. Indeed, they are contemptuous of those voters and their stated policy preferences. Perhaps they will take the very cues they have been demanding conventional conservatives take for the better part of a decade, internalize their own irrelevance, and get out of the way.