Ukraine Lays Bare How the Party of Reagan Became the Party of Trump

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, left, and President Donald Trump arrive for a group photo at the G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan, in 2019.(BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Written by Susan Mulligan and published in US News 2/25/2022

In Cold War America, it was easy to win the parlor game of Spot the Republican. It was the foreign policy hawk slamming Russian aggression, calling for the United States to stand up to dictators, maybe wearing a “Better Dead than Red” button for good measure. Or it was the suited lawmaker calling for lower taxes and less government intervention in people’s lives.

The 2022 midterms would seem to offer the perfect issues for a GOP already poised to make big gains this fall. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine provides a platform for the get-tough-on-autocrats crowd, a chance for them to opine on the importance of protecting democracy and keeping American shores safe from foreign aggressors. President Joe Biden’s push for higher taxes on people making more than $400,000 yearly offers an opportunity for an anti-tax campaign message. High inflation gives the GOP an opening to reach out to working class and lower-income Americans whose meager pocketbooks are being pinched.

Instead, the GOP remade by former President Donald Trump has been acting nothing like its former self. Once a party that hailed as its biggest hero Ronald Reagan, who battled the Soviet empire and won, the GOP has focused its attention on matters involving race and culture.

That’s partly due to Trump and partly due to changing demographics that have increasingly defined both parties, with Republicans largely white and Democrats more people of color, says Marjorie Hershey, author of the book “Party Politics in America.”

“It isn’t that unusual for a party to be probing month by month, election by election, to see what works and what doesn’t,” says Hershey, professor emeritus at the Indiana University Bloomington. Now, she says, it’s a “status anxiety message” that is resonating with white voters who are seeing their worlds change with shifting demographics.

“The Republicans have discovered, especially since Donald Trump, that there is a market for this politically,” Hershey says. “The pandemic has had an impact on this, too – when people get anxious, they tend to express fear and anxiety more readily.”

A week that might have had Republicans invoking the rhetoric of Reagan instead was full of GOPers hewing to the Trump playbook.

Trump – notably impeached in 2019 on charges he threatened Ukraine for his own political advantage – openly praised Putin days before the Russian leader invaded his sovereign neighbor, calling Putin a “genius” for declaring separatist regions of Ukraine to be independent. Other GOPers made similar remarks about the former KGB agent.

“I consider him an elegantly sophisticated counterpart and one who is not reckless but has always done the math,” Trump’s former secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said in a Feb. 18 interview with the Center for the National Interest. Pompeo – a potential 2024 GOP candidate for president – also called Putin “very savvy” and “very shrewd.”That fascination – even respect – for dictators is “all about keeping and maintaining power at all costs,” says Ellen Fitzpatrick, a University of New Hampshire history professor. “His followers are echoing this. There’s a general ignorance of the history of the Cold War” among those lauding Putin for his strength and resolve, she adds.

The new GOP is also exploiting the worries of working class Americans who see a changing country, wonder what their place is in an increasingly diverse America, and fear their economic situations will suffer, Fitzgerald says.

The GOP answer for those working-class Americans wrestling with higher gas and grocery bills? Pay more taxes. A strategy document by the National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Sen. Rick Scott of Florida says that “All Americans should pay some income tax to have skin in the game.” Many low-income Americans do not make enough money to have a federal income tax liability.

At the Conservative Political Action Conference, which opened in Orlando on Thursday, the talk – and the agenda – was all about the culture wars: electing conservatives to school boards and mounting anti-“woke” campaigns, for example. One panel was titled “Are You Ready to be Called a Racist: The Courage to Run for Office.”

Little was said Thursday about the possibility of the biggest armed conflict in Europe since the Second World War. Americans should “call what’s happening on the southern border an invasion,” as opposed to fretting about “cities we can’t pronounce, places that most Americans can’t find on a map,” Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk told conference goers.
Fellow conservative activists were aligned. Candace Owens, a right-wing talk show host and author, urged her millions of Twitter followers to read the transcript of Putin’s widely derided remarks this week, when he suggested Ukraine was not a real country.

“As I’ve said for months – NATO (under direction from the United States) is violating previous agreements and expanding eastward. WE are at fault,” Owens tweeted.

J.D. Vance, a GOP candidate for Senate from Ohio, said in a recent podcast interview with former Trump White House adviser Steve Bannon: “I don’t really care what happens in Ukraine one way or another.” When retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey criticized Vance on Twitter as a “shameful person” whose comments are “those of a stooge for Russian aggression,” Vance shot back.

“Oh, by the way, how much do you stand to gain financially from a war with Russia, Barry?” Vance tweeted.

In Washington, GOP lawmakers had harsh words about the Russian invasion – and many of them were not so much for Putin as for Biden.

“This is what weakness on the world stage looks like,” the House GOP tweeted Tuesday with a photo of Biden walking away from the podium after delivering a speech announcing sanctions against Russia, and more to come if Putin indeed escalated the invasion.

“Biden’s weakness, both in general and his surrender on Nord Stream 2, undeniably facilitated Putin’s invasion of Ukraine,” Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, tweeted midday Thursday, as the White House and its allies mobilized to respond to Putin’s threat to Europe.

An exception to the blame-Biden crowd was Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, who laid into Putin for invading a sovereign nation “without justification, without provocation and without honor.”

“Putin’s impunity predictably follows our tepid response to his previous horrors in Georgia and Crimea, our naive efforts at a one-sided ‘reset,’ and the shortsightedness of ‘America First.’ The ‘80s called’ and we didn’t answer,” Romney said in a statement. The later part of his criticism appeared to be aimed at Trump and his foreign policy views.

Romney, notably, was the only Republican in 2020 to vote to convict Trump after the former president’s first impeachment. The charges were that Trump threatened to withhold military aid to a vulnerable Ukraine unless its leader helped dig up dirt on Biden’s family.