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.

The immovable Republican Party and ‘ink-blot politics’

Written by Domenico Montanero and published by NPR

Photo by Anne Moneymaker/ Getty Images

Supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. It was an effort to stop the procedural certification of a presidential election that Joe Biden won and Trump lost. The mob was egged on by conspiracies and Trump’s lies about that 2020 election.

Those are facts. One year later, and a day after the commemoration on Capitol Hill of that attack, those facts should be indisputable.

And yet millions on the right do dispute them. They’ve been convinced by Trump, reinforced by right-wing media and enabled by Republican elected officials that his meritless lies about a stolen election are somehow true.

They are not. The independent judiciary, with many judges who were appointed by Republicans and Trump himself, as well as audits in state after state, have rejected Trump’s false claims.


President Biden blasts Trump for ‘spreading a web of lies’ in a Jan. 6 speech

How did this happen? A couple of reasons:

First, there’s a problem with how Americans are consuming information

The media landscape is fractured. Confirmation bias is real — if people believe something, there’s likely a link on social media that shows them why they’re right (even when they aren’t).

There’s fertile ground for that landscape, as trust in the media has declined over the last few decades. It hit 32% just before the 2016 election, the lowest ever recorded by Gallup. (As of 2021, it was a similar 36%.)Article continues after sponsor message

The decline in mass media coincides with the advent of Fox News, the conservative cable channel. Fox was created in 1996, about when Gallup found a majority of Americans said they had trust in the media.

Now, there are even more — and even more extreme — voices and outlets on the right, rife with misinformation and disinformation, that are gaining traction.

An NPR/Ipsos poll released this week showed that a majority — 54% — whose primary source of news is Fox News or conservative media believe falsely that there was major voting fraud in the 2020 election.

Second, Republican elected officials have enabled Trump’s lies

When Trump first took office and was still allowed on Twitter, he would write lots of controversial things.

When Republicans in Congress were asked about them, the answer routinely was along the lines of, “I didn’t read the tweet.”

It became something of a joke. Actually, Paul Ryan, who was House speaker at the start of the Trump administration, made the joke himself.

“Every morning, I wake up in my office and scroll Twitter to see which tweets I will have to pretend that I didn’t see later,” Ryan said in October 2017 at the annual Al Smith Dinner, which includes a political roast.

Six months later, Ryan announced he would not run for reelection.

Ryan and plenty of other Republicans had, during the 2016 presidential campaign, criticized Trump’s views and behavior. But when he won, almost all GOP officials swallowed their criticism.

As Trump went largely unchallenged from his party, he demanded fealty from Republicans, they gave it to him, and his hold on the base grew.

So the path was paved early for Trump’s lies — as outlandish and baseless as they are — to speed down the road to rank-and-file Republicans.

A similar trend has emerged this past year, since Jan. 6, as Republicans have largely avoided criticizing Trump’s role and response to the insurrection.

“In many ways, except for a number of people who’ve emerged as true leaders, like [Rep.] Liz Cheney [R-Wyo.], against their party interest, a lot of this is ink-blot politics,” said Kevin Madden, a GOP strategist and former senior adviser on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. “You see what you want to see on Jan. 6 based on your already-defined political persuasion.”

Supporters take part in a vigil outside a Washington, D.C., detention facility to protest the treatment of prisoners charged in connection with the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.Samuel Corum/Getty Images

McCarthy and McConnell

House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy didn’t mince words in his criticism of Trump days after the Jan. 6 insurrection.

“The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters,” McCarthy said plainly, a week after the siege. He had even called Trump on the day of the riot telling him to call off the insurrection.

But instead of keeping up the criticism and casting Trump aside, less than two weeks later, McCarthy flew down to Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Florida residence, and made amends. He released a statement — and now-famous photo — of the two of them, apparently having reconciled.

McCarthy wants to be the next House speaker — and Republicans are favored to take back the House after the 2022 midterm elections.

In May, McCarthy came out against a bipartisan, 9/11-style commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack. This week, in a letter to his GOP conference, McCarthy derided the “actions of that day” and said the “Capitol should never be compromised and those who broke the law deserve to face legal repercussions and full accountability.”

But there was no mention of Trump and his responsibility. Instead, McCarthy accused Democrats of using Jan. 6 as a “partisan political weapon to further divide our country” and pivoted to criticizing Democrats for being “no closer to answering the central question of how the Capitol was left so unprepared and what must be done to ensure it never happens again.”

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy watch as a military honor guard carries the flag-draped casket of former Sen. Bob Dole from the U.S. Capitol on Dec. 10, 2021.Greg Nash/AP

McCarthy is just one example. Two weeks after the Jan. 6 attack, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell went right after Trump.

And though McConnell in some instances has kept up his criticism of Trump, drawing attacks from the former president, McConnell’s statement Thursday on the Jan. 6 anniversary mentioned nothing about Trump. Instead, he called Jan. 6 a “dark day,” a “disgraceful scene” — and also criticized Democrats.

“[I]t has been stunning to see some Washington Democrats try to exploit this anniversary to advance partisan policy goals,” he said.

Trump going unchallenged

For Madden, Trump has this hold on the party base because Republican leaders aren’t challenging him en masse.

“I think it’s because he’s directly communicating with the base and is really the only one,” Madden said. “Everyone else is reacting to the Trump factor. … Every force like Trump, where you to try and counter it, you’d have to do so relentlessly. Name one person who’s done that.”

Madden rattled off Republicans who might want to run for president in 2024, people like former Trump Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.

“No one’s taken him on directly,” Madden said. “They’ve all been reactionary, and they’ve all ceded the rostrum to him.”

Now, multiple surveys show Americans are sharply divided by party about what happened on Jan. 6.

For example, a December NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found 9-in-10 Democrats described what happened that day as an insurrection and threat to democracy. Just 10% of Republicans did.

A recent YouGov survey conducted for Bright Line Watch showed that only a quarter of Republicans said they believe Biden is the rightful winner of the 2020 election.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney walks with his daughter Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., vice chair of the House panel investigating the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection, in the Rotunda at the Capitol on Thursday.Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

During the events commemorating the attack on the Capitol, barely any Republicans showed up. The only ones were Cheney and her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney.

“I’m deeply disappointed we don’t have better leadership in the Republican Party to restore the Constitution,” the elder Cheney said.

Let’s just pause for a moment. That’s Dick Cheney saying this.

On Thursday night, members of Congress gathered on the steps of the U.S. Capitol for a candlelight vigil to remember what happened a year ago.

But it was missing all those Republicans.

Imagine if all 535 members of Congress had been there and the message it would have sent about democracy’s resilience.