Earlier this month, during my trip to the annual CPAC cattle call in Orlando, it was becoming clear that the Republican Party was having a minor, but meaningful, identity crisis over Russia’s war in Ukraine. For more than four years, before and during Donald Trump’s presidency, Russia presented itself to the G.O.P. as an unlikely political ally, and the G.O.P. occasionally embraced Russia in return. Now, of course, things are more complicated.
With Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Europe, the old party of Reagan has largely returned to its Cold War geopolitical posture. Last Wednesday, Republican members of Congress could be seen with tears in their eyes as they exited a Joint Session call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. “It makes me want to throw on my uniform and go help,” said Senator Joni Ernst, a combat veteran who visited Soviet-era Ukraine in 1989. “There’s just a lot more that we can be doing and I think we should be doing.” A recent poll from NPR/Ipsos reflects the same views within the Republican electorate: 60 percent of Republicans view Joe Biden’s response as being “too cautious,” and 49 percent think the U.S. could be “doing more” to support Ukraine, compared to 7 percent who think Biden should deescalate.
It’s a testament to this fluid environment that Trump, who called Putin a “genius” in February for his “savvy” invasion of Ukraine, firmly pivoted to describing the war as a “holocaust” just one week later. (Though Trump apparently has problems shaking off his former regard for Putin’s intelligence: “I thought he was negotiating when he sent troops to the border,” Trump offered in an interview with the Washington Examiner last week, adding that he was “surprised” that Putin hadn’t been bluffing.)