Ron DeSantis’s Dangerous Game

Ron DeSantis
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Tina Nguyen
March 25, 2022

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.) 

Other potential 2024 candidates, meanwhile, are seizing the opportunity to differentiate themselves on the Russia issue. Mike Pence appeared to take a shot at his former boss in multiple public appearances, telling a group of G.O.P. donors on March 4 that there should be no room in the party for Putin supporters; he reiterated his support for Zelensky, Ukraine, and continued economic sanctions during an appearance on Fox News last week. Senator Josh Hawley, one of several Trump mini-mes looking to take up his national-populist mantle, bluntly stated his willingness to sanction the Russian energy industry to death (“hit Vladimir Putin where it hurts”) and arm the Ukrainian military. Senator Ted Cruz has likewise criticized the Biden administration for not doing more to intimidate Putin, pointing to America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, in particular, as an indication of weakness. Former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, who spends a fair amount of time in Iowa for a man who lives in Kansas, synthesized the various G.O.P. talking point on Fox News last week in a two-front attack, blaming Biden for not providing Zelensky with more weaponry and for placing environmental concerns above U.S. energy independence. Indeed, the median Republican these days sounds more like John McCain than Tucker Carlson on foreign policy. 

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, notably, has spoken volumes about his presidential ambitions by saying practically nothing about Russia at all. That’s not entirely surprising, given that the Carlson-watching, Putin-curious Trump voter is still a meaningful G.O.P. constituency. If Trump doesn’t run for reelection, millions of voters will be looking for a candidate who is reminiscent of the former president in style or substance. And DeSantis, who consistently ranks as the leading non-Trump frontrunner for the ‘24 nomination, has always been careful to avoid alienating the MAGA base, whose issues skew aggressively domestic: culture wars, mask mandates, America First. “The energy inside the Republican Party is squarely on domestic issues,” Alex Conant, a founding partner at Firehouse Strategies and the former communications director for Marco Rubio’s 2016 run, told me. “There’s a reason Fox primetime focuses on social issues, cultural issues, and economic issues every night. For some candidates, it’s advantageous to talk about foreign policy, because it feeds into their strengths. But for most, it’s a distraction from what Republican primary voters are most likely to be excited about.”

After speaking to people in DeSantis’s circles, a few points stood out about his non-posture on Ukraine, and his ambitions, in general. First, there is a sense in Tallahassee that plenty of Floridians, especially military veterans, were fatigued and disillusioned by the Bush-Obama-Trump forever wars. And as the incumbent governor of Florida facing reelection, DeSantis has a valid excuse to steer away from a massive geopolitical pileup that does not directly impact the vast majority of his constituents. That’s the argument made by his hyperactive press secretary, Christina Pushaw, who has consistently used Twitter to attack critics who prod DeSantis for his Ukraine position. (“If he’d commented on Zelensky[‘s] address, Lib media would screech “stay in your lane!” Pushaw tweeted on Monday, in response to a Florida politics website attacking DeSantis for not weighing in.) 

Pushaw’s Twitter feed, in fact, may be the best way to understand DeSantis’s maneuvering around Ukraine. One Florida operative described it as his “howling id” and, therefore, the closest thing one will get to the Florida governor’s potential political views. Pushaw, who previously worked in Ukraine as a consultant, praised Zelensky’s decision to stay in Kyiv: “He’s made some bad decisions as president. But in this critical moment—he is showing great courage. ” At the same time, she has also engaged with the more far-right figures who have been vocal Zelensky skeptics. “I don’t know why it’s suddenly controversial to state that corruption is a problem in Ukraine,” Pushaw recently tweeted in response to Candace Owens, after the conservative pundit faced backlash for her withering comments on Ukraine and insults of Zelensky. “It doesn’t mean they deserve to be invaded.” 

Pushaw’s tactical skepticism of the cult of Zelenksy, on behalf of her boss, reflects the growing MAGA reaction to the war in Ukraine: backing away from supporting Putin himself, but instinctively opposing whatever tickles the mainstream’s fancy that day. It’s an anti-mainstream schoolyard posture not altogether different from previous stances on Robert Mueller and mask mandates. “Everything DeSantis is doing is seen through the prism of hardcore MAGA primary voters,” a G.O.P. consultant based in Florida told me. “This might probably work in Florida this year. But in a national and general election, this type of culture war I think doesn’t play as well in 2024.”

Republicans, after all, are increasingly divided on foreign policy issues between a welterweight isolationist wing that largely maps with Trump’s “Make America Great Again” movement, and a larger G.O.P. establishment that is broadly supportive of increased military aid to Ukraine. Those divisions speak to a certain aimlessness among the rank and file with Trump out of the spotlight and no single figurehead setting the party agenda. Fox News, which helped to sync G.O.P. messaging during the Trump years, has also manifested notable tensions between its hosts: in one block, Greg Gutfeld is heaping praise on Zelensky; in the next, Tucker Carlson is suggesting Zelensky is a “tyrant” like Putin.

But it also evidences a certain weakness in the MAGA agenda itself. When Trump was in office, the “America First” movement was mostly aligned in its opposition to U.S. military intervention abroad. Indeed, one of the rare schisms between Trump and MAGA world occurred when he authorized a missile strike against Syria in 2017. Trump, for all his failings and divisiveness, tapped into a very real, bipartisan disgust with America’s military misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On the Russia issue, however, the MAGA isolationist wing now finds itself holding deeply unpopular positions within the Republican Party: a Pew study released Tuesday noted that 49 percent of right-leaning voters overwhelmingly want the Biden administration to provide more aid to Ukraine, while only 9 percent think he’s providing too much aid. Some 73 percent agree that the U.S. should work closely with allies to confront Russia, and 75 percent say that America should keep troops in NATO countries. And 85 percent of Republicans agree that the U.S. should maintain strict economic sanctions on Russia. 

For the far-right, of course, this emerging consensus is evidence that something more nefarious is afoot. Carlson, the most mainstream of these fringe voices, has frequently insinuated that Western intervention in Russia’s affairs is part of some larger, shadowy agenda—to hide evidence of secret bioweapons labs, say, or to push Biden’s green energy policies. Earlier this week, former Trump advisor Gen. Michael Flynn posted a message on Telegram claiming that “Putin already won.” Fox Nation host Lara Logan told Real America’s Voice that Zelensky is connected to the occult. Some of these fringe views have also taken hold inside Congress. Former QAnon advocate Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene recently alleged that Zelensky is torturing Ukrainian citizens (while adding that she is also “strongly opposed to Putin’s invasion & Russia’s war in Ukraine”). Rep. Madison Cawthorn has gone further, calling Zelensky a “thug… pushing woke ideologies.”

But the far right, which was often on the bleeding edge of public opinion during the Trump years, appears to have chosen the wrong side in this particular war. Day after day, the headlines—both on CNN and on Fox News—have been filled with gruesome evidence of Russian atrocities. Senator Ernst went out of her way to rebuke Cawthorn on the Senate floor, echoing condemnations from other Republican leaders. As such, it’s placed the populist wing of the party in an awkward position that it hasn’t occupied since its inception: on the losing side of public opinion, handcuffed to an autocrat whose army is committing war crimes even as its supposedly mighty army is bogged down, running out of food and fuel, in Ukraine.

The midterm elections are still lightyears away, and the course of the Ukraine conflict may change profoundly over the next several months. A full-scale war between Russia and NATO, for instance, would surely be seen as evidence of some isolationists’ foresight (to say nothing of nuclear war). Either way, the G.O.P. has telegraphed how they plan to attack Biden for not preventing the invasion, for mishandling the conflict, for failing to keep a lid on rising food and energy prices, and so on. But the fate of the G.O.P.’s own warring factions is in flux. Should Ukraine and the NATO alliance successfully contain Putin, without any loss of American life, it’s possible that a more hawkish instinct will come to the fore, or at least reclaim some moral high ground, within the party. (Aiding a democratic ally to fend off an invading autocrat is the apex of neoconservative fantasy.) But should Putin’s war expand further into Europe—risking, as Trump used to say about Afghanistan, America’s “blood and treasure”—the MAGA-isolationist axis might come back into vogue. 

DeSantis, meanwhile, can afford to hedge his bets before wading into another intra-party squabble. “I think it makes sense for Republican governors who aren’t running for president yet to not be first in line to talk about foreign policy,” Conant said, describing DeSantis’s reticence as a “smart strategy” at the moment. “These are early days for this foreign policy crisis,” he continued. “And how this plays out in the midterms, let alone 2024, is anyone’s guess. God willing, this is all resolved in the next few weeks and it’s an afterthought in 2024.”