The G.O.P.’s New Trump-Putin Headache

CPAC 2022 in Orlando
Photo by Paul Hennessy/Anadolu
Tina Nguyen
March 7, 2022

Last Friday, I flew down to Florida for an event I hadn’t attended since 2020: the Conservative Political Action Conference, the flag-waving, vocal cord-shredding G.O.P. cattle call in which Republican activists gather annually to cheer, boo, and coalesce around whichever policies and party leaders are currently in vogue. CPAC hadn’t initially been on my weekend calendar, but Vladimir Putin’s violent invasion of Ukraine compelled me to book the first available flight to Orlando. 

Republicans, after all, have undergone several recent whiplash-inducing evolutions in their rhetorical posture toward Russia, from Strangelovian hawkishness to paleocon whataboutism and, in the case of Donald Trump, almost lusty Russophilia. So I was fascinated to discover, upon arriving at CPAC, that the conservative base appeared to have pivoted once again. Just a week earlier, Trump had been recorded telling a group of G.O.P. donors that Putin’s tactics in Ukraine were “genius.” But on the ground at the Hyatt Regency Orlando, several keynote speakers appeared practically incandescent on behalf of Ukraine, deeply and profoundly affected by the unjustifiably vicious nature of the Russian invasion. Sebastian Gorka, one of Trump’s first White House aides, received rapturous applause after bellowing his hope that the “Russian invaders bleed and die!” Former National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien and radio show host Mark Levin were similarly apoplectic, with Levin’s pro-Ukraine stance garnering standing ovations. Contrast that with Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of the most dovish MAGA celebrities, who received a muted response when he asked the audience, “Why should we care about Ukraine?” 

It’s notable, of course, that neither Gorka, O’Brien, or Levin are running for office. Potential presidential contenders including Ron DeSantis and Ted Cruz didn’t mention Ukraine in their speeches. There are still deep divisions within the conservative base: at one point, I ran into a young activist screaming at a pro-Ukraine attendee to “suck NATO’s dick,” insisting the country was overrun by Nazis; a few miles away, Marjorie Taylor Greene spoke at a competing event organized by a white nationalist who led the crowd in chants of “Putin! Putin!” But public surveys suggests those pro-Russia voices constitute a minority on the right: A Quinnipiac poll taken three days into the invasion revealed overwhelming Republican sentiment against Putin (79 percent unfavorable) and against his invasion (91 percent); nearly 69 percent said the U.S. should commit troops if Putin invades a NATO country.

Part of this, I think, has to do with the way that heroic displays of Ukrainian resistance have saturated social media in recent weeks, pinging every pleasure center of the 2A-infatuated Republican brain. For conservatives raised on Revolutionary-era catchphrases and the Battle of the Alamo, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s underdog story has proved irresistible: His viral quip about needing “ammo, not a ride,” echoes the Texan slogan “Come and Take It,” and instantly iconic phrases like “Russian warship, go fuck yourself” have been repurposed on Gadsden flags

On an instinctual level, it’s not hard to understand why this outpouring of media is resonating more deeply with the base than isolationist Tucker Carlson’s nightly monologuing. For armchair enthusiasts, videos of citizens making Molotovs in the street, learning how to use AK-47s, and pulling abandoned tanks out of fields with John Deere tractors is pure Red Dawn fantasy come to life. (I personally have become obsessed with Military Twitter, full of defense industry experts and their followers avidly discussing the types of tanks and trucks captured by the Ukrainians.) Even Carlson, a longtime apologist for Russia’s geopolitical interests, who said in 2019 that he took Putin’s side in the Donbas conflict (“Why should I care?”), walked back his statement this week and admitted he’d been wrong about Putin’s intentions. “The only thing more embarrassing than being wrong in your estimates is pretending that you weren’t,” he said last Thursday, while a split-screen on Fox showed live footage of Russian forces shelling a nuclear power plant. Trump, who had complimented Putin for his “savvy” in dismembering Ukraine, also changed his tune last week, describing the invasion as a “holocaust” of the Ukrainian people. (Within days, he had offered up his own fantastical solutions to resolving the war, including painting the Chinese flag on F-22s, bombing “the shit out of Russia,” and turning the two superpowers against each other—a proposal that, for obvious reasons, would not work.)

The surge of pro-Ukraine sentiment raises a difficult question for the right: Can they simultaneously oppose Putin, support Trump, and blame Biden, all at the same time? So far, Republicans like Senator Tom Cotton have resolved these tensions by harping on Democratic environmental policies that left the U.S. more exposed to exogenous energy shocks (true enough) and noting that Putin didn’t invade Ukraine while Trump is in office (true but complicated). It also raises a potentially uncomfortable question for Trump and his loyalists, who once again finds himself at odds with a meaningful faction of Republican voters on a heart-wrenching drama that is likely to dominate news coverage for at least the next several weeks, if not months or years. Will he continue to defend his “friendship” with Putin amid fast-shifting public opinion?

Never underestimate the party’s capacity for compartmentalization—it’s a big tent, after all—but I wouldn’t be surprised if current events prompt some uncomfortable cognitive dissonance, as well as new and creative attempts to flip the script. I’m also closely watching Russian government efforts to win over right-wing sympathizers by adapting American culture war jargon. Sergei Naryshkin, head of Russian foreign intelligence, recently described Western sanctions as an attempt to “cancel” Russia, “as they now say in ‘tolerant’ liberal-fascist circles.” So far, the most receptive audience for these talking points appears to be on the far right fringe, where diehard QAnon activists and white nationalists reside. It’s hard to claim you’re being deplatformed by economic sanctions when you’re committing war crimes. 

Still, I expect more sophisticated versions of anti-Ukraine pablum to circulate within the populist right as the war grinds on. The Russian state-controlled broadcaster RT, for instance, recently moved its operations to the Peter Thiel-backed YouTube alternative Rumble after being “deplatformed” from most major online platforms; Andrew Torba has openly welcomed RT onto his Nazi-friendly social media platform Gab; and right wing pundit Candace Owens recently suggested that the “corrupt Zelensky [allowed] his country to be sold.” Others have attempted to draw connections between Ukrainian figures and the Azov Battalion, an actual neo-Nazi battallion in the National Guard of Ukraine, or pointed to reports that Zelensky and his partners previously made use of offshore accounts to buy property in London—in that way, they suggest, how is he any different than the ex-Soviet oligarchs that Zelensky was elected to fight? When information warfare fails, there’s always whataboutism.

Truth Social Stumbles

While I was maneuvering through crowds of drunken activists at the Headwaters Lounge outside CPAC, I got my first real-life glimpse of Truth Social, Trump’s new social media platform, on the phones of several MAGA influencers who’d been allowed to beta-test the app. I’m still number 1,147,370th on the waiting list, so I was excited to see what all the fuss was about. 

First, apart from its purple-and-blue color theme, it really does look like Twitter—sure, tweets are known as “truths,” and retweets are “retruths,” but likes, follower counts, and DMs remain the same. It’s basically the Kirkland-branded copy of the Jack Dorsey original. The most remarkable similarity between the Truth Social and Twitter apps, however, is the fact that Donald Trump is not active on either one. Despite his position as the chairman of Trump Media and Technology Group—the company behind Truth Social—and serving as face of the app, Trump himself has not posted anything on the platform since it soft launched two weeks ago, when he released a cryptic statement saying “your favorite president will see you soon.” 

Presumably Trump will resume his frenetic posting schedule once the site launches in full, but this strikes me as a bad sign both for TMTG and its implied multi-billion dollar valuation. Truth Social’s official launch has already been delayed until the end of March, suggesting that C.E.O. Devin Nunes’ team is struggling to meet deadlines. Could Trump be worried about hyping a product that turns out to be amateurish? Is he waiting until his tweets—sorry, his “truths”—land with maximal buzz-generating impact? (Though he’s been sending a blizzard of statements out through his PAC every day, Trump has not posted anything to the site since early February.) Or is it possible that he’s already bored with the business, and simply biding his time before he can cash out?

Whatever the case may be, every day that Truth Social fails to launch presents an opportunity to one of the many rival “free-speech” social media platforms that are competing for conservative users. GETTR, for instance, was a major CPAC sponsor and hosted a private afterparty. (Truth Social was noticeably absent from what should have been a lucrative brand awareness opportunity.) Parler just closed on a $22 million fundraising round in January, months after TMTG was announced, and boasts Melania Trump as a frequent user; an odd celebrity endorsement. Meanwhile, Gab has been posting frequent updates taunting Truth Social’s sluggish launch, to the cackling glee of its hardline, ethno-nationalist user base. It’s quite possible that, should Truth Social continue to stumble, Trump might end up being a laggard in his own MAGA social media world. 

The D.C. Trucker Protest That Wasn’t

Back in Washington, D.C., I’ve been closely monitoring the “People’s Convoy,” a group of some 2,000 truckers and other vehicles currently circling the city in an attempt to emulate the anti-Covid vaccine protests that shut down Ottawa last month. The convoy, a mixture of Trump fans, QAnon adherents, MAGA grifters and more run-of-the-mill conservatives, made their first two laps around the Beltway on Sunday, and are taking another pass today, ostensibly in an effort to raise awareness for the cause, if not to shut down Washington, itself. While the trucker convoys in Canada were highly disruptive—and were ultimately dispersed with the aid of controversial “emergency powers” invoked by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—the cover band version in the U.S. quickly lowered expectations for the scale of their own protest. Rather than drive into the city, risking a swift crackdown, the “People’s Convoy” has taken to leisurely patrols of the already traffic-congested, soul-crushing, 64-mile highway encircling the Washington metropolitan area, at the minimum legal speed limit. (Given the current price of gas, I shudder to think of how much it costs to drive an 18-wheeler twice around the Beltway for three days in a row.) 

There were a number of reasons that contributed to the decision not to enter the nation’s capital. First, security had been ramped up around D.C. to prevent another Ottawa situation. Some reporters indicated that the protest had been derailed by disorganization and confusion over their objective—the mask and vaccine mandates the group is ostensibly protesting have already been dropped in most places across the country. Certainly there’s been some chaos inside the convoy’s homebase in Hagerstown, Maryland, with vehicles gridlocked, people getting into fights with outsiders, and one person getting hit by a car. Perhaps most importantly, a number of rally participants have stated their acute post-Jan. 6 fear that the group had been infiltrated by the F.B.I. and that entering D.C. would be a “set up,” exposing them to arrest and criminal penalties. I heard similar sentiments before and after the scuppered QAnon march on Washington last year, when Trump was supposed to really be inaugurated; and again when Trump supporters held back from attending a much-ballyhooed “Justice for J6” rally outside the Capitol. “They are waiting for us to show up, and it’s a trap,” one of the trucker convoy’s top organizers, Brian Brase, said during a livestream, a sentiment echoed by other founders. 

Could this mark some sort of turning point for the fringe of the MAGA movement? On the one hand, it suggests that Trump’s most conspiracy-minded foot soldiers, post-Jan. 6, still lack the organizational aptitude to build a real protest movement. Paranoia and incoherence, which are defining features of the QAnon group in particular, are largely antithetical to effective mass politics. Less aggressive tactics, and the carnival atmosphere in Hagerstown, might actually help these groups to attract new members, but their inchoate anti-government rage is still roiling: While Brase was telling his people not to enter the district, nearly half the group vehemently disagreed. “Save [D.C.] for last,” one yelled at him.