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.