State Department Photo by Ron Przysucha/ Public Domain

From the Center

For years, there has been a debate raging in political circles about whether Donald Trump is a symptom or a cause of the Republican Party’s turn toward a conservative brand of working-class populism. It’s beginning to look like the answer may be both – and that Trump-ism is not an aberration for the GOP, but rather an indicator of the party’s long-term trajectory.

Republicans have been an aggressively internationalist party for decades, moving gradually from its historic wariness of global engagement after Pearl Harbor, the early years of the Cold War, and the presidencies of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and both George Bushes. But the second Iraq war exposed a growing divide between the party establishment’s focus on national security and defense policy, juxtaposed against a heightened suspicion regarding overseas involvement among grassroots activists and voters.

Trump either recognized or intuited this ideological disconnect, and just as he has done on several economic and domestic policy matters, he successfully exploited the schism to define a much different message from the traditional candidates who comprised the rest of the 2016 primary field. Faced with an anti-trade, anti-immigrant, pro-entitlements, isolationist opponent, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and the rest never knew what hit them.

Many had expected Trump’s impact on Republican policy to diminish with time. But not only has Trump himself remained the party’s most prominent voice, but it’s clear that his influence has spread to the next generation of conservative officeholders. We saw some evidence of this dynamic during the fight over Kevin McCarthy’s speakership in January, and since then it has become even more apparent that his imprint on the GOP’s issue priorities is getting stronger rather than weaker.

This trend became even more apparent last week when Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Trump’s strongest challenger for the GOP nomination, articulated his position on the role for the U.S. in Ukraine. In response to a questionnaire circulated by Fox News channel host Tucker Carlson, DeSantis made it clear that defending Ukraine against Russia’s invasion is not a vital U.S. interest and referred to the war there as a “territorial dispute.”

The fact that DeSantis chose to stake out such important new policy ground on Carlson’s program speaks to the cultural changes that have taken place among conservatives in the Trump era, but the substance of his position and his dismissive drew the most attention. Several leading Republican Senators strongly criticized DeSantis, as did some of his potential presidential opponents, all staking out more conventional GOP ground by asserting the necessity of preventing Russia from further aggression and signaling to China that the U.S. would not stand for similar action against Taiwan.

But even while the Republican establishment pushed back against DeSantis, public opinion polling shows that Republican voters are almost evenly split on the question of whether the U.S. should continue to provide military aid. It seems likely that those numbers will continue to shrink as the war continues with no apparent outcome in sight.

Some of this is probably just a matter of knee-jerk partisanship. The Biden Administration has made Ukraine a top priority, so it’s no more surprising that so many Republicans are reflexively objecting to U.S. involvement than seeing large numbers of progressive Democrats lining up in support.

But it’s much more than that. After World War I, Republicans quickly capitalized on Americans’ post-war weariness and established themselves as the nation’s loudest objectors to further overseas involvement. It took the December 7 Japanese attack on Hawaii to overcome GOP opposition to entering the war. It took Dwight Eisenhower, the military leader of the Allies’ victory, to defeat isolationist Robert Taft for the party’s presidential nomination and define Republican global agenda in the early years of the Cold War. And it took Reagan’s “peace through strength” mantra to solidify conservative commitment to an outward-facing foreign policy presence.

Pat Buchanan tapped into a re-emerging populist resentment toward international involvement in the 1990s, but the 9/11 terrorist attacks delayed a gradual attitudinal shift among grassroots conservatives away from a Cold War mentality toward a more pronounced stay-at-home sentiment. Now, the two GOP front-runners are confidently espousing an America First message that reflects their party’s potential return to an earlier time in its history.

Mitch McConnell, Nikki Haley, Mike Pence and many other Republican leaders still represent a Reagan-esque philosophy regarding the necessary role that the United States plays on a world stage. But a growing number of their conservative compatriots now appear to be willing to forfeit one for the Gipper.

Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Managing Editor Henry A. Brechter (Center bias).

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