The event was the “Up From Chaos” conference, a self-described “emergency” meeting organized by the Trumpian wing of the GOP to grapple with the political fallout from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The young men, almost all of them soberly dressed in dark suits, and women, almost uniformly wearing dresses, listened attentively as one speaker after another warned about the perils of intervention for their very own lives. A return to the thinking that led to Iraq and Afghanistan could result in nothing less than World War III over Ukraine, they were warned.
And so, as Putin’s deadly and unprovoked assault drags on, the GOP is also going to war — against itself. As so often, the battle revolves around the America First doctrine first espoused by former President Donald Trump in April 2016, during the Republican primaries, at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel, where he promised that he would perform a U-turn in American foreign policy by shunning military intervention abroad.
That promise never quite bore out. It was the Democratic President Joe Biden, not Trump, who ended up pulling American troops from Afghanistan. Throughout his erratic and volatile presidency, Trump never really gained control of his own national security advisers, hawkish thinkers such as H.R. McMaster and John Bolton who managed, from the perspective of Trump loyalists, to subvert his nationalist foreign policy.
But Trump did manage to shift conservative thinking about Putin himself, a powerful adversary of the U.S. who wields power with an autocratic strength that Trump and his followers openly admire. Even the invasion of Ukraine has not prompted Trump to alter his fundamentally adoring view of the Russian leader. The most that Trump would concede is that he was “surprised” Putin had invaded. Then Trump reverted to type, trying once more to game the Ukraine crisis (as he did in 2019 during a phone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that led to his first impeachment) for his own personal benefit by imploring Putin, during an interview this week on Real America’s Voice network, to release information about Hunter Biden’s nefarious activities.
Though Trump’s view of Putin may be little changed, the Russian invasion has broken open the uneasy marriage between the followers of Trump, who abhor foreign entanglements, and the hawks of the Republican Party, who have rarely seen a war they didn’t want to enter. After the debacle in Iraq, the neoconservatives who champion a crusading foreign policy based on democracy promotion and regime change came into bad odor. But almost overnight, the hawks are mounting a comeback as a new foreign policy consensus forms in Washington around bolstering the alliance with NATO and standing up to Russian aggression.
“The neocons haven’t been able to put points on the board for years,” says Melinda Haring, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. “With Ukraine, they’re back.”
Maybe so, but nothing provided a better window into the ideological ferment of the GOP — and the staying power of the Trump wing of the party — than the daylong conference at the Marriott Hotel. Throughout, it became clear that the war on Ukraine is not prompting the Trump-aligned right to back down. Quite the contrary.
As William Ruger, a Trump nominee to become ambassador to Afghanistan and the president of the American Institute for Economic Research, told me, “The neocons seem strangely buoyed by the current crisis, and love the Manichaean rhetoric coming out of the White House about this being a fight between democracy and authoritarianism. But the forces of realism and restraint are not going to back down from the fight. Unlike twenty years ago, the American public will not swallow neocon bromides.”
The participants generally described themselves as “realists” and “restrainers,” and the meeting featured what amounted to realist royalty — politicians and thinkers, ranging from GOP Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Reps. Thomas Massie (Ky.), Dan Bishop (N.C.) and Matt Rosendale (Mont.) to Michael Anton, Sohrab Ahmari, Mollie Z. Hemingway, and, of course, Vance. It was organized by the American Conservative magazine and American Moment, whose self-described mission is to “identify, educate, and credential young Americans who will implement public policy that supports strong families, a sovereign nation, and prosperity for all,” and which features Vance on its board of advisers. Their explicit aim is to create a young counter-establishment to the hawkish national security network that has flourished in Washington over the past several decades, one that could funnel ideologically reliable appointees into a future Trump, DeSantis, Cruz or Hawley administration.
It was notable that at the conference, speaker after speaker targeted the GOP hawks more often than they spoke about Ukraine itself. Indeed, Kyiv itself was essentially MIA — serving more as a proxy for a dispute about America nationhood than about the country’s own fate as it’s mercilessly pummeled by Putin. The basic argument, outlined in a manifesto titled “Away From the Abyss” appearing in the new Compact magazine, is that aiding Ukraine is tantamount to hurting Ukraine. In resisting deescalation, the U.S. and its allies, so the thinking goes, run the risk of encouraging hapless Ukrainians to battle to the last man, all in the hopes of pursuing a Western-led regime change policy toward Moscow that might well trigger a global cataclysm.
Russ Vought, the president of the Center for Renewing America and the director of the Office of Management and Budget under Trump, for example, complained about the “bombardment of the neocon moment that we are in.” For Vought, Ukraine seemed to be a sideshow. The real question, he said, is, “Why haven’t we brought our troops home from Europe? These are the questions that leaders should be considering.” In 2019, Trump, he claimed, was concerned about how Ukraine would dispose of American military aid and sensibly ordered a temporary suspension. But an “essentially imperialist” network of foreign policy elites that is oriented towards conformity “freaked out” and it “led to stark consequences for the president” — a polite term for impeachment. In the future, Vought said, “it will take a president that has the confidence to reject the experts and expose them.”
Then there was Joe Kent. Kent is a 41-year-old former Green Beret running for Congress against Washington Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler — one of 10 House Republicans to vote to impeach Trump in 2021 over the Jan. 6 insurrection. By contrast, Kent, who has received Trump’s endorsement and received financial support from Peter Thiel and Stephen Wynn, spoke at the “Justice for J6” rally in September in Washington, where he declared, “It’s banana republic stuff when political prisoners are arrested and denied due process.” He says that he is running against “the establishment” and frequently appears on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show and Steve Bannon’s “War Room” podcast. Addressing the conference via video, Kent explained, “Our political establishment is dead set on driving us into a catastrophic conflict with Russia.” More lethal aid to Kyiv and cyberattacks on Russia are a path to war. “We must be pragmatic,” he said. His pragmatism appears to consist of granting Putin what he covets: “Putin has laid out what he wants in Ukraine — a decent starting point,” and his demands for control over Donetsk and Luhansk are “very reasonable.” Like Vought, he singled out the neocons for blame. “The neocons on the right,” he stated, are “power drunk, bloodthirsty and cannot be trusted. Biden is sleepwalking to war.”
Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) echoed Kent’s views about Ukraine. The real invasion, he suggested, wasn’t taking place in Ukraine but on America’s southern border. He explained that he opposed bills targeting Russia in Congress because “I could not support that at the exact same time we are seeing an invasion take place on our own southern border.” While “life in the Ukraine is sad and tragic,” America should be more concerned about the 100,000 American citizens who died of drug overdoses — “just as dead from an invasion.” Nor was he particularly impressed by Biden’s efforts to send aid to Ukraine, declaring, “I have major concerns about a compromised president of the United States who is sending incredible support to a less-than-forthright president of the Ukraine.” He added, “We have war hawks all over the place.”
Sen. Rand Paul, however, took a more measured tack. He observed that anti-interventionist Republicans have made real inroads into debates in Washington. Noting at the outset that “there’s a few who have shown sympathy for Russians” — did he mean Trump? — Paul was careful to note, “I have no sympathy” for the invasion of Ukraine. “Even the leaders of the neocons — we won’t mention their names, Lindsey Graham — aren’t calling for [American] troops” in Ukraine. But worries about Republican recidivism when it comes to interventionism continued to percolate at the meeting. Rep. Dan Bishop announced that “Trump deserves credit for breaking the neocon Republican orthodoxy” and that it was vital to glean lessons of “style and substance from Trump. We must break away from groupthink.”
Similarly, a panel featuring Michael Anton, a former Trump administration official and author of the controversial “Flight 93 Election” essay in the Claremont Review of Books, and Sohrab Ahmari, a former columnist for the New York Post and an editor at Compact magazine, mused about the enduring influence of the national security hawks.
The more traditional, Reaganite wing of the Republican Party sees the Ukraine crisis as a fairly straightforward issue: Putin’s invasion threatens the global order; the U.S. has a moral obligation to help enforce the rules and no little self-interest in preventing that order from breaking down. Ahmari framed it far differently. “What’s alarming is Ukraine,” and how quickly the media took its side. The “mimetic tactics” that “you remember from the coronavirus,” Black Lives Matter and now Ukraine, he said, suggest that “somehow the interventionists have learned to adapt or modify their mind control strategies.” For his part, Anton jocularly inquired whether there might be an “Omicron variant of neoconservatism.”
When it came to the actual events in Russia and Ukraine, the panelists grappled with the issue more uneasily. Some castigated the media for demonizing anyone who had the audacity to suggest that America should not rush to war. Lee Smith, who writes for Real Clear Investigations and Tablet, defended conservative commentator Candace Owens, who, among other things, blamed America for the war in Ukraine. According to Smith, the true implication of the brouhaha stirred up by Owens’ remarks is that “Donald Trump supporters are disloyal. American voters, at least half the country, are disloyal.” This “rolls over” into Jan. 6, he added. “Anyone who didn’t vote for Biden” ends up being unfairly branded as “an insurrectionist or a domestic terrorist.”
“Ukraine is a corrupt country. Come and get me,” quipped Helen Andrews, a senior editor at the American Conservative.
Several of the panelists either avoided talking about Putin or largely elided the brutality of his attempted subjugation of an entire people. But more than a few appear to harbor a conciliatory view of Putin’s prowess that was first enunciated by Patrick J. Buchanan eight years ago in a column in the American Conservative. Buchanan asked, “Is Vladimir Putin a paleoconservative? In the culture war for mankind’s future, is he one of us?” The question was pretty much rhetorical. Buchanan’s argument was that America, not Russia, was the bad guy in the world. According to Buchanan, “President Reagan once called the old Soviet Empire ‘the focus of evil in the modern world.’ President Putin is implying that Barack Obama’s America may deserve the title in the 21st century. Nor is he without an argument when we reflect on America’s embrace of abortion on demand, homosexual marriage, pornography, promiscuity, and the whole panoply of Hollywood values.”
At the conference, I asked Scott McConnell, a lapsed neocon who co-founded The American Conservative with Buchanan and Taki Theodoracopulos in 2002 to protest the Bush administration’s march to war in Iraq, why a host of conservatives shifted from the Reagan-era stance of supporting freedom abroad to backing Putin and other far-right populists like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán.
He explained, “Putin and Orbán are not communists. They are classic authoritarian autocrats. There is far more freedom in Hungary than there was thirty or fifty years ago.”
It’s a point of view that is unlikely to disappear any time soon on the “America First” right — and that helps guarantee that the Marriott conference was but a fresh skirmish in a longer battle inside the GOP itself.