Trump and Putin Trump and Putin, Photo: Presidential Press and Information Office / cropped from original / licensed under CC BY 4.0, linked at bottom of article

The isolationist pro-Putin politics of the Republican hard right is clashing with an American establishment committed to imperial hegemony, writes John Clarke

The invasion of Ukraine, along with the orchestrated wave of Russophobia that has accompanied it, have brought out curious tensions within the US political establishment and, in particular, inside the ranks of the Republicans. To say the least, things have not been going well for the ‘America First’ wing of the party, with which Donald Trump has been associated. The days when the former president could threaten to pull out of Nato seem to be rather at odds with US priorities at the moment.  Indeed, the rhetoric of isolationism is striking a discordant note in the immediate context.

Even as recently as last month, J.D. Vance, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Ohio, still felt able to advance a position of ‘nativist populism,’ deploring the idea of US troop involvement and stating baldly that, “I gotta be honest with you, I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine.” He has now been forced to sing a different tune.

Hard right Fox News host and ‘Trumpist standard-bearer,’ Tucker Carlson, is also having his share of difficulties in this situation. As is well known, Carlson hasn’t simply advanced the America First approach but has actually gone over to expressing a high degree of sympathy for Putin and his authoritarian regime. “Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him?” he asked his viewers.

Carlson has even gone so far as to promote claims of ‘secret American biological warfare labs in Ukraine,’ leading Illinois Republican, Adam Kinzinger, an air force veteran to declare, “His insistence that the west was provoking war with Putin, his spreading lies about biolabs, and his continued spewing of conspiracy theories are nothing but complete evil.

Last month, Trump himself was ready to offer a level of support for Putin over the situation in Ukraine, with a suitably unhinged and profoundly reactionary twist. Trump referred to the deployment at that time of Russian troops in Luhansk and Donetsk as ‘genius’ and suggested that ‘we could use that on our southern border,’ which can ‘be interpreted only as sending American troops into Mexico.’

It is also true that this sympathetic attitude to Putin on the part of the Republican right is matched by elements outside the party on the far right. Earlier this month, the America First Political Action Conference (AFPAC), a ‘white nationalist’ gathering, registered its strong support for Putin. Significantly, two Republican members of Congress were in attendance. There was a very clear response to the question from the stage, “Can we get a round of applause for Russia?” ‘Amid a roar of applause for the Russian president, just days after he invaded Ukraine many attendees responded by shouting: “Putin! Putin!

‘America First’ flounders

This curious level of right wing admiration in the US for Putin and his attack on Ukraine notwithstanding, there is no doubt that the needs of the agenda of global rivalry are predominant at this time and this is having a huge impact on the Republican Party. Certainly the polls are showing overwhelming majorities of both Democratic and Republican supporters supporting stronger action (though not military confrontation) with Russia. However, far more importantly, the Trump brand of erratic isolationism is serious at odds with the objectives of US imperialism to contain Russia and expand its influence in eastern Europe.

In this sharpened context, most Republican politicians are scrambling to recover credibility and demonstrate their credentials as clear-cut opponents of the Russian invasion. The New York Times tellingly reports that ‘In a matter of weeks, the center of gravity on Ukraine has sharply shifted among Republicans, muffling doubts about U.S. involvement and dismissing questions about the recent past.’ They are now ‘competing to issue the strongest expressions of solidarity with Ukraine’s leaders.’

The notorious Lindsey Graham went so far as to encourage the assassination of Putin and Senator Tom Cotton was sure to present his party as the true bulwark against Russian aggression. “Vladimir Putin must pay for this unprovoked, naked war of aggression. If Joe Biden won’t make him pay, the Republican Party must,” he grandly declared. Even the right wing of the party’s elected representatives seemed in disarray, with Marjorie Taylor-Greene expressing the view that ‘While innocent people are being murdered in Putin’s war on Ukraine, the U.S. response is critical.’

There is no doubt that the Ukraine crisis has unleashed a considerable disturbance within the Republican Party. The dangerous and unpredictable Trump administration shook the US capitalist class and its leading functionaries very badly. Hopes for a stable and focused effort to preserve US hegemony in the face of global rivals became focused on the Democratic Party, in the form of the Biden restoration. Introducing the nominees for his security team, shortly after taking office, Biden declared that “America is back, ready to lead the world, not retreat from it. Once again sit at the head of the table. Ready to confront our adversaries and not reject our allies.” The bloom is definitely off the rose in regard to Biden’s dynamic world leadership and the accompanying plan to ‘build back better’ but the Republicans have their own issues when it comes to functioning as effective managers of US capitalism.

Balancing act

As the party of mainstream conservatism in the US, the Republicans face a problem that is being experienced by their counterparts in several other countries. The volatile and uncertain conditions that have existed since the financial crash and Great Recession of 2008-2010, intensified by the pandemic crisis, have created a dangerous rightward moving trend among a large section of their core support base. Accommodating that base and functioning as trustworthy stewards of a capitalist economy can sometimes prove to be a difficult balancing act. In the US, this came to a head with the selection of Trump as presidential candidate and it is still expressed in the wild political antics of elected politicians like the aforementioned Marjorie Taylor-Greene, who seem better suited to firing up a crowd of right wing conspiracy theorists than to inspiring confidence among the grandees of Wall Street.

The impact of the Ukraine crisis has created immediate and sharp imperatives for the pursuit of global rivalry by the US. Along with this a decidedly jingoistic mood has emerged that makes anything but strong opposition to Putin all but impossible. However, Trump, his allies and his influence with the Republican base, though they may have been thrown off balance by the present invasion and its political consequences, are still a dominant presence.

Occupying a grey area between mainstream conservatism and the far right, with woolly notions of an isolationist hegemonic world power and an abiding admiration for the authoritarianism of Vladimir Putin, this element with the Republican Party is a wild card indeed. This came to a head, of course, on January 6, 2021, when ‘Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol in an attack that left five dead..

Trump has been able to personify these developments within the Republican Party but he is by no means the source of the social pressures and political currents that underlie them. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has created the pressing need for a political consensus between the capitalist parties to oppose it. However, the remarkable contradictions that have created a veritable ‘Republicans for Putin’ movement are far from played out and will continue to be a volatile factor within the ‘Grand Old Party.’

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.

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