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They Do It for Trump

Political Illustration
Thought Leader: David Frum
December 18, 2023
Written by: David Frum

The white house and Senate continue to work frantically toward a deal to supply Ukraine before Congress recesses for Christmas. Supposedly, all leaders of Congress are united in their commitment to Ukraine—so the new speaker of the House, Mike Johnson, insists. Yet somehow this allegedly united commitment is not translating into action. Why not?

If Trump had not caught a lucky bounce in the Electoral College in November 2016, he’d have gotten the Rohrabacher treatment too. After the Access Hollywood tape leaked, many prominent Republicans, including then-Speaker Paul Ryan, distanced themselves from Trump. In the election, Republicans lost two seats in the Senate and six in the House. Trump himself received a shade over 46 percent of the popular vote—a slightly larger share than John McCain got amid the economic catastrophe of 2008, but less than Mitt Romney in 2012, John Kerry in 2004, and Al Gore in 2000.

Even if Trump had lost, there would still have been an enlarged constituency for American Putinism among far-right ideologues and social-media influencers. As early as 2013, the prominent social conservative Pat Buchanan had written a column that seemed to hail Putin as “one of us,” an ally in the fight against abortion and homosexuality. Buchanan-style reactionary nationalism exercised a strong influence on many of the next generation of rightist writers and talkers.

By the mid-2010s, groups such as the National Rifle Association were susceptible to infiltration by Russian-intelligence assets. High-profile conservatives accepted free trips and speaking fees from organizations linked to the Russian government pre-Trump. A lucrative online marketplace for pro-Moscow messages and conspiracy theories already existed. White nationalists had acclaimed Putin as a savior of Christian civilization for years before the Trump campaign began.

But back then, none of this ideological or opportunistic pro-Putinism was all that connected to the world of electoral politics or mainstream conservative thought. The future Fox News star Tucker Carlson—soon to be Russia’s preeminent champion in U.S. mass media—publicly avowed his sympathy for Putin only after Trump’s election.

But once Trump became the GOP leader, he tangled the whole party in his pro-Russia ties. A telling indicator came in January 2017, when Trump’s nominee for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, denied—under oath, yet falsely—that he had held two meetings with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, during the 2016 campaign. This lie made little sense: As a senator on the Armed Services Committee, Sessions met with foreign ambassadors all the time, and he was never in the slightest implicated in any Trump-Russia impropriety. Why not tell the truth?

The answer seems to be that Sessions had somehow intuited that the Trump campaign was hiding some damaging secret about Russia. Without knowing what that secret was, he presumably wanted to put some distance between himself and it.

The urge to align with the party’s new pro-Russian leader reshaped attitudes among Republican Party loyalists. From 2015 to 2017, Republican opinion shifted markedly in a pro-Russia and pro-Putin direction. In 2017, more than a third of surveyed Republicans expressed favorable views of Putin. By 2019, Carlson—who had risen to the top place among Fox News hosts—was regularly promoting pro-Russian, anti-Ukrainian messages to his conservative audience. His success inspired imitators among many other conservative would-be media stars.

For Republican elected officials, however, the decisive shift seemed to come during Trump’s first impeachment. Trump withheld from Ukraine promised weapons in order to pressure Kyiv to announce a criminal investigation of his likely election rival, Joe Biden.

After the impeachment trial, 51 percent of Republicans surveyed by Pew said that Trump had done nothing wrong. The key to understanding how they could believe that is the concept of “undernews.” During the Obama presidency, more extreme conservative media trafficked in rumors that Obama was secretly gay and having an affair with a male aide, or else that Michelle Obama was secretly transgender. This rubbish was too lurid, offensive, and stupid ever to be repeated on Fox News itself. But Fox hosts regularly made jokes and references that only made sense to viewers who had absorbed the undernews from other sources.

Undernews made itself felt during the first Trump impeachment too. The official defense of Trump, the one articulated by more high-toned hosts, was that the extortion of Ukraine did not rise to the level of impeachment. After all, Ukraine got its weapons in the end: no harm, no foul. In the undernews, however, this defense was backed by an elaborate fantasy that Trump had been right to act as he did.

In this fantasy, Ukraine became the center of a global criminal enterprise masterminded by the Biden family. Trump, the myth went, had heroically acted to reveal the plot—only to be thwarted by the Deep State’s machinations in Washington and Kyiv. Believers in the undernews reimagined Ukraine as a pro-Biden mafia state that had cruelly victimized Trump. They burned to inflict payback on Ukraine for the indignity of Trump’s first impeachment.

This delusory narrative was seldom articulated in venues where nonbelievers might hear it. But the delusion shaped the opinion of believers—and the behavior of those who sought votes from those believers: congressional Republicans.

At first, the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 appalled almost all elected officials in Washington. A congressman named Mike Johnson, then a Republican backbencher, spoke for many: “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine’s sovereign territory threatens the greatest destabilization of the world order since WWII and constitutes a national security threat to the entire West,” he said in a statement published on the invasion’s first day.

Johnson voted for the first aid package to Ukraine a month later. Then, in May of that year, Johnson reversed himself, joining 56 other Republican House members to vote against a $40 billion package. This was Johnson’s explanation for his coat-turning on Ukraine:

We should not be sending another $40 billion abroad when our own border is in chaos, American mothers are struggling to find baby formula, gas prices are at record highs, and American families are struggling to make ends meet, without sufficient oversight over where the money will go.

These excuses did not make much sense in 2022. They make even less sense in 2023.

The current aid request for Ukraine proposes $14 billion for U.S. border security, including funding for some 2,000 new asylum officers and judges. Because the great majority of asylum claims are rejected, more officers means faster removals and less incentive for border-crossers to arrive in the first place.

As for the baby-formula problem that Johnson cited, that was long ago solved. Gas prices have dropped below $3.20 a gallon nationwide (and to just $2.75 in Johnson’s Louisiana). Wages are once again rising faster than inflation, while Americans’ purchasing power (adjusted for inflation) is erasing the losses it suffered during the pandemic. The complaint about oversight was always untrue, even silly, because almost all funds for aiding Kyiv are actually spent in the U.S. to make and ship the supplies Ukraine needs.

So long as Kevin McCarthy led the House Republicans, the relationship between their leadership and Trump was one of fear and submission. Once Johnson replaced McCarthy, the relationship between the speaker and Trump shifted to active collaboration. McCarthy helped Ukraine as much as he dared; Johnson helps Ukraine as little as he can. Johnson still talks about resisting Russia, but when it comes time to act, he does as Trump wants.

A majority of the House Republican caucus still rejects attempts to cut off Ukraine. A test vote on September 28 counted 126 pro-Ukraine Republicans versus 93 anti. Three-quarters of the whole House favors Ukraine aid. But Johnson and his team now control the schedule and the sequence of events. That group responds to the steady beat of the undernews: Ukraine = enemy of Trump; abandoning Ukraine = proof of loyalty to Trump.

As Trump nears renomination by his party in 2024, the displays of loyalty to him have become ever more obligatory for Republicans. Solidarity with Ukraine has faltered as support for Trump has consolidated. Make no mistake: If Republicans in Congress abandon Ukraine to Russian aggression, they do so to please Trump. Every other excuse is a fiction or a lie.

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