Thinking About Things: Forward to the Past with the GOP

John DeQ. Briggs

Since shortly after the mid-term elections of last November, I have been ruminating about the Republican party, what it stands for, and whether it has or deserves to have a future in anything resembling its current form. But last month I stumbled across two very different reviews (one from the Wall Street Journal, the other from The New York Times) of a new book: The Ghost at the Feast, by Robert  Kagan. These prompted me to peruse the book itself, although I have by no means ploughed through it all yet. But these modest readings did focus me on the eerie parallels between the GOP now and the GOP a century ago. Those parallels do not auger well for the future of the GOP. 

At the beginning of the 20th century, the United States kept largely to itself notwithstanding that it had become, over the prior century, the preeminent economic power in the world.  It possessed the economic strength of several of its rivals combined.  And while its rivals had huge standing armies numbering in the millions of soldiers, and very large navies, the United States had a standing army measuring in the tens of thousands and hardly any Navy at all.  It stood apart as a distant island in geopolitical terms, on a huge continent surrounded on two sides by vast oceans, thousands of miles from all the other great powers of the world.  The Americans’ physical location gave them both wealth and a remarkable degree of economic independence.  Americans led the world in the production of copper, coal, zinc, iron ore, lead, and other valuable minerals.  They produced half of the world’s oil and one-third of its pig iron, silver, and gold.  They had surpassed the British in the production of steel and coal, the two greatest measures of economic power at that time, as well as in industrial manufacturing. The American passivity internationally (the United States generally declined membership in international bodies and security arrangements) puzzled European leaders. Harold Nicholson, a British diplomat, described the United States as “the ghost at all our feasts,” which supplied Kagan with the title for his book. 

Americans were also largely self-sufficient, and hence did not depend on trade in the same way that European countries did.  And while President Teddy Roosevelt was an internationalist and championed the building of the Panama Canal between 1903 and 1914, that was done not just to facilitate free trade internationally, but also to facilitate ocean transportation of goods between the west and east coasts of the United States. 

Until the end of the Wilson administration in 1921 the GOP been the outward looking, internationalist, even imperialist party. Consider, for example, the Spanish American war and thereafter the Philippines war to subdue that colony. But that internationalist view of America ended with the onset of American participation in World War I. Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, was an internationalist through and through. His “fourteen points” issued in 1918 during the war, his use of those points as the basis for negotiating the Treaty of Versailles, and his creation of the League of Nations all put the United States at the head of an emerging world order. 

Yet the GOP reacted to all of this by retreating into fortress America. The leaders of the Republican party in 1919 wanted nothing to do with the League of Nations. Led by Henry Cabot Lodge, they abruptly aligned themselves with isolationist policies presented most strongly by people like Sen William Borah, who served as the Republican Senator from Idaho from 1907 until 1940, and was Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1924. The isolationism of that era represented the foreign policy stance of the Republican party, but it was also politically popular in general and operated as a material restraint on the ability or willingness of the Roosevelt administration during the 1930’s to become more engaged with England, France, Poland and other targets of the Hitler regime especially the jews of Europe who were essentially ignored even after Kristallnacht in the Fall of 1938. Indeed, it is not likely wrong to state that then, as now, American foreign policy was driven less by the strategic interests of the United States than by partisan politics. Being against all things foreign has always garnered more votes than it loses. And now, given the extreme polarization of the country, being against all things Obama or Biden has become the defining characteristic of Republican politics and hence Republican policies. 

Today we are seeing the splintering of the GOP in ways that harken back a century. A hundred years ago, the GOP was dominated by isolationists, but the “America First” part of the GOP, while isolationist, also was more than a little tinged with fascism of the type represented by Charles Lindbergh. The America First branch of the GOP, while small, was influential because of Lindbergh. It fulminated in favor of neutrality but sympathized with Hitler and the German Reich. Germany alone, Lindbergh argued, could “dam the Asiatic hordes” and prevent the overrunning of Europe.  The GOP was also influenced by Father Coughlin, the sort-of Rush Limbaugh of his day, who embraced Lindbergh’s message of white supremacy and supported the establishment of the America First Committee in 1940. That group, which numbered almost a million members, opposed American aid to the allies and relied upon Lindbergh and Coughlin to deliver its message to the wider public. 

Today, the GOP splinters are most clearly revealed through the prism of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While I have seen no meaningful polling on this, my sense from what I read is that there are at least these four groups or lanes of Republicans:

First, there are those who generally support the current US position vis-à-vis Russia and Ukraine. These seem to represent a strong but steadily declining minority of Republicans.  Republicans who take this position do so somewhat quietly since it requires non-trivial support for the Biden administration.  This view is that American credibility with other dictators and autocrats depends on doing everything practicable to ensure that Russia does not “win.”  This view is probably best represented by Brett Stevens, in his New York Times column recently (Feb. 28, 2023).  Nikki Haley seems to be the only GOP presidential candidate who has come down clearly in favor of support for Ukraine (“This is a war about freedom, not just Ukraine.”).  

Second, there is what appears to be the Trump/Tucker Carlson/Maga/Glenn Greenwald/Patrick Deneen view that: (1) the war in Ukraine is largely the fault of the United States and the West for allowing NATO to expand eastward and threaten Russia; (2) the U.S. is dominated by elite military and commercial interests that favor endless wars; and (3) the war-making regime in the U.S. is morally repellant.  Trump has said “that war has to stop, and it has to stop now, it’s easy to do.”  Harking back to President Nixon’s “secret plan to end the Vietnam war,” Trump says he must keep his solution to himself. 

Third, there is view that the country is urgently in need of an Asia First foreign policy, and we should leave Ukraine to the Europeans so that we can “focus everything on Asia and the defense of Taiwan.”  Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley the is probably the most visible spokesperson for this lane. 

Fourth, there is the view that there should be no “blank check” for Ukraine.  The Republican Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, has been making this point, although it is hard to tell whether this is intended as a critique of Mr. Biden for having done just that, or whether it is a placeholder position intended to avoid taking any actual position.  

Now, I may have caricatured these groups unfairly, and other variations no doubt exist.  I’m also not today flogging any of the views summarized in general or in particular.  The larger point here is simply that apparently a majority of the Republicans in this country identify with one or more of the last three groups, which collectively are gaining supporters from the first group. Notably, while the GOP is splintered more or less as described, the Democrats by a margin of some 77-23% support the Administration’s policies in Ukraine.  Combined with a minority of Republicans, there is at least for the moment a clear majority in this country who support the US backing of Ukraine.  

Former President Trump does not seem to have a coherent set of foreign policy views, or any coherent set of views about Ukraine.  Governor DeSantis is clearly hedging his bets.  While he has engineered a “soft launch” of his presidential campaign, he has been very coy about his position on Ukraine. In the past he expressed strong support for Ukraine, but as the Republican primary voters have drifted away from such support so has DeSantis drifted towards some vague combination of the last three GOP lanes described. 

This GOP instinct to withdraw from the world, to be indifferent to matters outside our borders, to disengage as much as possible from other nations so as to be self sufficient in all important things has a direct link to the 1920’s and 1930’s. This brings to mind three sayings: 

Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it (George Santayana);

History repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce (Karl Marx); and  

History repeats itself, but with differences (Anon.). 

The splintering of the GOP this year, and the rise of a strong isolationist sentiment, could well lead to another four years of Biden and his administration, even should he not personally survive his old age and health issues. And who knows when if ever the Maga machine will wear out. Perhaps the (as of this writing) seemingly imminent fall of Bakhmut may have an impact on things, but no one event in Ukraine seems to be have the capacity to support a hinge movement. And so, as the isolationists and America Firsters of the 1930’s generally supported Germany, so today do their twenty-first century counterparts generally seem to support Russia. In any case, the war in Ukraine is now definitely “Biden’s War” and the Republicans seem generally to be as infected by a Biden Derangement Syndrome as were the Democrats infected with their own Trump Derangement Syndrome just a few years ago. 

All of this will have immense implications for the next generation. First it could enshrine a relatively progressive Democratic party, at least in the executive branch, and second, it may result in the withering away of the Republican party itself, which no longer seems to stand for any particular policies beyond blind opposition to all things Biden and all things woke.  Things might change, and there is still a long time between now and the first primaries, but one waits still for the adults in the Republican party, if there are any left, to assert themselves. But so long as Trump wields power sufficient to control much of the Republican agenda, this does not seem likley to happen. It is thus up the primary voters, whose collective instinct for supporting policies that could win a broad mandate have proved nearly non-existent over the past few years.  

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