Close to 70 percent of Republicans thought that President Trump did fine in his meeting with Putin in Helsinki, according to CBS News. The figure for Americans as a whole was less than half that.
That result probably reflects the party loyalty of Republicans more than it does any genuine complacency of theirs about conflicts between Russian and American interests. The post-Helsinki reaction of rank-and-file Republicans reinforces what the trend in polls about Russia and Putin over the past few years already suggested: that on the question of whether Russia is friend, foe, or something between, Trump supporters have been revising their views to conform more closely to what they perceive his to be, or to what they think would lend the least credence to the charge that he’s compromised by secret foreign entanglements or weak in his response to an adversary of the United States. Many adopt a stance close to that of American anti-anti-Communists during the Cold War: “Obviously Russia is no liberal democracy, but calm down. It’s just a nation pursuing its rational self-interest. Better to engage it than wage a(nother) cold war.”
Our intelligence agencies aren’t so laid back. They report that Moscow interfered in our elections in 2016, of course, and that now it’s “targeting government and businesses in the energy, nuclear, water, aviation, and critical manufacturing sectors,” as Dan Coats, director of national intelligence, said in a talk at the Hudson Institute earlier this month:
We are seeing aggressive attempts to manipulate social media and to spread propaganda focused on hot-button issues that are intended to exacerbate socio-political divisions. . . . These actions are persistent. They’re pervasive and they are meant to undermine America’s democracy on a daily basis, regardless of whether it is election time or not. Russian actors and others are exploring vulnerabilities in our critical infrastructure.
Those on the center right who want to find a way to work with the Republican administration point out that it has imposed sanctions on Russia, expelled some of Moscow’s diplomats, and given military aid to Ukraine. Don’t actions speak louder than words?
Do they? In his rhetoric, Trump is stern with Europe and irenic toward Russia — the converse of the foreign-policy orientation that cooler heads in his administration try to promote. He undermines their credibility and encourages skepticism of their warning that Russia is conducting cyberattacks against U.S. and European institutions to destabilize our societies and weaken the Western alliance. Public opinion in America even on the right has not swung fully to an anti-NATO, pro-Russian position, but Trump has moved the needle in that direction. How much farther will it go? This split within the administration, or at any rate between the Trump administration and Trump, corresponds to a conflict in the Republican base and on the right in general.
Most of that conflict is between the anti-Russian and the anti-anti-Russian camps, represented by, let’s say, George Will and Tucker Carlson, respectively. Foreign-policy veterans of past Republican administrations figure disproportionately in the ranks of prominent conservatives who have checked out of the GOP since 2016. Some have concluded in good faith that the foreign-policy instincts of the Democratic party are less incompatible with America’s best interest. To Republicans who chide them for party disloyalty, they answer that loyalty to country takes precedence. The discord between the two sides is genuine. It rhymes with the one that, in the 1960s and ’70s, led the early neoconservatives to break with the Left and then, with varying degrees of commitment, join the Right.
Alongside the anti-anti-Russian camp on the American right is a frankly pro-Russian faction. It learns from the European populist Right, where Putin is seen as a champion of nationalism and traditional social values and as a reliable opponent of Islamism. Moscow has been watching the European Union and NATO push eastward, against its borders, for the past two decades. It has its reasons for wanting to push back, and nationalist Europeans have their reasons for wanting it to succeed: They want Brussels and Washington out of their backyard.
For their political brethren this side of the ocean, the main argument for disparaging the Atlantic alliance is that the other NATO members are freeloaders, parasites on the U.S. military budget (never mind that we made Germany demilitarize under the Marshall Plan and for a long time had reason to be ambivalent about its reversing course). Putin’s Russia, the European populist Right, and the American populist Right each has its special rationale for agreeing that a relaxation or even dissolution of the Atlantic alliance would be good.
“They should string her up and hang her in the public square,” a friend said as we stood and chatted on the church lawn after Latin Mass one Sunday evening a couple of years ago somewhere down in God’s country. He meant Angela Merkel. We have no agreed-on labels yet for these two camps, both of them on the right, caught up in the struggle for the soul of the West. But the line between them is clear enough. Members of what used to be Team Conservative are facing off against one another from either side of it.