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Gaga Over Putin
A new definition for the GOP
There was a time the letters “GOP” stood for the “Grand Old Party” — a quaint nickname stretching back 150 years to when the Republican Party wasn’t very old at all. It was coined as a term of endearment, a celebration of the party of Abraham Lincoln for saving the Union in the Civil War (as opposed to the Democratic Party of that era). A “grand” effort, indeed.
How times have changed.
Today, the Republican Party has become the Party of Trump, a man who, as president, instigated arguably the greatest threat to the continuation of American democracy since the firing on Fort Sumter. It shouldn’t be lost that some of the MAGA insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol on January 6 brought along the Confederate flag, a symbol ubiquitous at Trump rallies.
But this week reinforced another reality about the modern GOP — there’s a faction within the party, including its leader and likely presidential nominee, who have a soft spot for a murderous autocrat who despises freedom, peace, and global stability. These days, the acronym GOP could also stand for Gaga Over Putin.
One of the enduring puzzles about Donald Trump is why he has been such a Putin fanboy over the years. The speculation has run rampant, from an affinity for preening wannabe tough guys, to financial entanglements, to even blackmail. To date, nothing substantive has been proven, but Trump’s words and actions speak for themselves. He has never wanted to challenge Putin. He cowers in deference (remember the notorious Helsinki summit). And when it comes to Ukraine, it’s pretty clear that Trump would sell out that country and the rest of a free and democratic Europe to the imperial ambitions of a Russian tyrant.
History and life are full of tumult and change, but there are a few precious things you think you can count on — the sun rising in the east, gravity, and matching socks disappearing in your laundry. There was a time when you could have added Republicans railing against Russian aggression to the list. But that now seems as permanent as a Blockbuster Video rental store — something you can’t imagine disappearing until it does.
To be fair, there are many Republican elected officials who have been staunch defenders of Ukraine and the need for American military and diplomatic power to stand up to and thwart Putin’s ambitions. In the last Republican presidential debate — one notably skipped by Trump — former Vice President Mike Pence and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley spoke forcefully and eloquently about the horrors of Putin and the need for the United States to back Ukraine. Perhaps there is no issue that splits the Republican Party as much as this one.
But it is also clear that the most vociferous Putin critics in the Republican Party represent the old guard, the people who, when they think of a president who embodied their ideals, picture Reagan, not Trump. Some of those might still exist in the Senate and Washington conservative think tanks, but the energy from Trump and his political foot soldiers is in the opposite direction.
And this isn’t just about rhetoric. One of the big fights in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, and one that could end up costing Kevin McCarthy the speakership, swirls around Russia and Ukraine. The far right-wingers in the Republican caucus want to stop funding Ukraine. It’s a key part of a series of hard-line budget demands that could lead to a U.S. government shutdown.
When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky came to Washington this week after traveling to New York for the United Nations General Assembly, he met with President Biden and received a warm bipartisan reception in the Senate. Speaker McCarthy declined to hold a similar meeting for members of the House. “Is Zelensky elected to Congress? Is he our president? I don’t think I have to commit anything,” McCarthy sniped as he called future Ukrainian aid into question.
Putin himself hasn’t been shy about weighing in on American politics. It’s clear whom he’s endorsing for president of the United States. “Everything that is happening with Trump, this is persecution for political reasons of one’s political rival,” Putin recently said of America’s most famous criminal defendant. He continued that the prosecutions are evidence of “the rottenness of the American political system, which cannot pretend to teach others about democracy.” This is something coming from a president who not only prosecutes but poisons (and otherwise murders) his political rivals.
Putin has likely come to the conclusion that his self-preservation could very well depend on Trump's winning in 2024. In that way, he shares a common cause with the ex-president. Trump knows that if he loses at the polls, it greatly increases the chances he could lose his freedom and go to prison. Putin knows that if Trump loses, he could lose even more than that.
Do Trump and Putin ever second guess their choices? If Trump hadn’t run for president, he could likely have lived the rest of his days luxuriating in his louche lifestyle. If Putin hadn’t invaded Ukraine, he could have escaped a showdown with the West, NATO expansion, and becoming a pariah on the world stage begging North Korea for help.
But that’s not where we are. Trump, Putin, and a sizable wing of the Republican Party are swept up in each other. A grand old party, if your idea of a party is cheering the end of freedom and democracy.
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