The ‘Putin Is Bad, But’ Republicans

At a recent conference, some members of the right identified foreign-policy hawks and neoconservatives, rather than Democrats, as their biggest enemies.

Illustration of the Republican Party elephant surrounded by barbed wire.
The Atlantic

On Thursday, in a dim conference room in the bowels of a Washington, D.C., hotel, about 150 conservatives gathered for a day of group therapy. They had all been traumatized by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which had left them questioning their assumptions about the world. But Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression wasn’t what confounded them most; for these conservatives, a mix of D.C. professionals and college students leavened with a handful of older cranks, the hawkish response to Russian aggression by most elected Republicans was the real problem.

The conference, Up From Chaos, was a summit of all the wings of the right that would prefer a more hands-off American response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The organizers were The American Conservative, the paleoconservative publication founded by Pat Buchanan; and American Moment, a newer organization that tries to sell the next generation of the right on its version of national conservatism. “We were acutely worried that the seven years of foreign-policy gains that we made [since Donald Trump launched his campaign] were going to go away,” Saurabh Sharma, one of the conference’s organizers, told me.

The event wasn’t a Putin apologia like those found in some corners of the right. Instead, the phrase of the day seemed to be “Putin is bad, but …” The attendees, who included paleocons, libertarians, and hard-core MAGA acolytes, offered variations on that tune according to their policy preferences: Putin is bad, but we don’t want a nuclear war. Putin is bad, but why should we trust the American foreign-policy establishment? Putin is bad, but the media is in thrall to the U.S. intelligence apparatus. The broad consensus: Putin is bad, but why is that our problem?

“This is not an ism-based movement. There is a specific policy outcome motivating the type of factions we brought here today, which is that we don’t want another war,” Sharma said. “And people have their own isms that they bring to the table.” The result was a conference of the right where Tulsi Gabbard was invited but figures such as Ted Cruz were absent.

In fact, Cruz was the target of a jab onstage from a fellow Republican senator, Rand Paul, who suggested that the Texan’s advocacy for sanctions on Russian energy was simply intended to boost the bottom line of the energy industry in his home state. President Joe Biden, though, received some praise for his comparatively restrained response to the crisis. Saagar Enjeti, a conservative pundit and podcaster, went so far as to say that Biden’s “79-year-old ailing heart may be the only thing standing in between us and World War III.”

The most common object of the attendees’ ire was not the Democrats, but instead the traditional enemy of the isolationist right, neoconservatives. Time and time again, speakers mocked foreign-policy hawks and criticized Republicans who had supported the Iraq War. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was the target of repeated scorn. Perhaps the biggest applause line of the entire conference was delivered by the Ohio Senate candidate J. D. Vance, who mocked the intelligence of Bill Kristol, the neoconservative pundit and Never Trumper. Donald Trump’s greatest foreign-policy triumph was not so much any of his decisions, but rather that he “broke the neocon Republican orthodoxy,” Dan Bishop, a second-term representative from North Carolina, told the crowd.

Still, a sense that neocons and foreign-policy elites were winning seemed to permeate the room. For a D.C. conclave, the gathering featured few boldface names. Of the four elected officials who spoke, Rand Paul and Representative Thomas Massie of Kentucky are best known for being libertarian gadflies, while Bishop and Representative Matt Rosendale of Montana are backbenchers who are relatively new to Washington. Vance, who hasn’t even been elected to any office and may never be, gave what might have been the most high-profile speech. (Unusually for a speaker at a Washington conference, Vance hung around as an attendee after his speech, sitting quietly in the back as the fellow Peter Thiel ally David Sacks, a wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneur, addressed the crowd).

“The first time that I’ve ever actually had donors push back against all the crazy things that I say over the course of my Senate campaign is on this Russia-Ukraine thing,” Vance said. “The craziest idea I’ve had in the last year and a half … is that we should not be involved in a nuclear war with Russia.”

Sharma framed skepticism of the U.S. response as a test of political courage for the few on the right who were still willing to “stand up for a more sober foreign policy where the rubber meets the road.” It is a test that few on the right are passing so far. Even Trump has expressed openness toward more aggressive action against Russia in some public statements about the conflict. (He has also praised Putin as a “genius.”)

The challenge for the isolationist wing of the right is finding more allies. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is one of the most popular political figures in the United States, and the Russian army is falling back from the outskirts of Kiev. It seems, at least for the time being, that the “hawkish” response to the invasion of Ukraine has succeeded. The war in Europe, and the fight over the future of the Republican Party’s foreign policy, are likely to be long. But for now, the right’s isolationists are on their own.