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Mixed Signals

On the war in Ukraine, the MAGA-verse takes both sides

The only thing that the Republican Party’s agitprop leaders can agree on at this moment of cataclysm is that President Joe Biden looks old and weak. Just as the angry men (and women) of MAGA were luxuriating in the prospect of a populist revolt led by Canadian truckers, their universe of the aggrieved was knocked out of the news cycle. Even as President Biden announced sanctions on Russian banks and oligarchs on Tuesday—the first of an escalating series—the MAGA-verse seemed to have no party line on the war in Ukraine. When Russia was preparing to launch its invasion in recent weeks, things appeared to be in a state of confusion. Does “America First” mean Ukraine doesn’t matter? Ohio Senatorial candidate J.D. Vance, a Yale grad remaking himself into a Trump acolyte, thought so: “I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another,” Vance told Real America’s Voice last week.

Yet Ben Shapiro—host of a daily podcast that is a mainstay for all committed to the ennobling goal of “owning the libs”—declared that President Biden’s approach was too weak. The economic sanctions levied by the Biden administration, in Shapiro’s opinion, would never deter the dictator. If economic sanctions were to work at all, they would only do so if the very harshest and most drastic of them were imposed suddenly and with decisive certainty, in Shapiro’s view. It is only if Putin were cornered by shock and awe that the man would quit his expansionist intentions. The GOP MAGA-verse consists of Putin admirers and Reagan admirers, Russian apologists versus traditional hawks. Shapiro has taken up with the hawks.

There are like-minded hawks at The National Review, where editors wrote on February 23, the day after President Biden first imposed sanctions, that the U.S response to Putin’s actions had “failed to meet the moment.” After a thorough analysis of Putin’s speech on Monday, with its blatant and bloodthirsty historical revisionism, the editors of The National Review demanded that the White House implement all the sanctions it has prepared right away. They are likely to get their wish now that Russia has launched a full-scale invasion, but it doesn’t solve the problem that besets the Republican MAGA-verse: they have vastly differing ideas of the stance the United States should take in the face of an illegal and expansionist invasion of a small country by a nuclear-armed bully.

Nevertheless, The National Review outpost of American conservatism would also like the U.S. president to ask Congress for a massive increase in military spending so frontline allies at NATO could be bolstered. Finally, they would like the American oil and gas industry to be unleashed so that the potential shortfall caused by rising energy prices could be allayed by national production. To insure that their statements regarding what must be done don’t sound like some accidental endorsement of President Biden himself, the National Review website takes care to include a piece by Jim Geraghty which insists, somewhat bizarrely, that it is Biden himself (rather than Putin) who has contempt for the rules-based international order.

Now admittedly, The National Review is not “MAGA” per se, but they haven’t been shy about indulging some of the worst MAGA proclivities. Over at Breitbart News, Trump’s former secretary of state Mike Pompeo took the opposite position of the sober National Review analysts. “Zelensky is trying,” the dough-faced Pompeo told Breitbart podcast listeners, only to add that Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky’s good intentions are inadequate to change a problematic and corrupt country full of oligarchs. The implication of this, of course, is that Ukraine has had shady dealings—with the Bidens, for example—and does not deserve American support because they aren’t the good guys. That’s the Russian apologist branch of the MAGA-verse that derives from Trump himself.

As war was about to break out in Ukraine, Steve Bannon declared the entire situation as a manufactured crisis intended to distract from the stolen election.

This description of Ukraine has recurred in other MAGA milieus. In his podcast Bannon’s War Room on February 22, Steve Bannon declared the entire situation a manufactured crisis intended to distract from the stolen election. Bannon played clips from Biden’s speech and declared Biden “feckless” and “hapless” and the entire “created crises” as involving “Russian-speaking” provinces of Eastern Ukraine. Bannon’s description of Donetsk and Luhansk as “Russian-speaking” is a trite little nod to Putin himself, whose own case for why the provinces belong to Russia includes that the people there are Russian-speaking. He also insisted on calling Putin’s troops “peacekeepers” before saying that the whole thing is to deflect attention away from the fact that Covid-19 was a bioweapon unleashed by China on the world. The bumbling manner in which the Biden administration was acting was likely to help “the mullahs,” “the Chinese Community Party,” and “Erdogan.”

These are not surprising statements, but they appear particularly flaccid given the stunning and terrifying pictures of the Russian invasion of Ukraine that have emerged since. On February 23, a seemingly nonplussed edition of Bannon’s War Room chose to rant on about Liz Cheney and her wrongful championing of the Ukrainians. The planned trucker convoy to protest vaccine mandates and pandemic restrictions was now, in the organizers’ own admission, made up “mostly of cars.” Plans of a trucker-led revolt against the Biden administration does not appear to be in the cards.

Meanwhile, Trump himself hasn’t been able to find talking points that form a party line. Calling in to a radio show this week, Trump said Putin’s actions declaring Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk independent republics were “genius” and the entire episode “wonderful.” Talk show host and mega-MAGA mouthpiece Tucker Carlson had foreshadowed the Trumpian endorsement in his own bizarre monologue the night before the invasion in which he urged his viewers to reconsider their feelings for Putin because hating the Russian president is what the Democrats want Americans to do. Carlson appeared to be arguing that Putin was worthy of American patriots’ respect because he has never called any MAGA supporters racist and because he does not manufacture fentanyl.

There is a huge chasm between the Ben Shapiros who are unhappy with the “weak” American response and the full-on MAGA adherents who are falling in line with their ultimate leader’s admiration for Putin. But there’s also an incoherence within the MAGA line itself, because if Ukraine doesn’t matter, or isn’t worth defending, then Biden is right not to respond with military action, and how effective the sanctions might be is irrelevant. This variety of nonsense positions reflect the sudden challenges that MAGA now faces. Nothing destroys imaginary, alternative factual universes—and the MAGA-verse would be such a one—like the cold hard realities of war. Once people begin to die and body bags line up and mass graves are dug; it becomes difficult to continue harping on about an imaginary stolen election or an imaginary plague. The reality of war is cruel and it commands attention.

The MAGA-verse has never valued nuance or coherence, yet it will be difficult for its mouthpieces to insist that they are patriotic and love their country while constantly calling their own president (engaged in a showdown with Russia) weak. They may try, and they are trying, but ultimately dissing a president who is staring down a leader most Americans distrust or see as an enemy seems an awful lot like dissing your own country. This project of dissing your own country and elevating and ennobling Russia who is on the cusp of murdering untold thousands of Ukrainians is likely to make everyone but the most committed MAGA supporter squirm.

Unlike the War on Terror, the Russia-Ukraine conflict is likely to be a conventional war, with a David (Ukraine) and a Goliath (Russia). Americans of previous generations were told by Cold War liberals and conservatives alike that Russia was a rival superpower, an enemy of democracy, etc., precisely because of its bullying and domineering ways. The myth of American exceptionalism is constructed on the idea of America coming to the aid of the underdog—the little guy. This is likely to become more and more of an imperative as the casualties add up and the devastation of war exacts all of its macabre costs. It is undoubted that the most hard-core MAGA supporters will continue to believe drivel and find awestruck admiration for a megalomaniacal dictator, but many traditional conservatives are likely to find rooting for Putin and against Ukraine to be a stretch.

Anti-government and pro-anarchic movements that rely on culture war resentments to get their supporters going are best conducted in peacetime, when the imagined insult of being asked to wear a mask or to use preferred pronouns can be construed as a death blow. When actual death blows are being dealt to innocent civilians of a country that did not pick a war, the dials and levers of resentment politics may not provoke the same outrage they would have before.

American soldiers, we now assume, will not be going to war in Ukraine: the matter of support is one that demands moral leadership and the drawing of clear ethical lines. Once war begins and the vast difference between the warring parties is evident in the casualties and the ensuing mayhem, denying Ukraine a place in American hearts will become ever harder. Against these truths perhaps, the hollow and reactive nature of MAGA politics will also become obvious. There will be some Americans like J.D. Vance who say “I don’t really care what happens in Ukraine,” but that will not be an “Americanism” that any humane person will admire.