As Putin’s invasion of Ukraine rages on, long-deepening foreign policy divisions in the GOP have been brought into sharp relief. As expected, the conservative establishment has been pushing President Joe Biden toward more aggressive, escalatory, and interventionist responses. They are joined in this by hawkish voices in the liberal establishment.
More surprising, however, have been those voices across the Republican far right that have taken the opposite tack: opposing intervention and calling on the Biden administration to do more to de-escalate tensions with Russia. Led by influential figures such as Tucker Carlson, who hosts the most widely viewed show on cable news, and politicians such as Josh Hawley, Matt Gaetz, Paul Gosar, and Marjorie Taylor Greene—many of whom have embraced outright white nationalists—this MAGA wing of the conservative movement is on the rise, and is determined to remake the GOP in its own image, including around foreign policy.
If you squint hard enough, it might look like this MAGA foreign policy aligns with critics of militarism on the left. Indeed, there may be cases where temporary left-right alliances make sense on particular legislative proposals. However, it would be a grave mistake to treat the MAGA right as principled anti-interventionists who might join progressive efforts to reduce funding for the military and oppose the rise of militarism in US society overall. Their goal is not to end US militarism but to seize control of it.
From Neoconservativism to Anti-China Nationalism
The nationalist far right rejects the neoconservative foreign policy vision long favored by the Republican (and Democratic) establishment, which holds that the United States can and should use military force to remake the world in its own image. Like their forerunners in the paleoconservative movement, today’s far right is suspicious of multinational bodies such as the UN or NATO, and tends to also be skeptical about current uses of US military power—not because they are critical of militarism as such, but rather because they don’t believe the US has any responsibility toward the rest of the world at all.
The far right sees neocon interventionism as one face of what some of them call the “globohomo agenda”: Western elites’ supposed use of institutions like NATO and the European Union to export open-borders ideology, LGBTQ rights, consumerism—and all the other supposed ills of liberal modernity around the world. “Fight to the death to defend what you love,” Carlson advised viewers on March 7. “That’s the American position. That’s why we call it the Defense Department, not the Department of Nation Building, or the Bureau of Trans Evangelism.”
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At the same time, these “Make America Great Again” evangelists argue that America’s power on the world stage, in both economic and military terms, has been undermined by “globalist” elites and must be rebuilt and reasserted. While they reject neocon aspirations to reshape the world through “nation building” or “spreading democracy,” the MAGA right retains the goal of maintaining US economic and military hegemony. They demand that US foreign policy focus on China—rather than Russia—as the sole potential threat to US supremacy. Though this leads them to oppose interventions in cases where they see no tangible pay-off for and no direct threat to the US, they remain anti-China hawks.
The fear of China plays a prominent role in many of the MAGA right’s arguments against US escalation with Russia. Top Trump adviser Elbridge Colby absurdly accused ultra-hawk John Bolton of being a “dove on China” for calling for confrontation with both Russia and China. Senator Hawley called on Biden to drop support for Ukraine’s membership in NATO, arguing that “we must do less in those secondary theaters in order to prioritize denying China’s hegemonic ambitions in the Indo-Pacific.” Prior to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Carlson called for the US government to cultivate Russia as an anti-China ally.
Following the invasion, Carlson pivoted, using the crisis in Ukraine as a way to further inflate “China Threat” narratives. In his view, US elites maliciously seek to use the war to weaken the US middle class, and to empower China as a threat to their own country. In a March 9 segment that featured an image of Putin and Xi shaking hands—and a chyron reading ukraine crisis: there is only one clear winner—Carlson claimed that “China becomes stronger with every misstep from the Biden administration.” According to Carlson, “Thanks to Biden’s policies, Russia and China now form a bloc against the United States. This was the nightmare scenario. Now, it’s real.”
This supposed China-Russia bloc is not only a military threat. Carlson also imagines that China’s yuan will soon usurp the US dollar’s position as the global reserve currency, claiming, “That is happening in slow motion. It’s unmistakable. Now the Biden people seem to have no idea this is going on, or maybe they want it to happen.”
These are all egregious distortions. While China is pursuing a closer relationship with Russia, China and Russia remain far from a true alliance. China’s economic and geopolitical incentives for preserving ties with the United States and other Western countries remain very strong—which has recently led China to announce restrictions on financing Russian commodities by China’s state-led banks and to a refusal to supply aircraft parts to Russia in order to avoid being impacted by anti-Russia sanctions. And the Chinese yuan is in no position to displace the US dollar in global finance—that would require China to undertake major economic and financial reforms that are nowhere in sight. In the meantime, the yuan accounts for under 3 percent of international payments.
Meanwhile Carlson accuses Biden of protecting China from criticism, and calls for escalatory anti-China policies. On March 2, commenting on Biden’s State of the Union address, Carlson said, “For all of his moral outrage against Russia, well-deserved it may be, Biden made no mention of China’s role in the invasion of Ukraine, and that’s weird.” He then called for punitive actions against China: “Why aren’t we tanking China’s currency? Why aren’t we banning Chinese planes from American airspace? Why aren’t we confiscating the yachts of Chinese oligarchs?”
The “Enemy Within”
Alongside their saber-rattling against China, many on the “America First” right are also redirecting attention to a shadowy, subversive, and long-standing “enemy within.” They claim that an elite cabal of “globalists,” Democrats, “Big Tech overlords,” and other named political foes are using Russia’s invasion as a pretext to entrench their own dystopian power over the American public.
In the apocalyptic fantasies of prominent conservative pundit Rod Dreher, for example, governmental sanctions, corporate and financial boycotts, social media content moderation, and other policies advanced against Russia’s invasion represent little more than a carefully unfolding power grab—a calculated plot by US elites to implement a sinister agenda for domestic domination. “Everything being done to the Russian people now will eventually be done to people in the West who dissent from the party line,” Dreher warned on March 11. “We are being prepared for something. And if you are not preparing for how you and your family are going to live in this diabolical new world order, you are a fool.”
Since the invasion, Carlson has similarly focused on US elites as the real enemy, alongside China. On March 7, for example, Carlson asserted that “permanent Washington has been fixated on war with Russia for a very long time” and “getting Ukraine to join NATO was the key to inciting war with Russia…. Why in the world would the United States intentionally seek war with Russia?” Carlson asked, leaving the question unanswered—a common ploy in his monologues that often gestures at a conspiracy theory he does not wish to outline explicitly.
“Thanks to Biden’s foreign policy,” Carlson continued, citing increased fuel prices and overall inflation, “everything you buy is shooting up in price and shockingly fast.” The next day, he recast Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a US-led plot to hurt Middle America. Sanctions against Russia, he claimed, are meant to create a future in which “the people who make under $100,000 a year are more desperate, demoralized and dependent on government than they’ve ever been…. If you want to identify the target of a penalty, consider who’s going to suffer most from it. And in this case, the answer could not be clearer. It’s middle-income Americans.”
The Pro-Putin Right
The MAGA right’s opposition to anti-Russia escalation is also influenced by a long-standing affinity with Putin’s extreme nationalist politics and leadership style. Christian nationalists and white nationalists have long looked favorably on Putin’s Russia as an idealized white Christian ethno-state and defender of traditionalist values—and on Putin himself as a model authoritarian strongman, capable of delivering a decisive rebuke to globalism and Western liberalism.
All these pro-Putin talking points were rehearsed during the lead-up to the invasion of Ukraine. “Has Putin ever called me a racist?” Carlson asked provocatively on February 22. “Did he manufacture a worldwide pandemic?… Is he trying to snuff out Christianity?” The next day, just hours before the Russian invasion began, Steve Bannon remarked approvingly, “Putin ain’t woke, he’s anti-woke.” Two days later, a group of Gen-Z white nationalists chanted, “Putin! Putin!” at a conference in Orlando, moments before Marjorie Taylor Greene took the stage. Others argued that Putin’s escalations have been reasonable and even laudable responses to Western expansionism. And while some on the right dialed back their sympathies following the invasion, others have continued to peddle Russia-backed disinformation campaigns and other narratives favorable to Putin’s war effort.
The Key to Fighting the Right
In this volatile climate, it would be a fool’s errand to predict whether this emerging MAGA approach to foreign policy will broaden beyond a minority current within the GOP. But it would be just as foolish to imagine that it’s a welcome alternative to the neoconservative consensus that can help secure long-term global peace and stability. MAGA foreign policy is part of the frightening growth of militarism and nationalism all around the world, not a challenge to militarism. The far right’s metastatic growth represents a grave threat to the prospects of global peace, to the human rights of marginalized groups—and to the very foundations of multiracial democracy itself. Meanwhile, too many establishment voices push the United States perilously toward riskier interventions, including a no-fly zone that would mean open war between nuclear-armed powers, while indulging their own saber-rattling against a feared Russia-China alliance, often portrayed as a racialized and barbaric Oriental Other.
The MAGA far right has long used flimsy, conspiratorial, anti-elitist rhetoric to misleadingly brand itself as a populist vanguard, claiming to challenge ruling-class hegemony in the name of a radically constricted—and racially restricted—“we, the people.” At times like this, progressives need to advance our own vision of an inclusive common good, over and against ruling elites and their disastrous projects of militarism and nationalist exclusion in the United States, Russia, and around the world.
Our political opponents are using the crisis in Ukraine as an opportunity to feed nationalism and militarism, in the US and beyond. This creates opportunities for the far right. But Putin’s invasion has also prompted progressive expressions of international solidarity, opposition to war and occupation, opposition to oligarchs, anti-fascism, and sympathy for refugees. We must cultivate and clarify these sentiments, in order to move politics in a more progressive direction. This is also key to effectively fighting the right.