50.50: Opinion

Republicans still have ‘tremendous affection for dictators’

OPINION: Putin may have fallen out of favour, but Republicans still admire right-wing authoritarian leaders

Chrissy Stroop
Chrissy Stroop
22 March 2023, 9.00am

Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump meet at the G20 Summit 2019 in Osaka, Japan


Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Florida governor Ron DeSantis made waves within the Republican Party last week when he declared that US support for Ukraine’s defence against Russia’s war of aggression is not a matter of “vital national interest”. He even went so far as to downgrade the war to a mere “territorial dispute”.

The remarks – which DeSantis made in response to a questionnaire sent to all potential 2024 Republican presidential candidates by Fox News host Tucker Carlson – put him in line with ex-president Donald Trump. But a number of prominent Republicans, including senators Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham, immediately pushed back against his comments.

As many have pointed out, DeSantis’s current position on Ukraine stands in sharp contrast to the one he struck as a congressman nine years ago, when Moscow annexed Crimea. He called for the US to provide lethal aid to Ukraine while decrying what he described as then-president Barack Obama’s “policy of weakness”.

How the “flip-flop” (as Trump called it) will play for DeSantis remains to be seen, but both Trump and former US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley have jumped at the opportunity to accuse him of hypocritically aping Trump’s position, presumably in an attempt to win over the former president’s voter base.

Get our free Daily Email

Get one whole story, direct to your inbox every weekday.

Although DeSantis has not yet officially announced a bid for the 2024 Republican presidential candidacy, he is widely regarded as a frontrunner and Trump’s most serious rival – a position borne out by polls.

Public opinion may also be behind DeSantis’s comments about the war in Ukraine. A recent poll shows that almost two-thirds of Republican voters oppose the federal government providing more financial and military aid to Ukraine (even though Americans of all political stripes overwhelmingly view Russia unfavourably).

This row over foreign policy among Republicans may seem to belie my contention from last week that there is very little substantive difference among the party’s presidential hopefuls, all of whom can be expected to maintain the party’s current authoritarian trajectory. But I think this is the exception that proves the rule.

From Trump’s bromance with the brutal ex-Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte to the fawning enthusiasm of many on the US right for the zealously anti-LGBTIQ Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, or the invitation to ex-Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro to speak at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference – contemporary Republicans’ admiration for right-wing authoritarian leaders is no secret.

In this connection, it’s important to remember that, before he launched a full-scale war against Ukraine last year, Vladimir Putin was also widely and openly admired among Republicans, whom he had deliberately courted (both directly and by proxy) through high-level meetings and events such as the World Congress of Families’ annual conferences and the National Prayer Breakfast.

Even those Republicans who oppose Putin still tend to see something to emulate in other right-wing authoritarian leaders

Indeed, by the time Trump took office in 2017, the Russian president had taken on the role of international standard bearer in the battle for ‘traditional values’ and ‘the natural family’, or what American conservatives more often frame these days as the battle against ‘wokeness’.

Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, and his use of proxies in eastern Ukraine to divide and damage the country, did little to deter Republicans’ admiration for him. But his open, full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year was another matter, and the US conservatives who loved Putin for his attacks on the LGBTIQ community and political dissenters began to look instead to Hungary’s Orbán for international leadership.

By invading Ukraine, Putin threw away most of his cultural capital and soft power with the American right. But not every Republican got the memo. Fox News’s Carlson has been and remains a consistent Putin apologist, repeating Kremlin talking points on TV even as he also heaps praise on Bolsonaro and Orbán.

As for Trump, even now he seems to have convinced himself that he has a special connection to the Russian president, as he continues to claim that he could have prevented the current war by brokering a deal in which Ukraine ceded territory to Russia (that is to say, by giving the Kremlin exactly what it wanted without the slightest regard for international law or Ukrainian sovereignty).

What’s most important to keep in mind is not so much that some Republicans are still admirers of Putin (as repugnant as that is), but that even those who oppose Putin still tend to see something to emulate in other right-wing authoritarian leaders. This makes the divide between the pro-Putin and anti-Putin Republicans a less important divide than it would appear to be at first blush.

As Connecticut senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, said recently, the Republican Party has “decided to turn its back on democracy”, and Republicans have “tremendous affection for dictators” because they’re willing to sacrifice democracy to maintain power.

Murphy continued: “I worry that DeSantis’s and Trump’s support for Putin and opposition to Ukraine is part and parcel of a broader lack of enthusiasm for democracy and self-governance.”

It’s that “broader lack of enthusiasm for democracy” – a mild way to put it, frankly – that animates the current Republican leadership, and that should be of concern no matter which candidate ends up running for president in 2024.

We’ve got a newsletter for everyone

Whatever you’re interested in, there’s a free openDemocracy newsletter for you.

Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData