What do Trump’s Putin comments mean for the future of the GOP?
To learn how the definition of conservative has changed in America, consider the story of Saul Anuzis.
His parents were fans of Democratic President John F. Kennedy, but on the University of Michigan campus one day in the late 1970s, a Republican congressman from Illinois named Phil Crane caught his eye.
“He gave a speech in front of the students,” recalls Anuzis. “He said, ‘I’d rather stick to my principles and lose than lose my principles and win. And as a young student ideologist, I’m like, “Yeah, that’s me.”
Principles were important to Anuzis, especially a fierce anti-communism, stemming from the childhood lessons of a family that had fled Soviet-controlled Lithuania after World War II. Anuzis joined a Republican party then buoyed by its fierce opposition to Moscow’s oppression, with universal human rights at the top of the conservative agenda with limited government at home.
In 1979, when Anuzis began attending a young gathering of activists called the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), former California Governor Ronald Reagan was launching what would eventually become a successful bid for the White House. .
Reagan was a mainstay of CPAC at that time; Now read his speeches and you will quickly see how, in the face of enthusiastic responses, he spoke generously of freedom at home and abroad.
“All over the world, the Soviet Union and its agents, client states, and satellites are on the defensive: on the moral defensive, the intellectual defensive, and the political and economic defensive,” Reagan told CPAC in 1985, months after his second inauguration. “Freedom movements are emerging and asserting themselves. They do this on almost every continent populated by men – in the hills of Afghanistan, in Angola, in Kampuchea, in Central America. In mentioning the freedom fighters, we are all privileged to have with us tonight one of the brave commanders who lead the Afghan freedom fighters, Abdul Haq. Abdul Haq, we are with you.”
“They are our brothers, these freedom fighters, and we owe them our help,” he continued.
To varying degrees, the sentiment continued for the next 25 years.
“The Evil Empire was clearly the focus of most people’s minds,” Anuzis now says.
In fact, this year’s CPAC in Orlando coincided with Moscow once again in the headlines. The Soviet Union collapsed more than 30 years ago, but observers believe Russian President Vladimir Putin is seeking to recreate its extent with a bloody invasion of Ukraine.
Anuzis, former chairman of the Michigan State Republican Party, knows what speeches at CPAC would have sounded like a generation or two ago.
“Traditionally, a conservative would support self-determination, be anti-communist, be very supportive, not necessarily put boots on the ground in Ukraine, but participate in a way where the freedom of those people around the world was just as important as the freedoms here in the United States.
But the most influential figure on the right since Reagan is Donald Trump, and his view of Russia is decidedly complicated.
In a radio interview last week, Trump described Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as ‘brilliant’ and ‘scholarly’, the latest in a series of remarks apparently expressing his admiration for Russia’s authoritarian leader. .
In a nearly 90-minute speech to CPAC on Saturday night, Trump called the war appalling, outrageous and atrocious, but he mentioned President Joe Biden far more than Putin. And unlike the first, Trump never directly criticized the Russian leader.
About Putin he said: “Of course he is smart – but the real problem is that our leaders are stupid. Idiot. So silly.”
A mock CPAC poll released the next day — with a very small sample, but still closely monitored to gauge conservative preferences — found Trump remains the overwhelming choice for the 2024 nomination, with 59% support from poll respondents. The next closest contender, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a rising star in conservative circles, scored 28%, nearly 30 points behind Trump.
Years of foreign wars and entanglements have disappointed MANY Republican voters, and Trump’s “America First” philosophy still appeals to a large portion of them.
The poll found that there are more concerns about “election integrity” and illegal immigration to the southern border than Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Foreign policy failed to rank among the top three issues among respondents.
Unsurprisingly, “election integrity” and immigration were the main themes of Trump’s speech.
The former president has repeatedly and falsely claimed that he lost the last election to fraud, and he supports candidates who repeat his lies. Numerous recounts, audits and court rulings have concluded that Biden won fairly, and even members of Trump’s own cabinet, including his former attorney general William Barr, have attested to the same.
As for immigration, a sign spotted outside the conference seemed to sum up the sentiment: It was something like Biden caring more about Ukraine’s borders than America’s.
Certainly, other Republicans are unambiguous about their opposition to Putin. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, the party’s 2012 presidential nominee, called Putin an “evil little man with wild eyes.”
But Romney represents only a small wing of a party that Myra Adams, columnist for The Hill, called in an email “the Trumplican party, now more than ever.”
As for Anuzis, 62, he says he voted for Trump twice and would vote again if he was the nominee – but he is looking for a new generation of leaders.
As the conference ended and horseflies and reporters digested the poll, he texted his thoughts.
“I think there’s no doubt he would win the nomination at this time, but I think there’s also a lot of people looking at the next generation of leaders,” Anuzis said.
“Trump’s indecision over whether or not he should run is freezing on the court,” he added. “I don’t think that’s healthy for the party or the Conservative movement.”