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The Rising Tide of Conservative Isolationism
The first of a two-part look at the politics of U.S. foreign policy.
Right now, at least, it doesn’t look like that foreign policy will play much of a role—if any—in the upcoming 2024 presidential election campaign. That’s not surprising considering how little concern Americans show about foreign policy issues: the most recent iteration of TLP’s own national tracking poll, for instance, just four percent of voters said Russia’s war against Ukraine ranked as one of the three top issues facing the country today.
But foreign policy is shaping up to a major dividing line between Democrats and Republicans, with their likely presidential standard-bearers presenting Americans with their clearest choice between internationalism and isolationism since before the Second World War. It’s a divide that could take on unanticipated relevance as the presidential campaign unfolds over the course to the next year, as candidates vie for every possible advantage and world events unexpectedly intrude on the America’s own election calendar.
In a future post, we’ll examine to the somewhat surprising embrace of internationalism among Democrats. But first, we’ll look at the increasing turn to conservative isolationism among Republicans—a turn deepened and solidified by former president Trump’s continued stranglehold over the party.
When Trump skulked out of office in January 2021, it was possible to view his genre of belligerent conservative isolationism—aptly branded “America First”—as an aberration. Without Trump, the GOP would return to the sort of foreign policy advocated by many of its leading elected officials, like Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. There were in fact grounds to believe this might happen: for instance, McConnell and a number of his Senate Republican colleagues have strongly backed American aid to Ukraine’s fight against Russia. It remained possible that they would carry the day within the party, if only by default.
In reality, however, the Republican Party itself seems to be headed in the opposite direction, gravitating more and more toward the isolationist foreign policy of Trump and his acolytes. It’s no exaggeration to say that isolationism has become the dominant strand of foreign policy thought within the party itself. To put it another way, the Republican Party as it exists today is largely isolationist.
How did this state of affairs come to pass?
The simple and correct answer is former president Trump, who still dominates the party and remains its standard-bearer. He maintains a commanding lead over his main 2024 primary rivals, very few of whom have directly challenged him or his foreign policy stances. They’ve either stayed quiet or, as in the case of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, echoed Trump on issues like the war in Ukraine or sending the U.S. military into Mexico to fight drug cartels. Even those critical of Trump’s stances on specific foreign policy questions have tiptoed around criticisms of his overall America First worldview. Former South Carolina governor and UN ambassador Nikki Haley bashed his position on Ukraine, for instance, while simultaneously claiming Trump “used to be good on foreign policy.”
It's certainly possible (if improbable) that Trump will blow his substantial lead and lose the Republican nomination race next year. Even so, it’s clear that many ambitious Republicans see isolationism as a political winner, the wave of their party’s future—a position they need to hold if they want Republican primary voters to nominate them as a candidate for high office.
That’s apparent in Congress, where more internationalist conservatives like McConnell have seen their influence wane in the face of a loud and intransigent conservative isolationist minority. This minority remains just that, but it’s larger and more influential within the House GOP caucus than ever before. Last July, for instance, some 117 House Republicans—over half of the 222-member Republican caucus—voted for an amendment to the annual defense bill that would have cut off all U.S. security assistance to Ukraine. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), the conservative internationalist currently chairing the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called an identical move in July “very disturbing” and “irresponsible.” Worse, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) appeased his isolationist caucus and stripped aid to Ukraine from recent stopgap measures to keep the government open. And while McConnell pressed his Senate conference to back funding for Ukraine, his GOP colleagues overruled their leader.
The new Republican isolationist caucus also tends to be newer and, in many cases, younger; they’re also often smitten by the illiberal, Putin-friendly politics of Viktor Orban’s Hungary and aim to replicate them in some fashion at home. Prominent isolationist voices in the Senate include Sens. Josh Hawley (R-MO), Mike Lee (R-UT), J.D. Vance (R-OH), the last of whom spearheaded a letter signed by two dozen senators and representatives opposing further aid to Ukraine. It’s not clear whether these Republicans are entirely sincere in their embrace of isolationism or, as outgoing Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) posits, making cynical political calculations based on the direction they think the Republican base is headed. Either way, it gives a sense of who has the momentum within the party—and shows that many elected Republicans don’t need a weatherman to know which way the ideological wind blows.
In the House, America First acolytes like Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida and the far-right Freedom Caucus effectively set the agenda for the GOP. (Gaetz himself does not appear to be a formal member of the group.) No matter what Republican House leaders and committee chairmen themselves may believe, they feel they must accede to the demands of this nihilistic minority faction. Witness Speaker McCarthy refusing to host Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during his recent visit to Washington out of fear such a meeting would jeopardize his own speakership. For his part, McConnell has reportedly privately warned the Biden administration and Democratic Senate leaders to secure as much aid for Ukraine now while they can still get it—a warning that looks prescient after House isolationists successfully stripped Ukraine funding from recently passed legislation to keep the government open.
In many ways, the ascendence of conservative isolationism in the GOP represents a return to form for the Republican Party. A streak of belligerent isolationism has always been present within the party, from the time it first became a self-conscious worldview in the run-up to American intervention in World War I to the present day. It’s a sentiment that’s been expressed in various ways over the years and decades, from Charles Lindbergh’s original America First movement against American involvement in World War II and the Cold War-era foreign policy stylings of Sens. Robert Taft (R-OH), Joseph McCarthy (R-WI), and Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) to Trump’s own modern version of America First.
Whatever the era, conservative isolationists focus on internal enemies—American Jews for Lindbergh, communists for McCarthy and his ilk, the so-called “deep state” for Trump and his fellow travelers. They likewise look closer to home for foreign enemies: where Lindbergh promoted “an independent American destiny” that entailed respect for a fascist sphere of influence in Europe so as to preserve American dominion over the Western hemisphere, Trump and other Republican presidential hopefuls muse about sending the U.S. military into Mexico to fight drug cartels. Now as then, some conservative isolationists ignore clear and present threats to security in Europe while demanding America focus its strategic attention almost entirely on Asia alone—this time primarily through tough talk on China that they have no idea how or real inclination to actually back up.
The political and intellectual forces that once counterbalanced and fended off conservative isolationist tendencies within the Republican Party have vanished. Where the Republican coalition was once more ideologically diverse, containing liberals and moderates as well as conservatives, it’s now monolithically conservative. Party leaders like Wendell Willkie, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan once either dismissed or marginalized conservative isolationists, while today’s Republican leaders fear and appease them—if they’re not America First adherents themselves. Conservative internationalist intellectuals bolted the party when Trump became its nominee in 2016, and precious few have returned to the partisan fold since then. The cadre of “grown-ups” who contained Trump’s worst tendencies in his first term will similarly find themselves in exile should Trump win a second term in office.
All in all, conservative isolationists face an open field and possess a clear path to dominate the Republican Party’s foreign policy debates.
Though they remain a numerical minority within the Republican Party, conservative isolationists clearly have the wind at their political backs. Equally important, ambitious Republican politicians believe that isolationism become their party’s foreign policy center of gravity. Sincerely or not, they believe they can win Trump-backing Republican primary voters in part through appeals to his brand of conservative isolationism. Conservative internationalists, by contrast, have seen their ranks thin as intellectuals and former government officials abandon an increasingly isolationist political movement. More moderate members like Romney have similarly chosen to retire rather than remain in office and deal with the Trump-style politics that dominate their own party.
Trump’s own standing as the Republican Party’s once-and-future standard-bearer will only accelerate and cement its slide into isolationism. He and its acolytes effectively set the party’s foreign policy agenda, no matter how many conservative internationalists may run important committees in Congress. Conservative isolationists will continue to strike deeper roots in the party itself so long as Trump remains its de facto leader. Only when Trump himself is soundly defeated will his America First followers and their conservative isolationism truly go into retreat—and even then they will likely remain a potent force within the Republican Party for the foreseeable future.
Until that hopeful day, however, we’ll have to contend with a major American political party that wants to party like it’s 1939. That’s incredibly dangerous to international security and the cause of freedom around the world—to say nothing of America’s own national interests—given the vital role America plays in global politics. If America shirks the geopolitical responsibilities that come with its objective economic and military might, it’s impossible to imagine that the resulting world will remain stable—much less favorable to American material interests or values like freedom and democracy. By the middle of the twentieth century, modern conservative internationalists came to see the wisdom inherent in American engagement overseas after a pair of bloody world wars and amidst a global confrontation with communism. Today’s conservative isolationists hark back to a world that never was with a foreign policy that would only do grievous harm to the United States.
For the world at large, the threat that the United States will be forever one election away from absenting itself from the global stage will be a risk that must always be taken into account moving forward—something unprecedented in the modern, post-World War II era. That possibility is indeed a scary one since we’ve twice seen what happens when America doesn’t play a global role commensurate with its power, and it didn’t end well either time. It’s an even more frightening prospect when adding nuclear weapons to the mix.
But with conservative isolationism now dominating the Republican Party’s approach to foreign policy, that’s the reality we all have to live in. It sets up a stark choice for American voters in 2024: whether they know it or not, they’ll set America’s foreign policy on either an isolationist or an internationalist path.
We’ll explore the newfound Democratic embrace of internationalism in a subsequent post.