President Joe Biden wants to send Russian President Vladimir Putin a message: that the era of Donald Trump is over, that the United States won’t ignore Putin’s crimes anymore, and that the world’s democracies are united against Russian aggression. That’s why, before his meeting with Putin in Switzerland on Wednesday, Biden conferred with European leaders and reaffirmed NATO’s unity. But as Biden works to project solidarity and resolve, he’s hobbled by a political base that Trump has built for Putin in the United States: a Republican Party infested with Kremlin sympathizers and opponents of NATO.
Republicans used to be tough on Russia. But when they surrendered to Trump in 2016, many of them surrendered to Putin, too. In Gallup polls before 2016, Republicans generally viewed Russia less favorably than Democrats did. Now it’s the other way around. In polls taken by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Republicans used to be more likely than Democrats to view Russia as a critical threat and to emphasize containment of Russian power rather than “friendly cooperation.” By 2017, those numbers had turned upside down: Only one in three Republicans described Russia’s military power as a critical threat, and most said the U.S. should focus on cooperation instead of limiting Russia’s power.
Today, Trump is out of office, but the partisan realignment persists. By margins of 10 to 20 percentage points, Republicans are less likely than Democrats to agree that Russia is an enemy, less likely to express concern about “the poisoning of opposition leaders and the suppression of dissent within Russia,” and more likely to insist on “friendly relations.” Only 4 percent of Republicans, compared to 44 percent of Democrats, identify Russia as “the United States’ greatest geopolitical threat.” Only 29 percent of Republicans, compared to 51 percent of Democrats, agree that Russia is “an enemy of the United States.”
Many Republicans personally trust or admire Putin. Seventy-five percent of Democrats agree that he “poses a threat to the United States,” but only 60 percent of Republicans do. Twenty percent of Republicans and Republican leaners, compared to 12 percent of Democrats and Democratic leaners, are confident that he’ll “do the right thing regarding world affairs.” More than 60 percent of Democrats view Putin very unfavorably, but only 30 percent to 40 percent of Republicans do. In two polls taken this week—one by Morning Consult for Politico, the other by YouGov for the Economist—Putin has a better net favorable rating among Republicans than Biden does, by margins of 16 and 22 points, respectively.
These soft attitudes weaken Biden’s hand. They indicate to the Kremlin that when Biden threatens to use force or impose sanctions, Republicans won’t back him. Last year, in a Chicago Council poll, most Democrats endorsed the use of American troops to defend our Baltic allies from Russian invasion, but most Republicans didn’t. In April, when an Economist/YouGov survey asked about new sanctions the U.S. imposed on Russia over hacking allegations, three-quarters of Democrats supported the sanctions, but fewer than half of Republicans did.
Trump has also turned Republicans against NATO. At the outset of his presidency, Republicans viewed NATO more favorably than unfavorably. Within a year, his propaganda against the alliance and its member states had reversed that. In 2017, Republicans opposed withdrawal from NATO by a ratio of more than two to one; a year later, on the same question, they were evenly divided. In 2020, a Chicago Council survey found that Republican support for NATO had fallen to its lowest level “since the question was first asked in 1974.” In this week’s Economist/YouGov poll, Republicans viewed NATO unfavorably by a decisive margin, 49 percent to 31 percent. And while more than 70 percent of Democrats say the U.S. should maintain its commitment “to defend NATO allies when they are attacked,” only 52 percent of Republicans agree.
When Republicans are asked about France and Germany, two of our strongest NATO allies, their feelings are lukewarm at best. In a February Politico/Morning Consult survey, 58 percent of Democrats called France an ally, but only 38 percent of Republicans did. The gap was similar on Germany, and a poll for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute found almost the same results. In a February Gallup poll, only 5 percent of Democrats viewed France unfavorably, but 20 percent of Republicans did. In a survey by the Pew Research Center, roughly three-quarters of Democrats and Democratic leaners expressed confidence that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron would do the right thing, but fewer than half of Republicans agreed.
Beyond NATO, a partisan gap has opened over the whole idea of defending democracy. In a 2018 Chicago Council poll, 54 percent of Democrats said “the decline of democracy around the world” was a critical threat to U.S. interests. Only 36 percent of Republicans shared that view. A year later, 52 percent of Democrats said “the rise of authoritarianism” was a critical threat; only 30 percent of Republicans agreed. Three months ago, in a survey by the Center for American Progress, 72 percent of Democrats agreed that “America has clear security and economic interests in building alliances with other democracies to protect individual rights and fight corruption.” Only 52 percent of Republicans felt that way. In February, the Reagan foundation found that 71 percent of Democrats were willing to invest more money in “promoting freedom abroad,” but most Republicans weren’t.
When Putin interfered in the 2016 U.S. election, his goal was to sow mutual distrust among Americans and weaken our country. He hoped to boost Trump, but he figured that Hillary Clinton would win, and he wanted to cripple her. Five years later, Trump has delivered more than the Kremlin could have asked for: He turned Americans against one another, attacked our institutions, attempted a coup, and relentlessly defended Russian aggression. To this day, Trump denounces our government as illegitimate. And he has built a political force that will serve Putin well in his confrontations with Biden: a Republican Party that has cooled to NATO and warmed to Russia.