The initial United States response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been marked by an unusual level of unanimity in public opinion.
According to an Economist/YouGov poll, Americans view Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky favorably by a 60–17 margin and believe by a 70–11 margin that Russian President Vladimir Putin is ordering the commission of war crimes. According to the Navigator group, Putin has a “net favorability” rating of negative 79 even among Republicans.
How could this happen, given that only two years ago the mainstream Republican position was that the Ukrainian government was corruptly involved in supporting the Biden family (or something) and framing Russia for the theft of Hillary Clinton’s emails? And that until just two weeks ago the right-wing media were praising Putin for defending heterosexuality and free speech?
One could speculate:
• Regular Republicans, particularly older ones, may not have paid close enough attention to the ins and outs of Trump’s misconduct, and the right-wing intellectual rationalizations thereof, to realize that Russia was supposed to be on their side now. Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville, for instance, apparently thinks the country’s government is still communist—as did 52 percent of Republicans in an Economist/YouGov poll that concluded March 1. Another 18 percent said it was socialist. (Forty-four percent of Democrats said “communist” and 10 percent said “socialist.” The correct answer, I guess, would be “authoritarian-capitalist with significant input from government-backed organized crime figures”?)
• The right-wing “echo chamber” is such that many of its figures had actually convinced themselves that the purported Russian threat to Ukraine was being concocted for some arcane, corrupt reason by the Biden administration and the liberal media, leaving them flat-footed and temporarily embarrassed when an invasion actually took place.
• There are a number of Republicans who still have some influence within the party, like Karl Rove and Lindsey Graham, who came up during the heady days of shipping U.S.-made weapons to anyone who would promise to use them against the Soviets, up to and including the literal Osama bin Laden. They are aware that Russia’s economic system is not communist but are still genuinely excited about the idea of someone trying to kill Russian guys.
• Ukraine is unmistakably an underdog in this conflict, while Russia is unmistakably the aggressor, and TV news reporting, even on Fox, has highlighted Russia’s attacks on civilians.
But there are cracks in this structure. Mega-MAGA Republican North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn told donors over the weekend that “the Ukrainian government is incredibly corrupt and incredibly evil and has been pushing woke ideologies.” (I have no idea what he means by the “ideologies” part, nor have I been able to find out—my best guess is that Ukraine is presumed to be “woke” because Putin has criticized gender fluidity and “cancel culture” and the GOP’s newer members assume that everyone else is as motivated by cultural rage as they are, rather than by economic and security interests.) Tucker Carlson, meanwhile, has been airing a theory, previously circulated by a QAnon social media account and the conspiracy site Infowars, that the U.S. has been working with Ukraine to develop biological weapons.
Some Republican leaders in Congress, probably for the reasons outlined above, have tried to keep these kinds of theories from gaining ground in their caucus. Will they continue to be successful? Let me answer that question with a series of other questions: Have they been successful in convincing their voters not to elect people who say things on Facebook about how the Rothschild family may have started a wildfire in California using a space laser? Were they successful in convincing their voters to take the COVID vaccine? Did they convince their voters not to believe in QAnon theories about Democratic pedophilia and cannibalism? Did they convince their voters not to believe that “Venezuela, Cuba, and likely China” rigged the election for Joe Biden?
No, and in fact that last claim was made at Republican National Committee headquarters. Past results do not always predict future performance, but they often do, and in this case they predict that some sizable number of Republican voters, media figures, and elected officials will decide that they support the bombing of Ukraine because liberals don’t want them to. Once that decision is made, the consensus that Zelensky is the hero and Putin is the monster will sink into the same slurry of conspiracy theories that swallows everything else.