I was brought up on Dan Quayle jokes. You know the ones — like the gag that the then vice-president had turned up in Latin America and apologized for not speaking Latin. Thankfully vice-presidents are no longer a laughing stock. Today we have Kamala Harris.
Anyway, probably the most memorable line about Quayle was that people were surprised he was able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Yet recently such a feat has indeed come to seem extraordinary to the American right. Today’s Republicans seem to believe that America can have a foreign policy or a domestic policy, but not both.
Just consider the main talking points on the American right relating to the war in Ukraine. A few months ago the fringe yet noisome congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene condemned the American government for sending money “to defend Ukraine’s border, but not America’s border.” You don’t have to go to the fringes to find this argument: from conservative pundits to the new Republican speaker of the House, it has become mainstream to pretend that if US money was not going to arm Ukrainians, then the builders would be down on the southern border constructing a wall to stop illegal migrants coming in.
The idea is a preposterous one. Donald Trump ran an entire successful presidential campaign claiming that he was going to create a border wall. He failed to do so. The notion that, were it not for Ukraine, the Biden administration could be busily building away is fantasy. But it is part of a fantasy the confused American right is stuck in.
The other conservative talking point about Ukraine is that Ukraine is uniquely corrupt and therefore undeserving of aid. This is what leads figures such as Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Representative Jim Jordan and chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee Michael McCaul to repeat that America must not send “blank checks” to Ukraine. As though anyone is suggesting it should.
In private, many of these Republican lawmakers say they are voicing the concerns expressed in their mailbags. Republican voters are undoubtedly wary about involvement in foreign wars. These voters — like many of their representatives — are scarred (sometimes literally) from the failed wars of the 2000s. The lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan have steered the mainstream American right towards a form of isolationism. And while it was once the American left that said the US had no right to go around imposing its worldview on other countries, today this argument is more commonly heard on the right.
Anyone interested in where the winds are blowing need look no further than recent statements from Ron DeSantis. DeSantis has been a hugely successful governor of Florida. He has not only helped his state boom, he has also been willing to take on leftist orthodoxies, from Covid policies to teaching of Critical Race Theory. He has shown himself deft at not just picking fights but winning them — one of the reasons so many Republicans would like to see him run for president. Certainly he seems the only candidate who could knock Trump from pole position.
But if there is one thing that DeSantis has a weak spot over it is foreign policy. He has never been a foreign policy guy, and were he to run for president then this is a gap that needs filling. Pressure has been building for him to say what his attitude towards the world beyond America might be if he ever became commander-in-chief.
Last week he was finally bounced into making some remarks about Ukraine. In them, he said that Ukraine and Russia were involved in “a territorial dispute” — which is one way to talk about the military invasion of one country by another. He went on to say that America had too many domestic problems, including “securing our borders,” to regard Ukraine as anything like a “vital national interest.” The only reference to actually doing anything abroad that DeSantis did make was the need to check the “economic, cultural and military power of the Chinese Communist Party.”
Yet one thing these neo-isolationists on the American right do not seem able to acknowledge is that all of this is intimately connected. In the past two weeks alone, Xi Jinping has brokered a putative Middle East peace deal between the Saudis and the Iranians, and also popped up in Moscow as part of his efforts to be the great peacemaker in the Ukraine conflict. He said China was ready and willing to “stand guard” over “global order.” Whether it works or not, this is a clear attempt to replace America as the world’s powerbroker.
Now Republicans and others are expressing horror that President Joe Biden has allowed the CCP to presume to take on this role. But what did they expect? Biden and his secretary of state Antony Blinken have actually been fairly strong on the question of Ukraine. They have trodden a careful line between ensuring that the Ukrainians are able to defend themselves without arming them to the extent that Vladimir Putin suffers a swift and humiliating defeat. Biden and Blinken have already rejected the Chinese “peace deal,” which effectively constitutes a Russian territorial victory.
What are the Republicans suggesting, by contrast? Well, as I said, they’re quick to dismiss writing “blank checks” to Ukraine. Otherwise, just about the only other offering comes from Trump, who has spent the past year boasting that if he were president he could bring about a cessation of the conflict in twenty-four hours. He recently elaborated: apparently “you have to get people in a room” and “knock heads.” Well gee. That’s smart.
People mock Trump. But the truth is that when it comes to foreign policy, one might long for the days of Dan Quayle. Today the mainstream Republican Party is becoming the joke.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s UK magazine. Subscribe to the World edition here.