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Which Way, GOP? 

July’s Republican National Convention will be the stage for a showdown between the America First wing of the GOP and the warhawks.

Credit: Andrew Cline

In the two weeks since the passage of the Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan aid packages, the contours of an emerging split within the Republican Party have become too obvious to ignore.

On one side are the usual suspects like Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who have never met a war they were not eager to fund, enflame, and send young Americans to fight in. In a ludicrous (even by his standards) floor speech prior to the April 23rd aid package vote, Graham, flanked by an oversized photo of the Twin Towers engulfed in flames, attempted to portray a vote for billions to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan as the surest way to prevent, yes, another 9/11.  


The Graham-Cotton wing of the GOP can fairly be said to have the wind at its back, racking up recent legislative victories with enthusiastic bipartisan support. And the wing’s newest convert to the cause of perpetual war for perpetual defense contracts is no less a personage than House Speaker Mike Johnson. As a backbencher, Johnson could have reasonably been described as America First–friendly—but no more. Johnson now finds himself only the most recent elected official to be seduced by the siren song of politicized intelligence, remarking after the House vote, 

I really do believe the intel and the briefings that we got…. I think Vladimir Putin would continue to march through Europe if he were allowed.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s colleague over in the Capitol’s north wing, Tom Cotton, continues find new and inventive ways to promote Israeli interests, this week threatening members of the International Criminal Court (a body whose jurisdiction the U.S. does not recognize) with sanctions should they have the temerity to issue arrest warrants for Israeli officials. He wrote, in the manner of Rambo, “Target Israel and we will target you.”

All of which raises the question: Can one be America First, Ukraine First, and Israel First all at once?  That seems implausible—and, anyway, the Graham-Cotton wing of the GOP has shown where its true priorities lie. 

On the other side of the debate, Ohio’s Sen. J.D. Vance has taken on the unpleasant but entirely necessary job of taking on neocons like Graham. And Vance’s principled opposition to funding the disastrous war in Ukraine points the way forward in an age when the Democratic establishment is even more irresponsibly hawkish than the Republicans.


In this context it may be worth recalling that the last time the GOP was so divided over America’s role in the world coincided with a presidential election year. Nineteen fifty-two saw a clash for the nomination between another Republican son of Ohio, Sen. Robert Taft, and General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Then as now, the Democratic establishment accused Taft and fellow Ohio Republican Senator John Bricker, a leading opponent of the Truman-Acheson policy of stationing ever more troops in Europe, of “isolationism.” The Nation magazine fretted over the specter of a “widespread revival of blind isolationism,” while Arthur M. Schlesinger, the Harvard historian and adviser to the Democratic standard bearer Adlai Stevenson, decried the emergence of “a New Isolationism, bent upon what promises to be a fundamental attack on the foreign policy to which the United States and the free world are presently committed.” 

Taft, an early backer of the America First Committee, opposed the creation of NATO and criticized the scope of the Marshall Plan and Truman Doctrine. But Eisenhower rode to the nomination and ultimately the presidency with the support of the postwar internationalist establishment—that nexus of Wall Street, the Pentagon, and the burgeoning intelligence apparatus that included, among others, Allen and John Foster Dulles. 

Eisenhower’s farewell address, eight years after his triumph over Taft (and, in the general election, over Stevenson) warned of the dangers such a nexus posed to the welfare of the country—indeed, it might reasonably be viewed as Ike’s tacit acknowledgment that Taft might have been right after all.

Fast forward 70 years and we seem to be right back where we started. But the question now is: Where does the current Republican standard bearer fit into all this?

It is a question that, alas, lacks a good answer, because Trump seems intent on keeping both sides of the divide placated—and his critics guessing. The other, extremely plausible, possibility is that he doesn’t quite know himself.

Yet when considering where Trump fits into all this, it might be helpful to keep in mind that he has always been something of a political shape-shifter.

This is certainly true if one looks at who is advising him on foreign policy. Numerous reports indicate that Trump’s inner sanctum consists of people representing a wide spectrum of views, from America First champions like Steve Bannon and Richard Grenell, to mainstream Republicans like the former National Security Advisor Robert C. O’Brien, to uber-hawkish hard-liners like the retired General Keith Kellogg and the former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

So where does the former and perhaps future president stand on issues like Israel and Ukraine?

In a tedious interview with TIME magazine in early April, Trump confined his criticism of the IDF rampage: “I think that Israel has done one thing very badly: public relations.” 

When asked if he would back Israel if a war broke out between Israel and Iran, he answered,

I have been very loyal to Israel, more loyal than any other president. I’ve done more for Israel than any other president. Yeah, I will protect Israel.

Did it not seem to take him a beat to get to ‘yes’?

On the issue of Ukraine funding, Trump was, well, Trump. Asked by TIME’s Eric Cortellessa if he would continue to provide aid to Ukraine Trump answered,

I’m going to try and help Ukraine but Europe has to get there also and do their job. They’re not doing their job. Europe is not paying their fair share.

The upcoming Republican National Convention in July will provide Trump with an opportunity passed up in his interview with TIME—to spell out which side of the GOP foreign policy debate he is really on.