Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ decision to woo the neo-isolationist wing of the GOP by flip-flopping on Ukraine marks the first major political battle of the 2024 Republican primary season. In response to a question from Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, DeSantis described Putin’s “special military operation” not as an unprovoked war of aggression but as a “territorial dispute” and said that opposing Russia is not a “vital national interest” of the United States. DeSantis’ move is a special pandering operation that is bad policy and bad politics.
Rather than isolating Trump, DeSantis joined him in what the Wall Street Journal’s Kim Strassel aptly calls the GOP’s surrender caucus. In response to the same question about whether opposing Russia in Ukraine is vital to U.S. interests, Trump said, “No, but it is for Europe. But not for the United States.” Both Trump and DeSantis are now running on an appeasement tax. Both expect American families to subsidize, through higher grocery, gas and energy bills, their refusal to confront an aggressor who is committing war crimes and grotesque human rights abuses and, if not checked, could start World War III.
Henry Olsen at the Washington Post summed up DeSantis’ political miscalculation:
Nikki Haley and Mike Pence are already trying to fill that gap. Haley said, “America is far better off with a Ukrainian victory than a Russian victory. If Russia wins, there is no reason to believe it will stop at Ukraine. And if Russia wins, then its closest allies, China and Iran, will become more aggressive. If Russia stopped fighting and left Ukraine, the war would end instantly, and America would no longer need to play a role. If Ukraine stopped fighting, Ukraine would no longer exist, and other countries would legitimately fear they would be next.”
Trump, and now sadly, DeSantis, seem to have drunk deeply from the well of MAGA smugness. Today’s neo-isolationist wing of the GOP likes to think of itself as uniquely qualified to speak on behalf of “real” America, but it is increasingly out of touch and disconnected from the pocketbook concerns of normal Americans who aren’t enamored with who is trading tired talking points about “forever wars” and “globalism” at Mar-a-Lago cocktail parties. Other contenders have an opportunity to speak directly to voters for whom inflation, gas prices and groceries bills are vital interests and explain why those vital concerns are connected to the war in Ukraine.
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Of course, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine isn’t the sole or primary cause of inflation and higher energy prices. The root causes are inflation caused by excessive spending like the $1.9 trillion package from 2021 that former Clinton and Obama economic advisor Larry Summers called, “the least responsible macroeconomic policy we’ve had in the last 40 years” and Biden’s energy policy that is irrationally opposed to American production and permitting reform.
But even if a Republican administration were able to correct Biden’s macroeconomic policy and energy policy mistakes, Russia’s war on Ukraine would still be inflicting significant pain on American families.
As the owner and operator of a 62-acre farm in Maryland where my primary crops are corn, soybeans, and wheat, I have personally seen fertilizer costs skyrocket. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis summed up a problem America’s farmers know intimately:
- Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 exacerbated already tight conditions for global fertilizer supply, pushing fertilizer prices to hit all-time highs in March.
- Fertilizer is among farmers’ largest expenses, and despite measures meant to ease price pressures, a recent survey showed higher input costs were a top concern.
- Natural gas is a key resource for producing fertilizer. Volatility in the natural gas market will likely keep global and U.S. fertilizer prices high for some time.
When wars rage, everyone suffers. Higher input costs to farmers translate into higher food prices at the grocery store. And higher defense spending puts upward pressure on the federal budget and tax rates.
Instead of recycling 1940’s talking points – when “America First” became a slogan – MAGA base-whisperers should ask Iowa farmers and families for a lesson in global economics. Many, I suspect, are rooting for a Ukrainian victory as quickly as possible because they understand the high costs of war.
History shows that appeasement costs more than defeating aggression. MAGA Republicans who believe they have acquired a special and deeply strategic insight about the importance of prioritizing China should also reflect on the nature of alliances. If the United States tells Europe to go at it alone on Ukraine, why is it realistic to assume Europe would aid the United States in a fight with China over Taiwan? America will never have any hope of containing and isolating China economically or militarily without the close cooperation of European and Asian partners like Japan and South Korea. MAGA elites can deride that thinking as globalism. Reagan conservatives, who are still the dominant faction in the GOP, would describe that outlook as realism. One faction put the Soviet Union in the ash heap of history. The other faction has no problem giving totalitarianism new life. Voters can decide what they prefer.
And if China is the key, the Rosetta Stone that unlocks the mysteries of foreign policy, MAGA Republicans should take the hint from the Chinese. This week, Politico reported that China is sending assault rifles and body armor to Russia. If the Chinese view the war in Ukraine a priority, perhaps we should as well.
As the 2024 race heats up, hiding the high costs of appeasement under Mike Lindell’s pillow won’t make the economic pain go away for real Americans. If Trump and DeSantis don’t think voters are smart enough to understand why it’s in America’s interest to help Ukraine win, other contenders who hold voters in higher regard will make that case and reap the political rewards for doing so.