Election 2024: Are Republicans Turning Isolationist?

I noted last week that public opinion polls don’t support the claim that Americans have turned decidedly inward on foreign policy. But something has changed in America’s foreign policy debate, as the stalemate over aid to Ukraine makes clear. That change is the dramatic shift in foreign policy views among Republicans.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ polls illustrate the point dramatically. Last fall’s poll found that 53 percent of self-identified Republicans believed that the United States should stay out of world affairs rather than take an active part. That was the first time in the nearly fifty years that the Chicago Council has been polling Americans about their foreign policy views that a majority of Republicans chose the stay-out option.

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The finding is all the more remarkable because Republicans historically have been far more likely than Democrats to support an active U.S. role in world affairs. That was true even in 1982 when overall public support for an active U.S. role hit its all-time low of 54 percent. With Ronald Reagan in the White House, 64 percent of Republicans backed an active role in world affairs.

Why have so many Republicans soured on an active U.S. role in the world affairs? A clue to the answer lies in when Republican support for active role dipped below Democratic support for the first time: 2016.

The Republican Party, like the Democratic Party, has always had a substantial minority of voters wanting the United States to do less overseas. But historically, Republican leaders pushed back against so-called isolationist sentiment. That was true in 1951 when Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower offered Robert Taff of Ohio, the apparent front-runner for the Republican nomination for president and a staunch opponent of NATO, a deal: He would not run for president if Taft committed to a strong U.S. role in NATO. Taft declined and Eisenhower became president.

The same was true three decades later when public support for internationalism dropped as economic woes at home grew. Reagan leaned into his activist foreign policy rather than abandon it.

And it remained true in 1999 when George W. Bush launched his bid for president. He criticized Bill Clinton’s activist foreign policy, famously (and inaccurately) promising to pursue a “humble” foreign policy. That was a deft political nod to those Republicans, who Pat Buchanan targeted in challenging the elder Bush’s reelection bid in 1992, who wanted the United States to do less overseas. But Bush also stressed that he did not intend to retreat from the world or turn his back on America’s allies. In the campaign speech laying out his foreign policy vision, which he delivered at the Ronald Reagan library, the younger Bush warned against the temptation “to build a proud tower of protectionism and isolation.” Giving into that temptation, he argued, would lead inevitably to “a stagnant America and a savage world.”

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Rather than pushing back against voices calling for the United States to do less overseas as Eisenhower, Bush, and countless other leading Republicans traditionally have done, Donald Trump has encouraged them. His position isn’t born out of political calculation. He has been arguing that the United States should do less and “make Japan, Saudi Arabia, and others pay for the protection we extend as allies” at least since his September 1987 self-paid advertisement in the New York Times.

That view has resonated with a significant segment of the Republican electorate. Republicans who hold the most favorable views of Trump are now the most hostile to the idea of an active role in the world. Just 40 percent of so-called Trump Republicans favor an active U.S. role in the world, compared to 52 percent of so-called non-Trump Republicans. And while it’s impossible to prove using polling data, Trump’s attacks on how his predecessors—and his successor—have approached relations with the rest of world likely have increased the intensity of the hostility that skeptics have about an active U.S. role in the world by substantiating it.

The traditional Republican approach to foreign policy represented by Eisenhower, Reagan, and the two Bushes remains the preferred approach of most Republicans on Capitol Hill. Twenty-two Republican senators joined with all but two Democrats to pass the Ukraine aid package last month. If a secret vote could be arranged for that bill, it would likely pass easily in the House. But a secret vote isn’t in the offing. Lawmakers are sensitive to political winds. And in Republican circles the winds are now blowing stiffly in the direction of doing less and not more.

Campaign Update

Third-party candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. named his running mate, attorney and tech entrepreneur Natalie Shanahan. She has never run for public office or served in government or the military. Thirty-eight years old, Shanahan was born and raised in Oakland, California. Her father was a white American and her mother a Chinese immigrant. Shanahan was married to Sergei Brin, a co-founder of Google, from 2018 to 2022.

At the announcement introducing Shanahan, she said that “recently as a year ago, I didn’t think much of Bobby Kennedy.” Then, at a friend’s urging, she listened to an interview with the man whose father was assassinated while campaigning for president in 1968. Shanahan said it was the younger Kennedy’s “commitment to peace and to the welfare of hard-working people in America that drew me, as a person of compassion, to his candidacy.”

Trump responded to Kennedy’s announcement by suggesting that the Kennedy-Shanahan ticket will benefit him. “He [Kennedy] is Crooked Joe Biden’s Political Opponent, not mine,” the forty-fifth president posted on Truth Social. “I love that he is running!” Polls suggest that is true, at least for the moment. But that could easily change.

The Candidates in Their Own Words

Trump sat for an interview with Israel Hayom, an Israeli daily newspaper owned by the family of Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate and longtime Republican Party supporter who died in 2021. Trump argued that Israel needs to move quickly to defeat Hamas:

You have to finish up your war. To finish it up. You gotta get it done. And, I am sure you will do that. And we gotta get to peace, we can’t have this going on. And I will say, Israel has to be very careful, because you’re losing a lot of the world, you’re losing a lot of support, you have to finish up, you have to get the job done. And you have to get on to peace, to get on to a normal life for Israel, and for everybody else.

Trump also used the interview to attack Biden:

He can’t talk. He’s a very dumb person. He’s a dumb person. His foreign policy throughout fifty years has been horrible. If you look at people that were in other administrations with him, they saw him as a weak, ineffective president, they [Hamas] would have never done that attack if I were there. 

Trump also repeated his claim that Jewish Americans who question Israel’s actions in Gaza “hate Israel.”

What the Pundits Are Saying

An analysis by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a group aligned with the Democratic Party, concluded that Trump’s proposal to impose a 10 percent across-the-board tariff on top of existing tariffs on imports would cost Americans dearly. Specifically, the tariff “would amount to roughly a $1,500 annual tax increase for the typical household, including a $90 tax increase on food, at $90 tax increase on prescription drugs, and a $120 tax increase on oil and petroleum products.” Those specific numbers can be debated. The general point, however, can’t. Tariffs literally are taxes on imports. It’s rare that the burden of those taxes can be shifted entirely to foreign exporters. So higher tariffs almost inevitably mean that buyers pay more.

FiveThirtyEight’s Kaleigh Rogers reviewed the steps that U.S. states are taking to curb the impact of deepfakes on the 2024 election. While ten states have passed legislation to regulate deepfakes, it’s unclear that the laws are sufficiently comprehensive or can withstand a First Amendment challenge. So while “the new laws are a good first step at addressing these threats,” in Rogers’s view, “the election may uncover all the ways in which they fall short.”

The Washington Post’s Beth Reinhard, Jon Swaine, and Aaron Schaffer reported that former Trump administration diplomat and intelligence official Richard Grenell is acting “as a kind of shadow secretary of state, meeting with far-right leaders and movements, pledging Trump’s support and, at times, working against the current [Biden] administration’s policies.” The Post’s reporters added that “it’s unusual for a former diplomatic official to continue meeting with foreign leaders and promoting the agenda of a presidential candidate on the world stage.” 

Liana Fix and Michael Kimmage argued in Foreign Affairs that a second Trump presidency poses a more dire threat to the transatlantic relationship than his first term did. “His plans will matter less than his character. Profoundly amoral, Trump will do anything he thinks will get him attention, make him money, or enhance his power and position. Because he will be more unbound in a second term, because European countries’ efforts to strengthen themselves have been insufficient, and because Putin’s boldness is growing, in the blink of an eye Trump could wreck the transatlantic relationship.”

What the Polls Show

Bloomberg/Morning Consult released a poll on Tuesday showing that Biden had narrowed the gap in six of seven swing states. The exception to the trend was Georgia, where Trump increased his lead by one percentage point. Trump still leads, however, in four states: Arizona (5 points), Georgia (7 points), Nevada (2 points), and North Carolina (6 points). The two are tied in Michigan and Pennsylvania. Biden leads only in Wisconsin (1 point). One curiosity in the poll results is that nearly seven out of ten respondents across all seven swing states favor higher taxes on billionaires. That is a position that Biden supports and Trump opposes. One (big) caveat to the poll results. Bloomberg/Morning Consult poll looked at registered voters. That’s not the same as likely voters.

Gallup released a poll on Wednesday showing that a majority of Americans now disapprove of how Israel is prosecuting its war on Hamas. Back in November, Gallup found that half of Americans approved of “the military action Israel has taken in Gaza.” In this week’s poll, just 36 percent did. Support for Israel’s military operations declined across all political identifications. That said, far more Democrats (75 percent) and Independents (60 percent) than Republicans (30 percent) oppose Israel’s actions. The poll results highlight the political challenge that Biden faces in Gaza in addition to the substantive foreign policy challenge.

The Campaign Schedule

Trump’s criminal trial in New York state court for falsifying business records to hide his relationship with Stormy Daniels is set to begin in seventeen days (April 15, 2024).

The oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court on Trump’s claim that he has blanket immunity for all his actions while president are set to begin in twenty-seven days (April 25, 2024).

The Republican National Convention opens in Milwaukee in 108 days (July 15, 2024).

The Democratic National Convention opens in Chicago in 143 days (August 19, 2024).

Election Day is 221 days away.

Inauguration Day is 297 days away.

Sinet Adous assisted in the preparation of this post.

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