Of the many Republican shibboleths Donald Trump blew up, the party’s foreign policy apparatus is among the most significant. Mr. Trump broke with decades of post-Reagan G.O.P. consensus that America should have a hegemonic presence in world affairs. But it’s not just the content. The way that he did it — often slapdash, based on gut feeling or on the advice of the inexperienced outsiders with whom he surrounded himself — was just as important a shift.
Traditionally, the major influence behind both party’s foreign policies has been the network of think tankers, former officials and other cognoscenti who form what the Obama administration official Ben Rhodes nicknamed “the blob.” While the blob isn’t exactly a monolith, its members generally share similar policy impulses toward internationalism and interventionism, what’s often called a “muscular” foreign policy worldview. During the campaign season, a candidate lacking experience in this arena could, and usually did, select advisers from ideologically friendly blob members who would then become obvious choices to serve in an administration. The hawkish priorities of the Republican donor class played a role, too.
Together, these groups were part of the nebulous machine known as the G.O.P. establishment, whose views trickled down through politicians to the general public and whom Mr. Trump built his core political identity against.
That’s why Nikki Haley and Mike Pence’s support for Ukraine is frequently described as the “establishment view.” But after the changes Mr. Trump put in motion, the hawks are now the outsiders. The Ukraine-skeptical position of Mr. Trump and Ron DeSantis, who together draw the support of three-quarters of Republican primary voters, is more accurately viewed as the current establishment position.
Take the example of Mr. DeSantis. The Florida governor became a star on the right as an aggressive culture warrior fighting liberals on race and gender issues. He has no deep foreign policy experience, and if anyone from the blob is advising him on foreign policy, he certainly isn’t advertising it. Mr. DeSantis mostly stayed mum on the Ukraine issue until earlier this year, when he responded to a candidate questionnaire from Tucker Carlson’s now-canceled show, which had become a major way to shape what the Republican base thinks about policy. Mr. DeSantis minimized the war as a “territorial dispute,” aligning himself with the isolationist argument that the United States has little interest in the conflict and should limit its involvement. It’s likely relevant that support for U.S. aid to Ukraine, while high among the general public, has steadily decreased among Republican voters in opinion polls. Pew polling showed that in March of last year, only 9 percent of Republican respondents thought the United States was too involved; this year, that number had grown to 40 percent.
What caused the shift in opinion among Republican voters, apart from simple impatience with the war and dissatisfaction with the Biden administration? Those factors certainly play a role. But alongside this is a structural shift: The influence cycle now runs in a never-ending loop between politicians and their voter base — a loop that now excludes the NATO-loving wonks of the former establishment and instead flows through powerful nodes in the conservative media ecosystem, like the former Fox News star Mr. Carlson and the current one Laura Ingraham.
Mr. Trump has a talent for the populist art of reflecting supporters’ instincts, feeding off them and intensifying them. It’s not as though he invented the isolationist strain in Republican foreign policy thinking; Mr. Trump’s views echo the old-school pre-World War II anti-internationalism kept alive by more marginal figures like Patrick Buchanan and Ron Paul. But he did intuit its potentially broad appeal to voters who distrust elite decision-making. Mr. DeSantis, instead of intuiting this potential, merely mirrored a position to an audience already primed to accept it.
Mr. Trump, with his bloodhound’s nose for potential weakness in his competition, dismissed Mr. DeSantis as a copycat who is merely “following” him. “Whatever I want, he wants,” Mr. Trump said in March after Mr. DeSantis’s initial statement on Ukraine. Ms. Haley, Mr. Trump’s former ambassador to the U.N., who is herself running for president this cycle, also accused Mr. DeSantis of “copying” Mr. Trump. “Voters deserve a choice, not an echo,” she said. Other former establishment hawks were predictably upset, including the senators Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham. The blob has its own allies like Ms. Haley, or like Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state who traveled to Ukraine recently to meet President Zelensky and argued that arming the country saves the United States money in the long run.
Amid the backlash, Mr. DeSantis did retreat somewhat. In an appearance on Piers Morgan’s show in March, he said that his “territorial dispute” remark had been “mischaracterized” and he was simply referring to contested areas in eastern Ukraine, and that he believed Vladimir Putin is a “war criminal.”
The Iraq War is a lasting blot on the blob’s reputation that led directly to the populist foreign policy we see on the right today. Before Mr. Trump, Republicans chose two nominees in a row — John McCain and Mitt Romney — who supported the war as the public’s approval of it plummeted. Outside of a few examples from the libertarian-leaning wing of the party, like Mr. Paul and his son Rand, leading voices on the right hadn’t caught up with this change. Anger over the Iraq failure, and the elites who caused it, fed directly into the whirlpool of discontent that Mr. Trump was able to channel and reinforced his base’s belief in the righteousness of his “America First” worldview.
Populism as a governing principle can be unpredictable, yoked as it is to the whims of the populace, and foreign policy is an area where the populace isn’t extremely informed. Forty percent of Republican voters might want less involvement in Ukraine now, but what about a month from now? Or six months from now, when the primaries will be just around the corner? What about without Mr. Carlson’s show airing on Fox News? Knowing the best way — or even any way — to handle a complicated situation like Ukraine is why the blob exists.
The public got a rare glimpse at what people in the government really think, thanks to the huge recent leak of Pentagon documents that showed just how nervous U.S. officials really are about the situation in Ukraine. A major point scored against the blob. But the leaker’s alleged motive — to impress his friends in a Discord group called Thug Shaker Central — is a miniature version of the populist foreign policy merry-go-round. The leaker may have embarrassed the government and wowed the teen members of his online chat group, but at the likely long-term cost of his personal freedom. In Mr. Trump’s case, on-the-fly promises and boasts often didn’t pan out, and the quiet machine that keeps business running as usual outlasted him — for now.
It’s also — for now — outlasted Mr. Carlson, who is probably the most powerful Ukraine skeptic on the right and whose show was the chosen venue for Mr. DeSantis’s foray into the debate. Semafor recently reported on the impact Mr. Carlson’s show had on Capitol Hill, where fear of backlash made some Republicans too nervous to be pro-Ukraine — another example of how powerful the right-wing foreign policy loop has become. It’s also an example, in light of Mr. Carlson’s firing, of how easily it can be disrupted by those who are truly in charge. But it’s likely he’ll return to the national stage in some form or another, as he implied in a cryptic video released on Twitter after his Fox News exit: “When honest people say what’s true, calmly and without embarrassment, they become powerful. At the same time, the liars who’ve been trying to silence them shrink, and they become weaker.”
Rosie Gray (@RosieGray) is a reporter who has covered politics for BuzzFeed News and The Atlantic.
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