If polls are to be believed, Republicans are pretty happy with Donald Trump. With approval levels among Republicans nearing 90% , the President is more popular in his party than any president in the modern era, with the exception of George W. Bush in the days following 9/11. While Republicans in the Senate panicked in the face of Trump’s Helsinki press conference with Vladimir Putin last week, polls suggest that their reaction was overwrought, as 70–80% of Republicans appear to have been just fine with the President’s performance.
Old school Republicans — a dying breed — are wondering what happened to their party. They dream wistfully of the days when the GOP demanded moral rectitude in its leaders, and Ronald Reagan celebrated America as a shining City on a Hill, inspiring people around the world with his principled defense of democracy, liberty and freedom. Freedom is on the march, George W. Bush used to say, and the Republican Party was the tip of the American spear. Republicans cheered the spread of democracy across the world, as, in the decades following the fall of the Berlin Wall, autocrats and dictators from Asia to South America and ultimately Africa gave way to democracy’s march.
But a virus infected the Republican Party during the Reagan years that is only now becoming evident; it was the virus of single issue voting. While Ronald Reagan was off giving high-minded speeches, his political Svengali Grover Norquist was building the Election Day turnout machine that continues to enable the Republican Party to dominate the levers of power at both the federal and state levels, despite much-touted disadvantages in demographics and party registration. Norquist’s coalition of passionate, single issue voters — anti-tax, anti-abortion, pro-gun, etc. — delivers for the GOP because, for decades now, the GOP has delivered for them.
Donald Trump grasped an essential truth of the Norquist coalition than many in the GOP never considered: It provided a path to power for a candidate indifferent to — or even hostile to — what many Republicans long viewed as core principles of the GOP. He understood that as long he delivers on tax cuts, judges and guns — and a few other issues for good measure — those Republican voters would forgive him everything from his philandering with porn stares and to turning his back on Ronald Reagan’s lofty vision of America’s role in the world.
Vladimir Putin saw an opportunity as well in the Republican Party’s reliance on single issue voters. The Russian intelligence operation that was disclosed last week in the action filed by the Department of Justice against Russian agent Maria Butina sought to test the premise of whether those voting groups were actually committed to GOP principles beyond their own single issue. Specifically, Putin and his team sought to cultivate the National Rifle Association and conservative Christian organizations as allies of the Russian government, and use their influence to steer the GOP away from its long-standing anti-Russian hostility.
It turns out that Putin hit the nail on the head. Over the course of just a few years, seduced by Maria Butina’s cunning advances, the leadership of the National Rifle Association and conservative Christian organizations in the nation’s capital turned a blind eye to GOP objections to Russia’s invasions and occupations of its neighboring countries, and its continuing efforts to instigate social discord and undermine European democracies, and bought into the vision of Vladimir Putin’s Russia as their pro-faith, pro-gun comrades-in-arms.
As I read the material filed by the Department of Justice, I could imagine the satisfaction that Putin and the leaders of the Russian intelligence services must have felt as they gathered in his office and reviewed Butina’s operation. Everyone in the room knew the operation itself was a long-shot, but by the time Barack Obama was in his second term — and Obama and Hillary Clinton had successfully orchestrated the Orange Revolution in Ukraine — the threat of western democracy had reached Russia’s doorstep, and Putin’s bag of tricks was running out.
Putin had almost gotten to George W. Bush, early in his presidency. Bush shocked the Republican establishment when he claimed that he gazed into Putin’s eyes and saw his soul. John McCain burst that balloon when he ridiculed Bush in public, suggesting that if one gazes into Putin’s eyes, all you will see is K.G.B. It was a good line — all great humor has an edge of truth — but it derailed Putin’s efforts to win over the younger Bush and temper decades of Republican hostility.
The bad-cop, good-cop routine that Putin and his Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, tried on Barack Obama seemed to make progress as well. Obama had the optimism inherent in being a community organizer, and he almost bonded with Medvedev, but like Bush’s flirtation with Putin, Obama’s ‘reset’ foundered in the face of Republican ridicule — and came to a screeching halt when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea.
By 2013, Putin had come to realize that he had to tackle the elephant in the room, and Butina was part of that effort. Rather than just go the K Street lobbying route and throw a lot of dark money at the problem, this operation was a bit more subtle — and ambitious. Putin needed to change how the Republican Party viewed Russia. In doing so, it turns out, he was going to challenge what it means to be a Republican.
I imagine the group gathered around Putin couldn’t help but chuckle as they walked through the progress of the operation as it advanced. A stunning redhead in her twenties, posing as a pro-gun Christian conservative, Butina quickly bedded Paul Erickson, a big time, fifty-something, GOP operative. According to the detailed information provided in the court documents, Butina’s pitch was that she was linked to people who would be powerful in the post-Putin world, a story that Erickson pitched to others as he walked her around the corridors of power. In an email from Erickson to Butina, Erickson understood the balance she was striking between focusing on life after Putin, while never criticizing Putin directly.
It was the image of Butina cradling an ORSIS T-5000 tactical assault rifle that must have gotten the group giggling. The T-5000 was Moscow’s latest entry into the world’s arms bazaar, but there was no way that an average Russian could get their hands on one. Russia’s gun laws are the stuff of Democrat dreams. Russia limits ownership to hunting rifles and shotguns; no handguns and no clips holding more than ten rounds. The implausibility of Butina’s legend — that she was a country girl from Siberia who came up with the idea of starting gun clubs in Russia while chatting with friends in a cafe, and came to America because she thought it would be cool to partner those clubs with the NRA — never seemed to occur to Erickson, or to Wayne LaPierre at the National Rifle Association, for that matter. It never seemed to occur to either of them that the only way Butina could be so familiar with the T-5000 was if she was trained in the Russian military, or — perhaps — by Russian intelligence. Putin and his compatriots must marveled at their gullibility, but they knew — as Butina had now proven — that in America, a pretty girl with a gun can accomplish just about anything.
And then there was Butina’s outreach to conservative Christian groups. The Russian Orthodox Church — which Putin and Russian intelligence services have used for years as a foreign policy tool — played an important role in Maria Butina’s operation. Her pitch was straightforward: Russia and America are the two most observant Christian nations, and should stand shoulder to shoulder in the face of a hostile secular world.
As with the NRA, the leaders of the Christian groups Butina cultivated apparently evidenced little concern about Russian tanks rolling into Ukraine and Georgia, or the growing threat it posed to America’s European allies. Two years into Butina’s operation, Patriarch Kirill, the primate of the Russian Orthodox Church hosted American evangelical leader Franklin Graham in Moscow. Graham, the son of Billy Graham and now among Donald Trump’s most avid supporters, embraced Kirill and his church, just as Butina’s handlers had hoped. On his Facebook page after their meeting, Graham praised Kirill as an ally of American evangelicals in their common cause opposing same sex marriage and abortion, as well as their shared “need to reach a younger generation brought up in secular schools surrounded by a secular culture who know nothing of God and His love for them.” By 2018, according to participants, a delegation of visiting Russians constituted the largest group of participants at the National Prayer Breakfast, and Butina had secured an invitation for Putin himself to attend.
Grover Norquist never suggested that the pro-gun, pro-life, anti-tax and other single issue voters that he cultivated as cornerstones of the GOP coalition cared about what Ronald Reagan cared about; he only claimed that he could deliver their votes to the GOP as long as the GOP delivered on taxes, judges and guns. It was, and remains, the definition of transactional politics — and for the GOP — it was the virus that ended up consuming the host. As Donald Trump has confronted our traditional allies across the world in one setting after another, Senate Republican have derided his trampling of Ronald Reagan’s vision of America and the post-World War II order; but, if polls are to be believed, there has been no outcry among Republicans voters.
As to Russia itself, Vladimir Putin must surely be pleased. In short order, Maria Butina bedded a senior GOP operative, gained access to the corridors of power of Russia’s great adversary, and got the leadership of the NRA and National Prayer Breakfast to turn the GOP on its head. Since 2014, according to Gallup, the percentage of Republicans who view Russia as an ally has nearly doubled — from 22% to 40% — and, for the first time in decades, Republicans view Russia more favorably then do Democrats.
Last week, Donald Trump put a fine point on his attack on the global order long championed by the GOP. During an interview with Fox News host Tucker Carlson, he questioned the rationale behind the NATO alliance, asking specifically whether Americans were really prepared to go to war for Montenegro, a NATO member country most Americans have never heard of. Trump already knew the answer: outside of the U.S. Senate, few in the GOP care about those issues anymore. For Vladimir Putin, this is wonderful news; by the time Donald Trump is done — with the help of Maria Butina and the Russian intelligence services — Ronald Reagan’s vision of America as a shining City on a Hill — a beacon of democracy, liberty and freedom for people’s across the globe — will have faded into the recesses of memory.