The day before Donald Trump took the stage at the America First Policy Institute conference in Washington — the premier gathering of MAGA Trump supporters — the audience heard a call for war with Russia. Sen. Joni Ernst insisted that America’s goal in supporting Ukraine should be that “we absolutely annihilate the Russian forces, and we get them to crawl back into Russia so bloody and bruised that they can’t come back.”
AFPI’s conference even featured the late John McCain’s closest colleague in the Senate, Lindsey Graham, who has remained true to his friend’s Neocon ways. Notably absent from the two-day event were Republican voices in support of realism and foreign policy restraint.
At a time when even the most venerable conservative institutions in Washington, such as the Heritage Foundation, are calling for more scrutiny of how taxpayer dollars are committed to foreign conflicts, AFPI’s blustering foreign policy seems oddly like a throwback to the days of George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney. Yet Trump chose AFPI as the venue for his first speech in Washington since he left the White House. Does MAGA in 2024 mean war rhetoric against Russia?
But when Donald Trump spoke yesterday, he surprised onlookers by saying nothing whatsoever about Ukraine. In fact, the former president’s messaging since the war has emphasised the need for diplomacy, as he said in April:
And just days before his return to Washington, Trump told an audience in Tampa, Florida that:
He doubted that U.S. arms for Ukraine would win the war for Kiev — and he said the invasion simply wouldn’t have happened under his watch.
The dissonance between Trump’s views and AFPI’s is a reflection of the divisions that characterised Trump’s White House — divisions that Democrats have been capitalising upon during the Jan. 6 hearings. The Trump administration was filled with MAGA types alongside more traditional neoconservatives and hawks. This extended even to appointing John Bolton as his national security advisor.
AFPI now represents the Republican members who have hitched their hopes to Trump for career purposes. And despite signs that Trump wants to staff a theoretical administration with people closer to his own politics, the former president is nowhere near as ruthless as his neoconservative and Republican establishment rivals. If AFPI celebrates him, Trump is not going to shun them for embracing the Bush dynasty’s foreign policy.
That foreign policy was a disaster in Afghanistan, and what the tough talk of politicians like Ernst amounts to in practice seems to be something equivalent for Ukraine. All the arms and trillions of dollars America committed to Afghanistan for twenty years went to waste and failed to stop the Taliban from retaking power the moment U.S. forces left. Yet Republicans like Ernst appear to believe that blank cheques and an unlimited supply of arms will “absolutely annihilate” the Russians.
The ‘blob’ has been galvanised by the Ukraine war, and “America First” will have to be more than just a monicker that a clique like AFPI is comfortable appropriating.