Anti-war sentiment, once rooted in the left, has shifted to the right. (Getty Images)

The Rise of the Right-Wing Peacenik

‘I realized that my own side was led by a bunch of incompetents and ideologues who had taken our country down a path of destruction. And for what?’

Once upon a time, Congressman Ron DeSantis strongly supported arming Ukraine against Russia. 

That was in 2015, in the wake of Russia’s last invasion of its neighbor to the southwest—when Barack Obama was president and, more importantly, before Donald Trump replaced him.

Now, Governor DeSantis is thought to be eyeing the White House himself, and the Republican landscape has changed dramatically—and so has his position on Ukraine. 

Appearing on Fox News to attack President Biden for last week’s surprise stop in Kyiv, DeSantis said: “He’s very concerned about those borders halfway around the world. He’s not done anything to secure our own border here at home. We’ve had millions and millions of people pour in, tens of thousands of Americans dead because of fentanyl, and then, of course, we just suffered a national humiliation of having China fly a spy balloon clear across the continental United States.” 

It was a 180-degree turn for a politician hoping to become the next commander in chief. It was also a window into the paradigm shift that has engulfed the American right—turning the old assumptions on their head and reimagining the United States’ role in the world.

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The shift has its roots in September 11, 2001.

That day, Rod Dreher was on the Brooklyn Bridge when the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed. 

“I was overwhelmed by rage,” Dreher, a conservative writer, told me. 

One month later, he eagerly backed the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and, a year and a half after that, the invasion of Iraq.

By early 2005—by the time it became clear the U.S. wasn’t about to turn Hamid Karzai’s regime into a Jeffersonian republic and Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction—Dreher, now a senior editor at The American Conservative, was rethinking both wars. 

This led him to a broader skepticism about nation-building, a skepticism that eventually hardened into opposition to American militarism. “I realized that my own side was led by a bunch of fucking incompetents and ideologues who had taken our country down a path of destruction,” Dreher said. “And for what?”

Kevin Roberts, the president of the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., and a former history professor at Wyoming Catholic College, said that he, too, had supported the Bush policy of preemptive war. 

“The thing that changed it for me is that America is not as strong as it used to be,” Roberts said. “It pains me to observe this. Even our moral standing in the world. While I remain very focused, very committed to America having a strong role, I think the time has come for a recalibrating of all that.”

Roberts and Dreher and other prominent right-wingers are the beating heart of America’s new anti-war movement. 

“It certainly is a growing faction inside the GOP,” David Kochel, a former senior campaign adviser to Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney, told me. A November 2022 Morning Consult poll showed that nearly half of Republicans supported “greater isolationism.” According to a February Gallup poll, 41 percent of Republicans support ending the Ukraine war quickly, even if that means ceding some territory to Russia.

Kochel traced the phenomenon to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential bid. “It harmonized with his larger critique of the establishment and the elites that run the State Department, the top echelons of the military,” he said.

Niall Ferguson, the Stanford historian who has written extensively on British and American imperialism, said the anti-war right stretches back to the early decades of the twentieth century. “There is the isolationist tradition that goes back a long way but really became marginalized after World War II, because they’d been so wrong, and that strain went into abeyance really until things began to unravel in Iraq,” Ferguson told me.

The implications are far-reaching. 

For one, the anti-war right is likely to put the brakes on U.S. involvement in Ukraine. (Speaker Kevin McCarthy said in October that Ukraine could not count on a GOP-led House writing a “blank check” to fund the war with Russia. All 57 House members who opposed the $40 billion aid package to Ukraine, in May, were Republicans.)

It also will be felt in other areas where the United States has long helped maintain order: on the Korean peninsula; in Kashmir, controlled by India and Pakistan; in Iran, which has threatened to annihilate Israel with its budding nuclear weapons program; and Israel, which has the ability to annihilate Iran with its existing nuclear weapons program. 

Then there’s the United States’ commitments to defending Europe and international sea lanes. The U.S. Navy, with 11 aircraft carriers, ensures global commerce, deters bad actors, and delivers humanitarian aid—and the Navy Secretary has already raised concerns about the Navy being overextended. 

All of which is forcing conservatives to reassess America’s role in the world, its hard power, its soft power, and its long-held conviction that liberal democracy is the one true faith that all peoples, given the opportunity, would embrace.

Dreher recalled Bush, in his second inaugural address in January 2005, conflating America’s strategic interests with our belief in the dignity of all human beings. 

“I’ll never forget the chill that came over me when the president said, ‘America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one,’ ” Dreher said in an email. “‘Wait a minute,’ I thought, ‘This is messianic ideology!’ ”

Vietnam Veterans Against the War protest in 1970. (Leif Skoogfors via Getty Images)

A brief refresher: yes, the anti-war movement in America used to be on the left.

During the Vietnam War, it was Students for a Democratic Society and Woodstock hippies who fueled the anti-war protests, helped break up the older, more hawkish Democratic coalition at the 1968 convention, and eventually led Richard Nixon to wind down the war. 

It was no surprise that, in the lead-up to the Iraq War, it was liberals who opposed it, just as it was no surprise that 215 House Republicans voted for—and only six voted against—the Authorization of Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002.

In 2008, Barack Obama, like Howard Dean before him, built a big following in the Democratic presidential primaries by opposing the war—and then went on to beat Hillary Clinton, who had supported it.

All this camouflaged a brewing discontent on the right, a feeling that GOP insiders had become indistinguishable from their Democratic counterparts and lost sight of mounting economic problems at home—starting with Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty’s support for “Sam’s Club Republicans,” and Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee’s slamming “free trade.” Meanwhile, support for once-fringe presidential candidates like Ron Paul was growing, and conservatives started openly questioning why America was throwing so much money—and so many young Americans—at not one but two wars that, in their view, could not be won.

“The thing that I immediately noticed when I got to Iraq was the futility of it,” said Dan Hollaway, who served in the army in Baghdad and now hosts the podcast Citizen from his home in Austin, Texas. “White faces from the West are not going to go into the Middle East and solve their problems for them. The only time that sort of thing has been effective is in Japan at the end of World War II, when we just dropped two fucking atomic bombs on those people.”

Finally, in the summer of 2015, came Trump, who broke through all the neoconservative platitudes about “defending freedom” and “bringing freedom to others,” as Bush famously put it in his March 19, 2003, address announcing the start of the Iraq War. 

With Trump, elected Republicans felt free at last to say out loud what they’d been picking up at home—toppling the received wisdom of the Washington, D.C., think tanks, the foreign policy experts, all the people except those whose sons and daughters fought in the so-called forever wars Trump was railing against.

When he campaigned for president in 2016, Trump heavily criticized America’s war in Afghanistan. (Majid Saeedi via Getty Images)

Today, these people—otherwise known as the Republican base—are among the most vocal opponents of an interventionist foreign policy. 

They have lost trust in the whole security state: the FBI, which infiltrated the January 6 storming of the Capitol; the CIA, which had tense relations with Trump (former director Michael Hayden seemed to imply Trump should be executed for the Mar-a-Lago classified documents fiasco); and, more recently, the Pentagon, which many Republicans fear has gone “woke” in its effort to remain in the good graces of elites.

Increasingly, the anti-war right views this debate as an either/or proposition: either Washington stops intervening in foreign conflicts and repairs our infrastructure, forces manufacturers not to off-shore jobs, breaks up Big Tech, ends progressive dominance of the social media algorithm, and restores sanity to our politics and culture. Or it keeps wasting blood and treasure overseas, and America continues down its path of decline.

No one summed up this choice better than Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri when he said last week: “I would just say to Republicans, ‘You can either be the party of Ukraine and the globalists, or you can be the party of East Palestine and the working people of this country.’ ” 

“We’ve certainly overreached abroad,” Sohrab Ahmari, a onetime neocon turned populist and cofounder of the online magazine Compact, said. “Meanwhile, the domestic hearth crumbled. We look around, and we have a society with an opioid crisis, a marriage crisis, a fertility crisis, a loneliness crisis, a deindustrialization crisis, and a crisis of life precarity for working class and middle class people.” 

GOP Congressman Matt Gaetz tweeted in December: “Hemorrhaging billions of taxpayer dollars for Ukraine while our country is in crisis is the definition of America Last.”

Zoomers are especially attuned to the new zeitgeist, said John Burtka, president of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a conservative group seeking to reform higher education. “A view that I encounter quite a bit, which I share myself, is: if America has so many problems here, shouldn’t we be focused on fixing and rebuilding America?” Burtka said. He cited, among other challenges, the mounting cost of healthcare and tuition, and student debt. (For most of my own right-leaning Gen Z friends, being against military adventurism is as de rigueur as it is for progressives to be against the patriarchy.) 

One of the most important things fueling Republicans’ anti-war sentiment, in this especially tribalistic moment, is the fact that Democrats have become strangely pro-war. When the Congressional Progressive Caucus sent a letter to the White House in October calling on the president to use all diplomatic means to end the war in Ukraine, fellow Democrats were outraged, and Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who chairs the caucus, withdrew it. 

The point is that, in a country in which everything is red or blue, Republicans tend to see support for Ukraine (rightly or wrongly) as the latest in a growing list of things that progressives put in their bios. First it was pronouns. Now it’s the Ukrainian flag. Add to that the fact that the federal government and the press spent Trump’s entire term pursuing Russiagate and had little to show for it.

Taiwanese soldiers at a military base in January 2023. (Sam Yeh via Getty Images)

The one exception to the rule is China, the only country on Earth that actually threatens American hegemony.

Many on the right are not so much anti-war as they are China-focused. This includes Elbridge Colby, a deputy assistant secretary of defense under Trump and a leading advocate of channeling dollars and military assets away from the Middle East and Eastern Europe and toward East Asia.

Colby suggested we need to abandon the post–Cold War policy that held that the United States should be able to wage two wars simultaneously: “Is confronting the first peer superpower in our history walking or chewing gum? How about wrestling a dragon and sprinting a marathon?” 

This explains why few anti-war conservatives have publicly criticized the announcement, in early February, that the United States had gained access to four bases in the Philippines—widely viewed as an effort to preempt a Chinese attack on nearby Taiwan. (The Department of Defense has not identified the location of the bases, but three of them could be on Luzon Island, in the northern Philippines. It would take an Air Force F-22 Raptor, which can fly 1,500 miles per hour, about 20 minutes to reach Taipei, the Taiwanese capital.)

There is a bigger lesson here, John Burtka of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute suggested, that goes beyond the calculus of weaponry: how many anti-tank rockets should the United States send to Kyiv? Or Taipei? What about Stinger missiles? Or Harpoons? It is not about this or that country or threat. It is about our values.

Young conservatives, Burtka said, “see America’s engagement with the world through military engagement and diplomatic efforts as the missionary arm of the woke ideas that they dislike at home. It’s the symbolism of things like the pride flag flying from the embassy in Kabul.”

Dan Hollaway, the podcaster, framed the new anti-war sentiment as a return to a more authentic conservatism—an overdue overturning of all the lies that had been told to the American public in the service of the military-industrial complex.

“It’s just marketing,” he said. “People want to root for one side or the other. As far as what’s actually going on behind the scenes—which interests are really being served—the language that’s used, the way you’re described if you’re not totally on board with the war machine, it’s all parlor tricks. In the past, the overriding emotion they manipulated was fear—fear of being called a hippie or communist or whatever. Now, I think, there’s social pressure. It’s manufactured consent.”

Rod Dreher thinks it goes deeper than that. The many crises and upheavals of the past two decades revealed something most Americans, he suggested, would prefer not to see about themselves.

“We Americans have a way of framing our wars moralistically, such that it is impossible to raise legitimate questions about the wisdom of undertaking them without looking callous,” Dreher told me. “I fell for this back in 2002, in the march up to the Iraq War. ‘What, you don’t think Arabs are capable of democracy?’ was the neocon line. I’m sure I used that, too, on the few war opponents in my circles who warned that nation-building in Iraq was going to be a costly folly.” 

He added: “The Iraqi people did not deserve to live under Saddam Hussein’s brutality, but it’s also the case that the United States cannot solve all the evils of the world and, in trying to, we can unleash worse ones.”

Isaac Grafstein is a writer and chief of staff at The Free Press.

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