The lines are shifting within the Republican Party, so much so that the GOP presidential front-runner can go on television and make excuses for Vladimir Putin without hurting himself politically.
On MSNBC last week, Donald Trump appeared to give the Russian strongman a pass for the murders of dissident journalists. "He's running his country," Trump said, "and at least he's a leader, you know, unlike what we have in this country." On ABC Sunday, the developer-turned-candidate said it would be despicable if Putin were to kill journalists, but said "nobody's proven he's killed anybody."
To establishment Republicans like Mitt Romney, Putin is self-evidently a bad actor, and Trump's overt embrace of the Russian leader is mere buffoonery by a political novice with his own authoritarian streak. Yet Trump has praised Putin before, and many GOP voters appear unbothered by it.
This isn't a minor disagreement. It's a reminder that different factions within the party harbor radically different definitions of what a conservative foreign policy should include.
For Reagan-era national-defense hawks, what matters about Putin is this: He's a former KGB officer with a nuclear arsenal. He stole an entire peninsula from a pro-Western government in Ukraine and joined the Syrian conflict on the side of Bashar al-Assad, the dictator whom the United States has tried to isolate. Putin's blunt, cynical approach also clashes with the expansive pro-democracy rhetoric that George W. Bush espoused after 9/11.
But there are many other schools of thought on the American right. Putinism has some appeal for many of them — for foreign-policy realists who favor stability over the promotion of democracy, isolationists who want other countries to step up in the Middle East, law-and-order voters who like tough displays of strength, social conservatives who believe traditional values are under threat, instinctive skeptics of multiculturalism. Trump, not coincidentally, is courting these same groups.
Tellingly, other prominent Republicans offer at least grudging praise for Putin's moves. "He makes a decision, and he executes it, quickly," Rudolph Giuliani said last year on Fox News. "Then everybody reacts. That's what you call a leader." In September, Rush Limbaugh declared that "Putin's the dealer, but Obama's not playing poker, 21, blackjack, or anything of the sort." In an October column, Pat Buchanan all but declared that Putin was right about Syria.
During the George W. Bush years, disparate Republican camps could put aside their differences out of loyalty to a president of their party. In the Barack Obama era, conservatives could still agree on opposing virtually everything the Democratic president proposed. This year, though, there's nothing to unite Republicans, so long-submerged disagreements are resurfacing.
Putin hasn't changed. So when Republicans can't agree anymore over whether he's an enemy, a model for leadership, or a little of both, it's clear that Bush-era foreign policy pieties have lost their grip over today's party. Not yet clear is which brand of conservatism will take their place.