What Does the Right Think? GOP Public Opinion on Foreign Policy
An Amazon.com book search for “Donald Trump” returns over 40,000 results. “Barack Obama”? Only around 6,000. “Ronald Reagan”? Also, only around 6,000. No president has elicited more commentary than our country’s 45th president—not even Abraham Lincoln (Amazon search results were 20,000). Donald Trump will go down in history for many things, including his influence on conservative foreign policy.
In his paper, Daron Shaw uses public opinion polling to update conventional wisdom about American conservative voters and their attitudes on defense and foreign policy. He finds that conservative elites largely lead the movement and define its values, which are understood to include support for a robust national defense posture, confronting non-democratic, illiberal movements and regimes, and the use of force as a foreign policy option. What the polling does not show is that today’s conservative elites—and specifically those elected to represent the American people in Washington—often make decisions that are wildly inconsistent with these consensus conservative foreign policy values. What accounts for this disconnect?
Before he sought public office, Donald Trump did not identify himself as a conservative. He doled out campaign contributions to Republicans and Democrats, and as Will Inboden notes in his earlier Reagan Institute Strategy Group paper, Trump took an aggressive approach to President Reagan’s foreign policy in 1987, calling for more “back bone” and alleging the now familiar, “America is being taken advantage of” trope. Fast forward 30 years, and candidate Trump’s “America First” foreign policy echoes his 1980s approach. This time, though, Trump draped himself in the banner of the Republican party, 80 percent of which, according to Shaw, identify as conservatives.
President Trump’s foreign policy in many ways embodied a conservative worldview. Based on Shaw’s definition of conservative foreign policy values, Trump checked all the boxes. For example, Trump often projected American strength, repeatedly using military force to defend U.S. national security interests.
In 2018, when Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad launched a chemical weapons attack on a Damascus suburb, Trump immediately ordered a strike hitting the regime’s chemical weapons program and destroying Syria’s main chemical weapons research facility. This strike was twice the size of the 2017 raid that Trump ordered in response to Assad’s chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun.
Trump also did not hold back when Iran threatened U.S. security interests in Iraq. When Qassim Soleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), was orchestrating an attack against Americans in late 2019, Trump ordered a high-risk drone strike that killed him and his co-conspirators.
Additionally, Trump can take credit for the Abraham Accords, one of the greatest diplomatic victories in the Middle East. The normalization agreements that the Trump Administration brokered between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan represent a major inflection point with the potential to shift the region’s strategic direction in ways that are favorable to U.S. national security.
At the same time, Trump’s foreign policy took turns that were wildly inconsistent with conventional conservative principles. The U.S. relationship with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies plummeted when Trump took office. When candidate Trump delivered his “America First” speech, he called out alliance members for not meeting the minimum 2 percent defense budget benchmark. Then, as president, during a 2018 NATO leaders summit in Brussels, he threatened to withdraw from the alliance as he fumed that allies were “not paying their bills.” Less than two years later, Trump took this a step further when he ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Germany in retaliation for their lack of budgetary commitment.
Trump also took an unorthodox approach in his engagement with authoritarian regimes. After initial saber rattling over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, Trump attempted to befriend the man responsible for threatening the security of the United States with nuclear weapons, threatening the existence of U.S. ally South Korea, starving his own people, and responsible for countless human rights abuses.
As inconsistent as Trump’s foreign policy was, over time it has gained increasing traction with Republican elected officials. When Trump first threatened to withdraw from NATO, the House of Representatives passed the NATO Support Act with overwhelming bipartisan support. Only 22 Republicans voted against the bill. Compare this to April 2022, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, when a similar bill in support of NATO came up for a vote. Then, 63 Republicans—or 30 percent of the Republican conference—voted no.
Indeed, Ukraine has been a source of friction among conservatives. Trump’s public comments have shifted from praising Putin’s intelligence to calling for U.S. military action against Russia. They have also taken an isolationist approach. At the National Rifle Association’s conference in May 2022, Trump questioned how the United States “has $40 billion to send to Ukraine” but cannot ensure security in schools. It was this type of comment that senators channeled when they voted on an aid package for assistance to Ukraine that same month. While the bill passed with broad bipartisan support, 22 percent of Republicans in the Senate voted against the bill as did 27 percent of Republican House members. Resonating with Trump’s comments, Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) rejected the bill claiming it “neglects priorities at home.” Senator Bill Hagerty (R-TN), similarly stated that the Biden Administration is “pumping more aid into that country [Ukraine] when we’re not taking care of our own country.”
In his paper, Shaw notes that the conservative movement is not a monolith. There is a diversity of opinion within a Republican Party often at odds with one another. In a conversation for this paper, Bob Corker, former Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, reflected that conservatives believe American leadership in the world makes our country safer. To Corker, Trump pulled some Republicans away from this and towards a populist foreign policy that he was able to act on as president.
The once timeless Reaganesque ideals of conservatism are at risk of showing their age. While Republicans still consider Reagan a better president than Trump, conservative elites need to have thoughtful conversations about how to reconcile Reaganism with Trumpism. Donald Trump’s impact is too profound to dismiss as a blip in history, and the two must be reconciled. U.S. national security depends on it.
 General Kevin Chilton et al., “A Stronger and Wider Peace: A U.S. Strategy for Advancing the Abraham Accords.” The Jewish Institute for the National Security of America, (2022): 5. https://jinsa.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/JINSA_Report_AbrahamAccords_v3-web-4.pdf.
 Ashley Parker, Marianna Sotomayor, and Isaac Stanley-Becker, “Inside the Republican Drift Away from Supporting the NATO Alliance,” The Washington Post (WP Company, April 30, 2022), https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/04/29/nato-republicans-trump/.
“Republicans View Reagan, Trump as Best Recent Presidents,” Pew Research Center, accessed July 7, 2022, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/12/20/republicans-view-reagan-trump-as-best-recent-presidents/.