DeSantis Will Betray Ukraine for MAGA Votes

The two GOP front-runners are selling out a democracy at war.

Ron DeSantis tosses hats to the crowd before the arrival of Donald Trump for his campaign event at Miami-Opa Locka Executive Airport in November 2020.
Ron DeSantis tosses hats to the crowd before the arrival of Donald Trump for his campaign event at Miami-Opa Locka Executive Airport in November 2020. (Joe Raedle / Getty)

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Both Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis have signaled their willingness to sell out Ukraine to the Kremlin, and the Russians have gleefully taken notice. How could this be happening in the party of Ronald Reagan?

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.

Taking the Bait

State governors are not usually experts on foreign policy, but those who intend to run for president are advised to at least brush up on the subject. Alas, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis did not get that memo. Last week, DeSantis declared Russia’s massive invasion—the largest operation in Europe since the defeat of the Nazis—to be a mere “territorial dispute,” and said that the war is thus not “a vital American national strategic interest.” This was too much for many elected Republicans and even for the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, who described the comments as “Ron DeSantis’s First Big Mistake.”

This shining opportunity to stumble came courtesy of the Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who a few weeks ago sent out questionnaires about Ukraine policy to a group of possible GOP presidential candidates. Carlson’s questions presented Republican contenders with a dilemma. On the one hand, many faithful MAGA voters, who make up the core of the GOP base, are regular viewers of Carlson’s show, and his questionnaire was a kind of early beauty pageant, an opportunity for Republican candidates to take a quick walk down the runway in front of MAGA World. On the other hand, Carlson is an irresponsible demagogue who has been exposed in the Dominion-lawsuit filings as a relentless opportunist who will bamboozle his own audience for ratings.

Since the war in Ukraine began more than a year ago, Carlson has gone on numerous unhinged rants against “the D.C. war machine,” meaning anyone who supports aiding Kyiv. (He even went off the deep end about me a few weeks ago.) Carlson claims to just be asking questions, but on Ukraine, as on many other issues, he is located right in the heart of the fever swamps.

In addition to his own bizarre perorations, Carlson also occasionally relies on input from his guest Douglas Macgregor, a retired Army colonel who for a hot second was an adviser to Trump’s last (acting) defense secretary, Christopher Miller, and whose nomination to be an ambassador foundered in part because of a history of weird and offensive statements. To give you some idea of the minefield awaiting GOP candidates, Macgregor went on last night about how the Ukrainians are getting “crushed,” and how the left has weakened the U.S. military to the point where it is almost useless. (The Pentagon’s assessment is a bit less gloomy, to say the least.) Carlson responded by asking, “[If America] became embroiled in a hot war with Russia, how long before you are arrested would it be, do you think, for saying what you just did?”

Even Macgregor didn’t bother answering that one, but it shows why, for the credible would-be candidates filling out Carlson’s questionnaire, there is no real advantage in saying anything of substance. And so, most of them didn’t, offering unexceptional responses composed mostly of political dryer lint: Kristi Noem blamed Joe Biden for being too weak to deter the Russians. Mike Pence said that regime change in Russia was up to the Russian people. Vivek Ramaswamy was more than happy to provide more detailed answers, but that is a luxury one can take while on the path to becoming a kind of GOP Andrew Yang. And Nikki Haley, in a classic cautious Nikki Haley move, waited until Carlson’s deadline for response had passed and the show on the subject had aired before answering the questions.

DeSantis, however, bit down on this giant hunk of bait, and his answers were displayed on Carlson’s show like a prize marlin.

Of course, this may have been DeSantis’s intent. He may well be trying to sound like an ill-informed isolationist, because he is trying to capture the MAGA voters who now support Trump. The former president is the undisputed world heavyweight champion of ignorant views, and if you’re going to take him on, you’d better have some stunningly ignorant views of your own to bring to the table. That’s what the Republican base wants.

DeSantis seems to know this all too well, which is likely why he’s been shoveling so much red meat out the front door of the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee to the MAGA cultural warriors. While covering his Trump-exposed flank on foreign policy, however, DeSantis has accidentally illustrated the problem of running for office in what used to be the party of Reagan: If you want to win the primary voters, you’ve got to reject everything you once believed.

Indeed, back in 2017, DeSantis the congressmanbut not yet the candidate—wanted to be Reagan. When he opposed Barack Obama’s efforts to initiate a “reset” with Russia, he noted that Democrats “viewed guys like me who are more of the Reagan school that’s tough on Russia as kind of throwbacks to the Cold War.” And two years earlier, DeSantis was all about teaching the Russians a lesson for seizing Ukraine. He excoriated then-President Obama for being weak-kneed:

We in the Congress have been urging the president … to provide arms to Ukraine. They want to fight their good fight. They’re not asking us to fight it for them. And the president has steadfastly refused. And I think that that’s a mistake.

Well said, congressman. Perhaps you might have a talk with the current governor of Florida.

This pandering to the MAGA base is going to get worse, because Trump continues to dominate the GOP primary field. In some areas, this featherweight posturing will be repairable: Down the road, no one is likely to be fighting over whether first graders should be assigned college texts on “critical race theory.” In other cases, such as the destruction of Florida’s public universities, the damage will be more long-lasting.

But in foreign policy, amateurish pandering to Tucker Carlson’s audience is dangerous. The Russian media are already crowing that the next American president will throw Ukraine to the wolves, a belief that could lead the Kremlin to take even greater risks than bumping into drones. Many elected Republicans and GOP presidential contenders—despite their constant fear of offending Trump—seem to recognize this, to their credit. If only Ron DeSantis were one of them.


Today’s News

  1. Polish President Andrzej Duda pledged to give Ukraine about 12 MiG-29 fighter jets, making Poland the first NATO member nation to follow through on Kyiv’s requests for warplanes.
  2. Eleven major U.S. banks said they would deposit $30 billion into First Republic Bank amid a crisis of confidence from the bank’s customers and investors.
  3. The U.S. military released video of what it says is the collision between a Russian fighter jet and an American surveillance drone over the Black Sea.


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Evening Read

Six TVs stacked on top of one another
Illustration by Joanne Imperio / The Atlantic

Climate Activists Are Turning Their Attention to Hollywood

By Katharine Gammon

On a warm, windy fall night in Los Angeles, I stood in a conference room at the Warner Bros. Discovery television-production offices, straightened my spine, and stared down my showrunner, preparing to defend my idea for a minor character in our near-future science-fiction series.

“This character needs a backstory, and switching jobs because she wants to work in renewable energy and not for an oil company fits perfectly,” I told the unsmiling head honcho.

His face twisted, as if his assistant had delivered the wrong lunch. “Too complicated. That just feels like a lot of information to cram into a backstory. What if her story is that she wants this job because it’s near where her brother was killed in a terrorist attack? We’d just need to invent a terrorist attack.”

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break

A still from John Wick

Read. Heartburn, the 1983 novel by Nora Ephron whose backstory asks: What right do women have to tell their side of the story?

Watch. John Wick, Keanu Reeves’s inaugural on-screen portrayal of the eponymous assassin; the franchise’s fourth installment, John Wick: Chapter 4, hits theaters next week.

Play our daily crossword.


Speaking of Ukraine, as we noted above in Today’s News, America’s NATO ally Poland has announced its decision to send MiG-29 jets to Ukraine. This is important for several reasons—not least of which is that Poland has gotten out in front of the rest of NATO on the issue. I thought I would take a moment here, however, to explain what a MiG-29 is for those of you who do not keep up on vintage Soviet military hardware.

The MiG-29 was designed in the 1970s and entered service in the ’80s. Russian fighters are designated by the bureau that designed them: “MiG” is the “Mikoyan and Gurevich” design bureau, named for its founding engineers, and “Su” or “Tu” in front of a jet’s name are the Sukhoi and Tupolev bureaus, respectively. (The NATO code names for all Soviet-era fighters begin with F, and this one is the “Fulcrum.”) It was meant to be roughly equivalent to an American F-16 or F-15. Although not as good as its American counterparts, it is a solid fighter and capable of taking on multiple roles, especially “air superiority,” which means what it sounds like: controlling the airspace and dominating it (as opposed to, say, bombing targets or flying missions close to the ground to support troops in battle). It’s a fine jet—at least when flown by competent pilots—and more to the point, it’s one that Ukrainian pilots will already know how to fly, because it was part of the Soviet and post-Soviet inventory for so long.

— Tom

Kelli María Korducki contributed to this newsletter.