Montana’s hard rightwing Republican congressman Matt Rosendale has likely never been compared to a influential progressive politician who figures prominently in his state’s history. At first blush there is precious little about Rosendale, a disciple of Donald Trump and opponent of almost everything, that is remotely like New Deal era Montana senator Burton K. Wheeler.
Wheeler was a pro-union, anti-big business western progressive. He was a driving force behind big Montana public works projects like Fort Peck Dam on the Missouri River. He fought corruption in the Justice Department during the 1920’s and battled Franklin Roosevelt, a president of his own party, over an ill-advised scheme to “pack” the Supreme Court.
Rosendale is known, to the extent he is known, for often being in a tiny minority of House members who vote NO on many things, including infrastructure spending. Rosendale is an outspoken member of the hard right “Freedom Caucus,” traffics in conspiracy theories, and recently observed that he found it ironic that Congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973, the same year the Supreme Court issued it decision legalizing abortion.
But in one important respect Rosendale and Wheeler, who left the Senate in 1947 and died in 1975, are similar. They are unapologetic isolationists. Wheeler was the acknowledged leader of isolationist or non-interventionist forces prior to World War II. Wheeler, along with Charles Lindbergh, the famous aviator, became the chief spokesmen for the America First movement, an umbrella group that attracted both passionate pacifists and disgusting anti-Semites.
Idaho’s Mike Crapo, a very conservative Republican senator not known for his foreign policy expertise or even interest, is also displaying isolationist instincts. So, too, Utah Republican Mike Lee and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and a handful of other conservatives. All three senators joined with eight others recently to vote NO in the Senate on a $40 billion aid package to Ukraine. That aid was nevertheless approved and will, like previous assistance, continue to allow Ukraine to hold off, and indeed turn back, a brutal, unnecessary war started by Vladimir Putin.
Trump, with his threats to pull the United States out of the NATO alliance and his actual withdrawal from trade and other agreements, popularized – again – the notion of America First, perhaps knowing the slogan would become a rallying cry for the far right, as well as serving as a dog whistle for anti-Semitism and pro-authoritarianism.
This neo-isolationism from the far right is not exactly new in American politics. Figures like Ohio senator Robert Taft in the 1950’s and more recently conservative gadfly Patrick Buchanan embraced the notion that the United States should essentially retreat from world leadership and focus more completely on domestic concerns. Buchanan wrote a book claiming it was Winston Churchill’s blunders rather than Adolf Hitler’s megalomania and desire to dominate Europe that sparked World War II.
This is the kind of revisionist, pro-Putin, anti-democratic, white supremacy nonsense that is being widely embraced in the dark corners of Internet and the increasingly dark corners of American conservatism.
Republican J.D. Vance, the opportunist Ohio Senate candidate who rejected Trump before embracing him, has become a key figure among the neo-isolationists. In one of the greatest political non-sequiturs ever, Vance recently said, “I will be damned if I am going to prioritize Ukraine’s eastern border right now when our own southern border is engulfed by a human tsunami of illegal migrants.”
If Vance wins in November he will, fittingly, occupy Bob Taft’s old Senate seat.
Another would-be leader of the neo-isolationists is Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, who clearly hopes to be president one day and knows just how to push the most powerful alt right buttons. “We don’t need any more globalism, left or right. We need realistic, robust nationalism,” Hawley said recently. Whatever that means it apparently appeals to Trumpers everywhere. Hawley also voted NO on the Ukrainian aid package.
As the online news site Axios reported recently: “Republican lawmakers – following former President Trump’s lead – are working with a wide range of conservative groups to pull back American support for Ukraine, the Middle East and Europe.”
The money and influence behind this neo-isolationist surge is powered by a permanent alt right infrastructure that includes the Koch Brothers, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and others. (This same network funds state-level anti-public school and tax cut advocacy from groups like the Idaho Freedom Foundation.)
Fox News personality Tucker Carlson champions neo-isolationism, while playing to the white nationalist sympathies of his audience.
After acknowledging that Putin’s war against Ukraine is illegal and has been clouded by vast lying from the Kremlin, the Cato Institute dismisses the war for the future of Europe with this: “it is a tragedy that neither the United States, nor NATO, nor Ukraine itself made a serious effort to discover whether there was a diplomatic way to prevent this invasion.”
That single sentence neatly sums why the neo-isolationists are as wrong today as they were in 1941.
Senator Wheeler, in many ways a heroic character, misread completely the state of the world as Hitler sought to dominate Europe, and like the neo-isolationists in the modern Republican Party, Mike Crapo, Mike Lee and the loathsome Rand Paul, he opposed the American aid to England that became known as Lend-Lease.
“We sympathize with the oppressed and persecuted everywhere,” Wheeler said, channeling Montana’s current congressman, “We also realize that we have great problems at home, that one-third of our population is ill-fed, ill-housed and ill-clad, and we have been told repeatedly, upon the highest authority, that unless and until this situation is corrected our democracy is in danger. I fully subscribe to this view.”
Wheeler’s views about Nazi aggression, had they prevailed rather than Franklin Roosevelt’s, might well have allowed Hitler to control Europe for a generation or more. Imagine our world today had that happened.
The same can be said for those turning their backs on Ukraine. What is their alternative: a Europe dominated by Putin? NATO rendered obsolete? Turning the other way as the ex-KGB agent kills and plunders a sovereign nation and U.S. ally?
Mike Crapo worries, apparently, about the country spending too much to defend democracy in a place far away. But he’s never met a tax cut he didn’t love. So, the fiscal responsibility argument is about as specious as justifications coming from the Kremlin for this unjustifiable war. Crapo’s stand, oddly, also puts him at cross purposes with Idaho’s other senator, James Risch who has steadfastly supported Ukrainian aid.
Crapo and the rest should know that Ukraine’s fight is our fight, too. The history of appeasement of dictators with territorial ambitions is not at all promising. We should have learned this in high school.
A great benefit of studying history is the insight past experiences provide for the present. This is surely such a moment. Why would a Crapo or Rosendale take such a blinkered view of history? Why, indeed, would these folks turn their backs on 80 years of history?
Some other items you may find of interest …
Thoughts and prayers of a different kind
I’m numb and exhausted. I suspect most of us are.
And perhaps that is what the gun nuts at the National Rifle Association (NRA) have been after all these years. What if they actually sought to so normalize gun violence, including murdering ten-year olds in their classrooms, that those of us who reject the culture of more guns all the time just became numb to the death, dishonesty and deflection? It seems to be working.
I don’t think a society that is healthy, meaning rational and caring, tolerates what happened this week in Uvalde, Texas, but here we are again. And where will we be next week or next month? A town in Idaho, or Oregon to Michigan?
The only thing we know for sure is that we will see this again … and again.
To be brutally honest, I’m so tired of the small-minded jerks like Ted Cruz and Greg Abbott I could puke. They literally make me sick to my stomach. That they get away with their nonsense about guns is infuriating.
Having said that: I am also a realist. We have a Supreme Court that has invented a Second Amendment that was nothing like what the Founder’s envisioned. Conservative judges made up “rights” related to guns and we live with that, or die with it.
We have 400 million – 400 million – guns in America. So many that even if we decided tomorrow to regulate them in some way its unlikely we could.
And we have a political system that pays lip service to caring about kids, but really doesn’t. We are caught in a doom loop of guns, and killings and worst of all a widespread willingness to accept it all.
There is a sickness in America about guns. I’m all for hunting and sport shooting and protecting your home, but 18-year olds no questions asked buying battlefield weapons and high capacity magazines – that is not remotely sane.
Our gun sickness is not rational or normal and it does not place a priority on children’s lives – or any life. It is a deep and profoundly ugly failing. America is truly exceptional, at least when it comes to killing with guns.
The last thing I wrote about the gun lobby was posted in 2019, how many mass shootings ago? Here’s that piece – “The NRA is a Fraud” – I’m sorry to say it is still relevant.
I have nothing even remotely original to say any longer about this massive nonsense, so I suggest you read my friend Darrell Ehrlick in The Daily Montanan.
On the Ball: In Memory of Roger Angell, 1920-2022
I went to a game in Milwaukee last Sunday – before the tragedy in Texas and before the pathetic governor of that state showed up to a news conference wearing what looked like a Texas Ranger shirt (the cops not the ball club) – and I thought about the late, great Roger Angell.
His life and work is a joyful memory amid the awfulness of this week. Here’s the writer Michael Lindgren.
“Roger Angell’s sensibility was emotionally generous, and his subjects sensed this and responded with great warmth. (In his unshowy way, he was one of the great interviewers of his or any time.) He wanted to see the players and managers and fans in their best light; in doing so, he showed us ourselves in our best light. There will not be another like him.”
I’ll leave it there. It’s been a long week. Be safe.