January 30, 2023 - 10:51am

FIRST COME THE TANKS, THEN COME THE NUKES.” Donald Trump’s post last week on Truth Social was a characteristically forceful piece of rhetoric, suggesting that escalation in Ukraine could precipitate world war. As his campaign to regain the U.S. presidency took him through New Hampshire and South Carolina — two key battlegrounds in the 2024 Republican primary to secure the party’s nomination — Trump positioned himself as peacemaker. He reminded prospective voters that his “personality kept us out of war” and pledged that he could secure a peace deal “in 24 hours” that would end the Russian invasion. 

Having promised to be “the greatest jobs president God ever created” during his 2016 campaign, Trump is not one to shy away from grand pronouncements. But it remains to be seen how his dovish, peacemaking swagger will go over with Republican voters. 

Chicago Council Survey polling data released in December 2022 showed that 76% of Democrats, 63% of Independents, and 55% of Republicans supported sending additional arms to the Ukrainian government. It also revealed a fascinating split between viewers of different news channels, in terms of whether Ukraine holds an advantage over Russia: only 26% of Fox News viewers believe the country does, as opposed to 48% for those who get their news from MSNBC. 

There is, at a minimum, less enthusiasm among Republican voters for the Russia-Ukraine war in particular, as well as overseas intervention in general, an isolationist streak Trump exploited during his previous primary success in 2016. Senators Josh Hawley, Rand Paul, and J.D. Vance are three prominent Republicans among many who have called for at least some clear limitations on U.S. aid to Ukraine. 

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Trump’s leading rival for the 2024 Republican nomination, has spent the past two years focused on domestic matters, railing against the excesses of woke culture along with Covid-19 issues such as vaccination mandates and lockdowns. 

However, unlike draft-exempt Trump, DeSantis has firsthand experience in America’s military efforts abroad: he served in the navy after law school and was deployed to Iraq as a legal adviser in 2007. During his three terms in Congress, he prioritised diplomatic opposition to Iran, “an enemy of our country” as well as a strategic ally to Russia. Whereas Trump praised Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as “savvy”, DeSantis characterised it as a strategic blunder and has described the Russian leader as “an authoritarian gas station attendant”. 

Trump and DeSantis will need to work hard to differentiate their respective value propositions to the MAGA base. Many key endorsements remain undetermined, ranging from mainstream Republican politicians to social media influencers like “Libs of TikTok” account operator Chaya Raichik, who has recently spent time with both candidates. 

By leaning into the peacemaking and isolationist accomplishments of his administration, Trump may be able to offset the disadvantage posed by his role as an early proponent of the efficacy of the mRNA vaccines developed under his watch. At this point, it is too early to tell what issues will animate core Republican voters, though economic troubles and continued layoffs by American businesses may allow Trump to shift attention to his pre-Covid record as a job creator. Until the voters head to the polls in January 2024, all of that — like the fate of Ukraine itself — will remain up in the air.

Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work