Opinion | The myth of MAGA isolationism

Conventional wisdom holds that the GOP is split into two factions: A Reaganite wing that still holds on to old ideas of U.S. leadership on the world stage and a populist MAGA wing that is deeply skeptical of U.S. global leadership and wants to retreat into a fortress America.

That conventional wisdom is dead wrong. In fact, the opposite appears to be true: Populist MAGA Republicans are actually more supportive of strong U.S. leadership and engagement in international affairs than establishment Republicans.

That is the shock finding of a new poll from the Ronald Reagan Institute of American opinions on foreign policy and national security. The good news, the survey finds, is that amid today’s global chaos, “Americans of all political stripes want our country to stand up to the tyrants in Moscow, Tehran, and Beijing as well as the terrorists in the Middle East.”

But hidden in the cross-tabs is a stunning breakdown of the foreign policy views of MAGA and non-MAGA Republicans. The Reagan Institute asked GOP voters, “Do you consider yourself a supporter of the Make America Great Again, or MAGA, movement?” Nearly two-thirds said yes, while a third said no. The result is perhaps the most in-depth study of the foreign policy views of MAGA Republicans.

And on every metric measured — from support for NATO, Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, to concerns about democracy, human rights, China and U.S. leadership — those self-identified MAGA Republicans are more hawkish, and less isolationist, than their non-MAGA GOP brethren.

Americans of all political persuasions say that politicians should prioritize problems at home over foreign affairs, the Reagan Institute poll finds, including both MAGA (70 percent) and non-MAGA Republicans (68 percent).

But this does not mean they want the United States to withdraw from the world. Quite the opposite, a 51 percent majority of MAGA voters believe the United States should be “more engaged and take the lead” on foreign policy, while just 39 percent say the United States should be “less engaged and react to events” — a 12-point spread in favor of U.S. leadership.

By contrast, only 48 percent of non-MAGA Republicans support more U.S. engagement, while 44 percent say we should be less engaged.

When asked if “the U.S. has a moral obligation to stand up for human rights and democracy whenever possible in international affairs,” 73 percent of MAGA Republicans agree we do, compared with 69 percent of non-MAGA Republicans — including a 40 percent plurality of MAGA voters who “strongly agreed” compared with just 33 percent of non-MAGA Republicans. And a 79 percent supermajority of MAGA voters also “strongly agree” that “a strong U.S. military is essential to maintaining peace and prosperity, both at home and abroad,” compared with 66 percent of non-MAGA Republicans.

MAGA voters also disproportionately support NATO.

A 53 percent majority say they hold a favorable view, slightly higher than non-MAGA Republicans (50 percent). A 63 percent majority of MAGA voters agree that “protecting freedom and democracy on the continent” is an important benefit of being in NATO (compared with just 49 percent of non-MAGA Republicans) while 73 percent of MAGA voters say “checking the Russians so that they do not acquire more territory and power” is important (just 60 percent of non-MAGA Republicans say that).

There is also strong support for the collective defense enshrined in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. When asked if they would support “the U.S. responding with military force if a NATO ally in Europe was attacked” fully 69 percent of MAGA Republicans said they would (versus 63 percent of non-MAGA Republicans).

However, MAGA voters support for defending allies plummeted 23 points to 46 percent if that country is not meeting its commitment to spend 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense. Even then, MAGA voters were slightly more supportive of defending the underspending ally than non-MAGA Republicans (43 percent). Bottom line: Trump was fully in line with his MAGA supporters when he declared in March he will “100 percent” remain in NATO but will insist that allies carry their weight when it comes to military spending.

Seventy percent of MAGA voters agree it is important to the United States that Ukraine win the war with Russia (versus 64 percent of non-MAGA Republicans). Further, a 51 percent majority of MAGA Republicans believe Russia is currently winning the war, but only 8 percent want Russia to prevail (the trope that MAGA voters want Russia to win is a myth). And despite misgivings about Biden’s management of the war, a 47 percent plurality want to continue sending weapons to Ukraine.

Notably, after hearing a series of arguments explaining the benefits of aiding Ukraine — including the fact that almost 90 percent of U.S. military aid stays in America creating jobs for U.S. workers; that aid allows us to weaken Russian military capabilities without risking American lives; and that supporting Ukraine is crucial for upholding the principle of national sovereignty and the right of nations to secure their borders — support among MAGA voters rose 8 points to 55 percent. It increased just 2 points among non-MAGA Republicans.

MAGA voters are significantly more supportive of Israel than non-MAGA Republicans.

A 72 percent supermajority of MAGA Republicans agree that “Israel has a right to continue military action in Gaza until it has removed the threat posed by Hamas.” Only 65 percent of non-MAGA Republicans agreed. And 75 percent support the United States sending weapons to Israel (including 52 percent strongly), compared with 57 percent of non-MAGA Republicans (only 29 percent strongly).

MAGA voters are far more concerned about Chinese aggression against Taiwan than non-MAGA Republicans: 71 percent say they are concerned with China’s isolation of Taiwan, compared with 59 percent of non-MAGA Republicans; 67 percent support “increasing U.S. military presence near Taiwan” to deter a Chinese invasion (55 percent of non-MAGA Republicans); and 59 percent support “increasing U.S. arms sales to Taiwan” to help deter China (49 percent of non-MAGA Republicans).

MAGA voters also express more concern about China’s human rights violations than non-MAGA Republicans; China’s military buildup; China’s unfair trade practices; China overtaking us as the world’s No. 1 superpower; and China surpassing the United States as the world’s biggest economy.

This is where the two Republican factions really diverge: 63 percent of MAGA voters want to ban the social media app, while just 30 percent of non-MAGA Republicans do — a 33-point split. When told that “TikTok is owned by a Chinese company that is closely connected to the Chinese government” and that China could “use TikTok to gather personal information about American citizens and to influence U.S. public opinion,” MAGA support for banning the app rises to 67 percent. By contrast, support for a ban among non-MAGA Republicans still does not reach a plurality, much less a majority (43 percent support banning it, while 47 percent are opposed) when presented with this information.

What can we learn from these numbers?

Most important, the narrative of a schism in the GOP between the “internationalist” Republican establishment and “isolationist” Trump supporters is false. The real division inside the GOP is between the MAGA movement and the neo-isolationists who aspire to succeed Trump in leading it — politicians like Sen. J.D. Vance (Ohio), Rep. Matt Gaetz (Fla.) and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.). They don’t actually represent what MAGA Republicans believe about foreign policy. Neither do lawmakers such as Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) who voted against Ukraine aid out of fear of offending Trump and MAGA voters. They are all like cats bringing their master a dead mouse he does not want.

And — no big surprise — Trump understands his base better than his erstwhile sycophants. He knows that MAGA voters don’t want the United States to pull back from the world; they want a president who will restore American strength and lead on the world stage. Keep in mind, when Trump first ran in 2016, he didn’t promise to withdraw from the world; he promised to win. As he put it at a June 2016 rally, “Folks, we don’t win anymore …. We don’t win on trade. We don’t win with the military. We’re gonna knock the hell out of ISIS, by the way. We have no choice.”

And knock the hell out of ISIS he did. He also bombed Syria (twice), killed Iran’s terrorist mastermind Qasem Soleimani, launched a cyberattack on Russia, approved an attack that killed hundreds of Russian Wagner mercenaries, armed Ukraine with Javelin missiles and warned he would unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen” if North Korea continued to threaten the United States.

The record is clear: Trump is not an isolationist. And now, thanks to the Reagan Institute poll, we know that neither are his followers.

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