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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Joan E Greve in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

‘We’re going to lose our grasp on democracy’: divided GOP voters weigh in on US aid to Ukraine

White man wearing blue suit and red tie stands at podium and speaks into microphone to a crowd of people
Donald Trump holds campaign rally, in Rock Hill, South Carolina, on 23 February 2024. Photograph: Bonnie Cash/UPI/REX/Shutterstock

When Donald Trump declared he would allow Russia to do “whatever the hell they want” to Nato members who fail to meet funding commitments, world leaders and Democratic lawmakers reacted with shock and alarm. But Douglas Benton, a 70-year-old Republican voter from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, was quite pleased.

“Yes. I’m glad that Trump said we wouldn’t back you up if [Russian president Vladimir] Putin decides to take your ass over. We don’t care because you didn’t pay up,” Benton said. “If everyone participated, why don’t they put some money into the game and give Ukraine some money? Why does it always have to be us?”

As he spoke to the Guardian, Benton held a large pro-Trump flag to protest Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley’s event in Myrtle Beach on Thursday, two days before the South Carolina Republican primary. When she took the stage, Haley articulated a very different view on the former president’s comments about Nato, accusing him of enabling dictators and abandoning crucial US allies.

“Trump is siding with a dictator who kills his political opponents,” Haley said, referring to the death of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. “Trump is siding with Putin, who has made no bones about wanting to destroy America. And Trump is choosing to side with him over the allies that stood with us after 9/11?”

The contrast underscored how foreign policy, and the specific question of providing additional aid to Ukraine to support its fight against Russia, has divided the Republican party in Washington and on the campaign trail.

In Washington, a foreign aid package that includes $60bn in funding for Ukraine passed the Senate this month in a bipartisan vote of 70 to 29, with 22 Republicans supporting the proposal. But the House speaker, Louisiana Republican Mike Johnson, has already indicated that he will not allow a vote on the package amid entrenched opposition among hard-right members of his conference.

The split is similarly reflected in the Republican party’s voting base. According to a Pew Research Center poll released in December, nearly half of Republicans and right-leaning independents believe the US is providing too much money to Ukraine. Only 9% of Republicans and right-leaning independents said the same in March 2022, right after the war began.

The growing trend demonstrates how Trump’s “America First” approach to foreign policy, much at odds with the Republicans’ Reagan-era embrace of the country’s role as a leader on the global stage, has taken root in the party. Just this month, Trump helped kill a border and national security deal that included Ukraine funding, and he has suggested that any money sent to Kyiv should be treated as a loan.

Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr, was even more severe as he spoke at an event in Charleston on Friday, mocking claims that Ukraine aid was a top issue for members of his party. Trump Jr then conducted an informal survey of the roughly 50 voters in attendance, none of whom identified Ukraine as one of their top ten policy priorities.

“And yet, they’re trying to get legislation this week for another $60bn,” Trump Jr said. “They will mortgage your children’s and grandchildren’s future to the hilt to defend a border in Ukraine.”

Speaking to reporters after the event, Trump Jr brushed off widespread concerns among Nato leaders that Putin may invade other eastern European nations if he is successful in Ukraine. Trump Jr said he was “100%” confident that Putin would not attempt to expand beyond Ukraine if his father wins the White House in November.

“It’s not logical,” he said. “He understands what he’d be up against if he were doing those things.”

Trump’s most loyal supporters echo that opinion, insisting that the US should invest in domestic priorities like managing its border with Mexico instead of approving more funding for Ukraine.

“We need to start focusing on that and stop sending billions of dollars to Ukraine,” said Chris Pennington, a 51-year-old voter from Johns Island who attended the Charleston event. “And trust me when I say everybody I talk to agrees with me, and they say they’re sick of it too … When are they going to stop digging into our pockets and our tax dollars?”

But many of Haley’s supporters in South Carolina share concerns expressed by the candidate – as well as Joe Biden, congressional Democrats and many world leaders – that global democracy could be jeopardized unless the US provides more aid to Ukraine.

“It’s overdue, and I think that we’re going to lose our grasp on democracy if Russia takes over Ukraine,” said Trish Mooney, a 60-year-old voter from Georgetown who attended Haley’s event there on Thursday. “The writing’s on the wall.”

So far, Trump appears to be winning the argument over the future of US foreign policy, as he is poised to easily defeat Haley on Saturday. According to the FiveThirtyEight average of South Carolina polls, Trump leads Haley by roughly 30 points in the state. Trump has already won the first three voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.

Even if he wins the Republican presidential nomination, as is widely expected, the issue of Ukraine funding could become a liability for Trump in the general election. The same Pew poll that found about half of Republicans opposing more Ukraine funding showed that only 31% of all Americans believe the US is providing too much aid support to Kyiv.

Morgan Derrick, a 30-year-old voter and self-described “curious Democrat” who attended Haley’s event in Georgetown, described the project of supporting Kyiv as an urgent priority.

“I feel the need is immense. I can’t believe someone would think that it would be best if Russia won against Ukraine,” Derrick said. “If they take their democracy away, then what happens to the rest of the democratic countries in the world?”

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