During the Trump era, the war in Afghanistan was a fault line in red America. The president and his associated pseudo-intellectuals derided the occupation as a globalist fiasco. Dropping needlessly large bombs on suspected terrorists in Afghanistan was consistent with an “America First” foreign policy; expending U.S. lives and dollars on propping up the Afghan government was not.
The Republican Old Guard, by contrast, remained invested in America’s imperial ventures in the greater Middle East. When Donald Trump tried to draw down U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan in 2019, the Senate rebuked him, with only a handful of Republican lawmakers standing with the president. Meanwhile, Tucker Carlson denounced the “usual war chorus in Washington” for crying crocodile tears over humanitarian disasters in their ceaseless bid to spill American blood and treasure overseas.
Joe Biden might have expected to capitalize on this division by honoring Trump’s agreement to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan. The president’s rhetoric in defending that policy bears some resemblance to his predecessor’s appeals to nationalistic resentment of imperialism’s burdens (“How many more generations of America’s daughters and sons would you have me send to fight Afghanistan’s civil war when Afghan troops will not?”).
But the past is a foreign country. Today, the subject of Afghanistan is more divisive among Democrats than it is among Republicans. Perhaps a perfectly executed troop drawdown would have caused Trumpists some cognitive dissonance (though most are masters of maintaining mutually contradictory convictions). As is, the America First crowd had little trouble lambasting Biden for botching their hero’s Afghanistan policy. And of course, traditional Republicans have relished the opportunity to excoriate a Democratic president for bringing peace with dishonor (while Biden’s hawkish “allies” in Congress joined in the beatdown).
Nevertheless, the ideological split that undergirded GOP divisions over Afghanistan in the Trump era — between a Reaganite conservatism that sees its values as universal and its mission as global, and a paleoconservatism that celebrates the parochial and denigrates the nonwhite world and the cosmopolitan imperialists who wish to rule it — has not gone away. And as the debate shifts from whether Joe Biden betrayed America’s Afghan allies to what precisely should be done with them, that division has become more prominent.
Trump’s three statements on Afghanistan this week trace the shift. On Monday, the ex-president asked, “Can anyone even imagine taking out our Military before evacuating civilians and others who have been good to our Country and who should be allowed to seek refuge?” This uncharacteristic expression of support for Middle Eastern refugees appeared to consolidate the Republican position. But by Wednesday, Trump’s negative partisanship had started to give way to his nativism:
In his third statement, Trump’s exhortation that Americans should be evacuated first ceased to imply that Afghans should be brought out second. Rather, American equipment was priority No. 2; America’s Afghan allies did not make the list. “First you bring out all of the American citizens. Then you bring out ALL equipment. Then you bomb the bases into smithereens—AND THEN YOU BRING OUT THE MILITARY,” Trump explained.
Significantly, the above tweet sharing Trump’s second statement came from Tim Swain, an (extremely) long-shot Republican Senate candidate who aims to challenge South Carolina’s Tim Scott in 2022. As Politico notes, some anti-immigration ideologues (and/or grifter conservatives) are already hoping that the Afghan refugee crisis will provide them with a wedge issue strong enough to dislodge Republican incumbents in next year’s primaries. In recent days, former Trump adviser Stephen Miller has articulated the nativists’ talking points on the issue.
“Most of the translators that we’ve worked with and most of the government operators we’ve worked with, who wanted to leave and who meet the conditions for the program, already have left,” Miller told Politico (baselessly). On Twitter, Miller declared, “It is becoming increasingly clear that Biden & his radical deputies will use their catastrophic debacle in Afghanistan as a pretext for doing to America what Angela Merkel did to Germany & Europe” — namely, in the racist imaginary case, allowing unwashed masses of Middle Eastern refugees defile its traditional heritage.
Miller supplemented this Pan-western hate speech with a dose of U.S.-specific xenophobic demagoguery, telling Fox News that those calling for refugee resettlement in the U.S. were not in the business of “solving a humanitarian crisis” but rather were trying to accomplish “an ideological objective — to change America.” Right-wing radio host Charlie Kirk clarified how these pseudo-humanitarians wish to change the United States, informing his listeners, “What’s going on here is Joe Biden wants a couple hundred thousand more Ilhan Omars to come to America to change the body politic permanently.”
Tucker Carlson, America’s most-watched cable-news anchor, delivered a similar message Monday night. “If history is any guide — and it’s always a guide — we will see many refugees from Afghanistan resettle in our country in coming months, probably in your neighborhood. And over the next decade, that number may swell to the millions. So first we invade, and then we’re invaded. It is always the same.”
In sum, the message that the American right’s most influential media personalities are sending to the GOP base is: The real Afghan allies have already been saved. You should view the ones who arrive in the U.S. in the coming months as shock troops sicced on the nation by the political party you hate, in a bid to permanently entrench that party’s power over you.
Thus far, this argument has proved far less politically potent than it is morally reprehensible.
Tucker & Co. do have some allies on Capitol Hill. Weeks before Kabul’s fall, 16 House Republicans voted against increasing funding for the resettlement of Afghan refugees and an increase in the number of special immigrant visas available to America’s Afghan allies. Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene echoed Kirk’s line Tuesday, criticizing her state’s Republican governor for saying Georgia was ready to accept Afghan refugees, on the grounds that the “future of GA shouldn’t be like MN that voted for Omar.”
Yet the overwhelming majority of House Republicans voted against this faction in July. And anti-Afghan-refugee sentiment remains marginal among Hill Republicans today. Even Trump has not explicitly called for barring all such refugees from the U.S. but merely for prioritizing the rescue of American nationals in Afghanistan. Many of the ex-president’s staunchest sycophants have walked this noncommittal line, with New York representative Elise Stefanik tweeting, “Every American should be evacuated from Afghanistan. Anything less is unAmerican.”
The Republican Old Guard’s position on Afghan refugees is far less equivocal.
“We need to care for them,” Mitch McConnell said on Tuesday. “We owe it to these people, who are our friends and who worked with us, to get them out safely if we can.”
Iowa senator Joni Ernst told the Des Moines Register that the Hawkeye State should accept more refugees, just as it had after the Vietnam War. “We have always been very welcoming to those that needed to immigrate and those refugees that were running away from disaster in their own country,” Ernst said. “And I do think that we can play a role and I think it’s important that we do that.”
Even Matt Gaetz, the alleged sex criminal and stalwart Trumpist, voiced support for welcoming some Afghan refugees to the states. “There are people over there who have kept my constituents alive — not 100,000 of them; the several thousand who had hot lead flying at them, too,” Gaetz told Politico. “That’s not my hyperbole. That’s the reality.”
For the bulk of the Beltway GOP, then, national honor seems to come before nativism. Whether that consensus will hold in the months to come is unclear. It’s conceivable that if and when displaced Afghans arrive in the U.S. in significant numbers, Tucker’s hateful diatribes will resonate more widely. As it is, a great many Republican lawmakers are steering clear of any firm position on the issue and waiting to see where the wind blows.
Yet it’s also possible that the GOP’s center of gravity on immigration could be shifting ever so slightly away from Stephen Miller. Over the course of Donald Trump’s presidency, the Republican coalition grew less white. The leftward drift of college-educated suburbanites (a disproportionately white constituency), combined with steadily growing diversity of the American electorate writ large, makes it imperative for the GOP to build on Trump’s unexpected gains with nonwhite voters. Big-dollar Republican donors seem to recognize this and are already fantasizing about Scott, the Senate’s lone Black Republican, mounting a presidential run in 2024.
Republicans probably don’t need to return to George W. Bush’s immigration platform to diversify their support base; there is plenty of restrictionist sentiment among nonwhite voters. But it seems unlikely that the optimal message for broadening the party’s appeal is, “We believe that dark-skinned immigrants are mostly un-American automatons whom Democrats can easily brainwash and would therefore rather see Afghans executed by the Taliban than welcomed into our country.”