Opinion: Helsinki summit shows change for Republicans

David Shribman
Shribman writes: "Now, with Mr. Trump’s effusive description of his meeting with the Russian leader, the GOP has completed the transformation that the Manhattan billionaire began during his 2016 presidential campaign."

The remarkable transformation of the Republican Party, begun with Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, reached a historical milestone last week with the president’s embrace of Vladimir Putin and his warm Helsinki overture to the Russian president.

For three-quarters of a century, the Republican Party has been the bulwark of skepticism about Russia. Three Republican presidents in a row refused to extend diplomatic recognition to the young Soviet Union in the 1920s, and when the United States, under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Democrat, became the last major power to recognize the Soviet Union, he did so against the opposition of many Republicans.

Now, with Mr. Trump’s effusive description of his meeting with the Russian leader, the GOP has completed the transformation that the Manhattan billionaire began during his 2016 presidential campaign.

The most prominent signal of the transformation of the Republican Party: The denunciation of Mr. Trump’s remarks in Finland—since recanted, though the president’s views toward Russia seem unchanged— by the last two GOP presidential nominees, Senator John McCain of Arizona (2008) and former Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts (2012), currently a Republican candidate for the Senate from Utah.

Though Mr. Trump walked back some of his remarks, his broader comments still were a dramatic departure from Republican orthodoxy. For two generations it was generally the Democrats, not the Republicans, who argued that the United States should reach out to the Russians for trade and national-security reasons.

"The Republicans were the hawks,’’ said Harley Balzer, an emeritus professor of Russian history at Georgetown University and former director of Georgetown’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies. ‘’The reason Nixon could go to China was that the Republicans were so anti-Communist. If Barack Obama had given Monday’s press conference he would be up for impeachment. The current president has changed the landscape in a dramatic way.’’

Though anti-Communism was a posture adopted by most mainstream American politicians, the principal Republican figures of the post-World War II era were the leading skeptics of Moscow.

The Republicans even inserted criticism of FDR’s agreements at Yalta into their 1952 convention platform. (The GOP said the series of Allied summits with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin ‘’traded our overwhelming victory for a new enemy and for new oppressions and new wars which were quick to come.’’) Then, 14 years ago, George W. Bush said Yalta had led to what he characterized as ‘’one of the greatest wrongs of history."

Richard Nixon won his prominence in American politics with his opposition to Soviet Communism, his campaign against prominent Americans accused of having Soviet sympathies or being Soviet agents, and his vilification of Democrats, including his opponent in a storied 1950 California Senate race, Democratic Rep. Helen Gahagan Douglas, whom he derided as being ‘’pink right down to her underwear.’’ That was why his trip to the Soviet Union in 1972 was so remarkable.

Senator Joseph McCarthy, who lent his name to the red-baiting anti-Communist campaign of the 1950s, was a Republican from Wisconsin. Though a critic of what he called America’s ‘’military-industrial complex’’ and, as a top military figure in World War II, a witness to Soviet cooperation with the Allies in the drive to defeat Nazi Germany, Dwight Eisenhower harbored no illusions about the Soviet Union.

Despite his outreach to Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan was a classic cold warrior of the old school. He regarded the Soviet Union as ‘’the evil empire,’’ was caught on a live microphone joking that he was about to bomb Russia and ascribed many of the problems around the globe to Soviet intervention and involvement.

Even in the recent past, Republicans looked askance at Moscow. During the 1992 presidential campaign, some GOP leaders questioned the suitability of Governor Bill Clinton for the White House because he took a trip to the Soviet Union during his years as a Rhodes Scholar in Great Britain.

With support of working-class voters who traditionally have sided with the Democrats, Mr. Trump already has transformed the character of the GOP, which traditionally has been regarded as the foe of blue-collar Americans.

Until the ascendancy of Trump, the post-Nixon Republican Party was remade in the image of Reagan, who shared with Mr. Trump a devotion to low taxes and skepticism of big government but who often worked with Democrats, some of whom were his allies in his tax and budget cuts of 1981 and were ardent partners in the tax overhaul of 1986. He had an intuitive generosity and sunny optimism that are at odds with the Trump style.

Of all his actions, the changes Mr. Trump has set in motion in one of America’s great political parties may be the most enduring. A future president may mend fences with Canada, the European Union and NATO, but by altering the character of the Republican Party, Mr. Trump may have altered American politics permanently.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.