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Deep Fake

Mike Johnson’s Shockingly Pro-Ukraine Speech Really Sticks It to MAGA

The House speaker’s comments wrecked one of the far right’s most ridiculous, reprehensible tropes.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images
House Speaker Mike Johnson at the Capitol on April 16

It was a remarkable moment: After introducing a package of bills that includes military aid to Ukraine, Mike Johnson flatly told reporters on Wednesday that enabling Ukraine to defend itself is in the best interests of America and the world. This surprised a lot of people who had wrongly assumed the House speaker was effectively functioning as a stooge for Vladimir Putin—and Donald Trump—and would thus slow-walk Ukraine aid to death before ever allowing a vote on it.

Johnson’s new stance has attracted a good deal of positive attention. But I want to highlight an aspect of it that’s been overlooked because it’s an important tell about the true state of MAGA ideology and what it’s demanding of Republicans these days.

“I really do believe the intel and the briefings that we’ve gotten,” Johnson said, in a moment that became a mini-speech. “I think that Vladimir Putin would continue to march through Europe if he were allowed. I think he might go to the Balkans next. I think he might have a showdown with Poland, or one of our NATO allies.” If so, he added, we might find ourselves sending troops to defend allies from Putin later.

Did we really hear the speaker say that he believes what our intelligence services have told him about the long-term consequences of cutting off aid to Ukraine?

This is a direct challenge to the MAGA worldview in multiple ways. Johnson is treating Putin as the aggressor in the Russia-Ukraine conflict and acknowledging his broader imperialist designs, which is heresy to some MAGA Republicans. But he’s also flatly declaring that on these matters, the deep state is very much to be believed.

A big MAGA conceit is the idea that a nefarious deep-state network of senior federal bureaucrats, nongovernmental experts, and technocratic and managerial elites lurks behind the push to fund Ukraine—and that it’s making up lies about Russia’s war to create a pretext to fulfill a broader set of sinister globalist aims. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene recently tweeted this:

The Ukraine scam is up.

If our Republican majority in Congress funds Joe Biden’s war against Russia on behalf of Ukraine (because he’s a puppet on strings) then Republicans are tools of the foreign war loving deep state.

This is probably MAGA’s most elaborate exercise in up-is-down totalitarian-style propaganda of all: Biden is being manipulated by a deep-state “scam”—i.e., the idea that Ukraine is worth defending—to carry out a war against Russia, which has been  magically transformed from aggressor to victim.

The horrible atrocities against Ukraine the world has witnessed, Putin’s declarations that the sovereign democracy of Ukraine isn’t a real country and shouldn’t exist, the consequent effort to erase it with murderous conquest—all of that disappears in this fog of MAGA propaganda. This sort of thing is why even some senior Republicans suggest that a number of House GOP lawmakers are operating under the influence of Russia.

Johnson’s affirmation that he believes our intelligence services on these matters is a direct rebuke to those MAGA tendencies. 

The bills that GOP leaders have introduced—which are scheduled for votes on Saturday—are also surprisingly faithful to the intel agencies’ apparent understanding of this geopolitical moment. They include $61 billion in aid to Ukraine, $26 billion for Israel, funding for Taiwan, and humanitarian assistance, including for victims in Gaza, which is essential to winning the support of Democrats who will be needed when right-wing Republicans oppose the package.

Greene had threatened to hold a motion-to-vacate vote to oust Johnson if he moved forward with Ukraine aid. If so, there are signs that Democrats will vote to save Johnson if Ukraine aid passes. Either way, Johnson appears prepared to brave MAGA’s fury—and the word of U.S intelligence services is a key reason for it.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with healthy skepticism of what our intelligence services are saying. That’s reasonable. After all, they contributed to whipping up the ultimately false assertions about weapons of mass destruction that helped justify the Iraq War. 

But reasoned skepticism is not what MAGA Republicans are offering. Instead, they’re pushing carefully choreographed propaganda that seeks to entirely erase Russian agency from the story of the conflict and to transform Ukraine’s allies into the true warmongers here.

Greene’s effort at this is obvious. Then you have Donald Trump Jr., who tweeted that the aid bills will “hurt my father’s ability to negotiate an end to the war between Russia and Ukraine” if he’s reelected president, whereas “globalist” Republicans who support the package want indefinite war. 

But that’s absurd. As international relations professor Nicholas Grossman shows, the idea behind rhetoric like this—a ruse that other MAGA Republicans regularly employ—is to recast our choice as one between “peace” (which we’d attain by refraining from aiding Ukraine) and “war” (which we’re facilitating with Ukraine aid). In reality, withholding aid is not antiwar at all; it merely makes Russian conquest more likely to continue and succeed (which is perhaps the whole point of this framing).

Even supposedly shrewder MAGA Republicans play a version of this sleazy game. Ohio Senator J.D. Vance recently wrote a New York Times op-ed arguing that Ukraine is losing and our aid won’t give it what it needs in equipment (or soldiers) to prevail. Democrats have effectively rebutted those claims. But Vance also slips into his piece the idea that in providing aid, “we”—meaning the United States—would “prolong a long and bloody war,” and suggests the primary obstacle to peace is President Biden’s unwillingness to negotiate toward it.

But how does Vance himself envision the war ending? Couldn’t it mean Russia gobbles up much or even all of Ukraine? Vance doesn’t say, beyond insisting we should forget about Ukraine regaining all of its stolen territory. Thus he too frames the choice as one between peace (ending aid) and war (continuing it). Presto: Opposing the package suddenly becomes the antiwar position, and being for the package becomes the pro-war one. That’s slippery, dishonest rhetorical trickery that you’d think is below Times standards.

This is the sort of deceitfulness that Johnson has effectively taken on. By affirming what abandoning Ukraine would really mean, and stressing that the deep state is telling lawmakers the truth about it, Johnson has for the time being taken a stance against one of MAGA’s most cherished—and most toxic—propaganda tropes. No wonder Greene is beside herself with rage.