On March 8, 1983, Ronald Reagan gave one of the most famous speeches of his presidency, an address that would go down in history as the “evil empire speech.” If you watch it today — and you remember the Reagan presidency — you can see that it was vintage Reagan, full of confidence in the American nation and the American people, replete with references to the necessity of both liberty and morality to the success of the United States.
But that’s not why the speech endures. It resonates today because Reagan stood before an American audience and didn’t just reject the most popular arms control proposal of the day; he directly faced and defined the Soviet Union in the starkest of terms. Rather than shrink from confrontation with an expansionist, aggressive Soviet Union, he leaned forward, confident in American strength and the rightness of the Western cause.
What a remarkable contrast with Ron DeSantis, who trails only Donald Trump among potential candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. On Monday he issued a statement to Tucker Carlson calling Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine a “territorial dispute,” saying that “becoming further entangled” in the conflict wasn’t a vital American interest and specifically rejected providing Ukraine with advanced weapons that could enable it to strike “beyond its borders.”
As usual, DeSantis merely echoed Trump. In his own statement, Trump reaffirmed his longstanding position that supporting Ukraine was not a vital national strategic interest. It was in Europe’s vital interests, not America’s. He emphasized Europe’s obligation to support Ukraine, including stating that European allies must pay the United States “retroactively” to compensate for its aid to Ukraine. He nonsensically claimed he could end the war within 24 hours.
Whereas Reagan was a man of strength, confidence and clarity in the face of a daunting military threat, DeSantis and Trump represent weakness, insularity and moral ambiguity in the face of a weaker power. Forty years after Reagan’s defiance, DeSantis and Trump personify the G.O.P.’s descent.
I remember 1983. I came of age in the 1980s, and while it is wrong to say that only the Republicans opposed the Soviet threat (the Cold War was a long, bipartisan struggle), by the 1980s there was a clear distinction between the parties. The Democrats in general favored a more conciliatory approach to the Soviet Union. The nuclear-freeze movement had emerged, and it pressed the United States and Soviet Union to halt the testing immediately, development and production of nuclear weapons.
Reagan rejected the freeze. Democrats were more likely to accept it (by 1984 it was part of the Democratic Party platform). Reagan’s point was simple: A freeze would serve to hold in place an immense Soviet military advantage. Its strategic and intermediate-range nuclear delivery systems were more modern and more numerous than NATO arsenals. Combine the Soviet nuclear advantage (especially in Europe) with its advantage in both military manpower and many conventional weapons, and Reagan was concerned that a “freeze” would merely cement America’s disadvantages.
But Reagan’s argument against the freeze wasn’t what made the speech truly memorable — it was his conviction that America was engaged in a struggle against evil and that evil could not be appeased.
“If history teaches us anything,” Reagan argued, “it teaches that simple-minded appeasement or wishful thinking about our adversaries is folly. It means the betrayal of our past, the squandering of our freedom.”
Reagan had no patience for moral equivalence. “I urge you to beware the temptation of pride,” he said, “the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.”
My teenage self thrilled to Reagan’s words. To my young ears they captured the moral essence of the Cold War. As I matured, however, I more fully understood the risks in confronting the Soviet Union. I understood why so many of my fellow citizens were alarmed by Reagan’s rhetoric. I later saw that in 1983 it was far from clear that confrontation was the better course.
Some argued that Reagan was reckless. If you look at the contemporary balance of power between NATO and the Warsaw Pact (this analysis, from 1984, is indicative), it appeared that Reagan was defiant despite America’s relative weakness. NATO possessed less of most everything — ships, tanks, men, planes and nuclear delivery systems. After the American military loss in Vietnam, the humiliation of the Iranian hostage crisis and the crushing weight of stagflation, Reagan’s confidence in American strength wasn’t just dangerous, critics claimed, it was possibly delusional.
Yet Reagan was vindicated. He continued his military buildup. He poured weapons into Afghanistan to assist Afghan fighters who were confronting a Soviet invasion. Ultimately, the Soviets faltered. While the reasons for the Soviet collapse are hotly debated, its top-heavy military structure wasn’t a proxy for economic or political strength. Soviet society was far more brittle than it appeared.
When the end came, it came quickly. First, the Soviets came to the bargaining table. In December 1987, the Soviet leadership signed the I.N.F. Treaty, which required both sides to destroy their nuclear and conventional short- and intermediate-range land-based ballistic and cruise missiles and missile launchers. Next, the Soviet Union suffered military and political defeat. In February 1989, the last Soviet troops left Afghanistan. In November that year, the Berlin Wall fell. By 1991, the Soviet Union itself was extinct.
I don’t raise that comparison to claim that confrontation is always appropriate or that the current conflict in Ukraine doesn’t present the world with profound risks. I want to highlight the fundamental change in the Republican Party. In the face of daunting odds, Reagan projected strength and moral clarity. Now, when NATO is clearly stronger than Russia, DeSantis and Trump project moral confusion and profound timidity.
Take DeSantis’s claim that the war is a “territorial dispute.” As Noah Rothman wrote in National Review, “Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is a ‘dispute’ over territory in the same way a bank robber and depositor have a ‘dispute’ over money.” DeSantis’s comment is a shocking misstatement of the very nature of the conflict. Modern Russia may not be an “evil empire” of the same size and scope as the old Soviet Union, but its evil regime is seeking a new empire, one that threatens to expand again and again, until it is ultimately stopped at catastrophic cost.
As Nick Catoggio noted in The Dispatch, DeSantis left himself some wiggle room. He doesn’t explicitly call for cutting off aid to Ukraine, but “by tying his call for peace to withholding U.S. arms, he’s implicitly pressuring the Ukrainians to make territorial concessions to end the war.” This is Trump’s position as well. He’s willing to let Russia “take over something” to broker peace.
The DeSantis and Trump statements are not, however, the final word from the G.O.P. When it comes to the war in Ukraine — a pivotal moment in world history — there is now a real fight on the right. The choice isn’t simply between Trump and his Florida clone.
In his own statement to Tucker Carlson, Mike Pence specifically invoked Reagan: “When the United States supports Ukraine in their fight against Putin, we follow the Reagan Doctrine, and we support those who fight our enemies on their shores, so we will not have to fight them ourselves.”
Nikki Haley’s response was also strong. She unequivocally declared support for Ukraine to be a vital American national strategic interest. She clearly stated that a Ukrainian victory would directly benefit the United States. Pence and Haley were not alone in disagreeing with DeSantis and Trump. The remnants of the Reagan Republican Party are starting to assert themselves.
It’s not hard to see why. At long last Trump and DeSantis have given them an opening that can and should resonate with ordinary Republican voters. The very concepts of American weakness and Russian victory are utterly alien to traditional conservatives. They understand that America is the arsenal of democracy and is more than capable of sustaining Ukraine in its fight with Russia, deterring China and maintaining domestic economic health and vitality.
It is fashionable on the new right to mock Reaganism as a “zombie” ideology, and while it’s true that Reagan’s specific policies were tailored for his time, there’s a larger tale to tell. Reagan inherited a nation in a deeper economic crisis than we find ourselves in now, faced a foe far more formidable than modern Russia or modern China and still knew that our nation maintained the strength and moral clarity to meet its challenges at home and abroad.
Forty years ago, Reagan spoke with truth and conviction about the nature of foreign threats. This week, Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump failed. Two men who’ve built their political brands around fighting their domestic political enemies now wilt in the face of inferior Russian arms. If one of these men prevail, then the Reagan Republican Party is truly lost, its moral clarity is gone, and the preservation of the international order will fall to a Democratic Party that now shows more confidence than the G.O.P. in the moral and military power of the United States.