The Republican Party is splitting in two. Factional rumblings over America’s proper role in the world are rising to the surface and the difference between George W. Bush’s America— the world’s moral compass and protector—and Donald Trump’s America—insular and hell-bent on preserving national interests—could not be more stark.
While Trump may have been the catalyst, the divide between interventionists and isolationists has been years in the making. Many of the Tea Party Republicans elected in 2010 favor disengagement, opposing military action against brutal dictators in Libya and Syria, while old school Republicans, including Senator John McCain and Karl Rove, drool over using American influence to promote democracy and freedom abroad. Trump is not just against military intervention. He also opposes immigration reform, free trade, and accepting refugees fleeing from humanitarian crises—a true “America First” agenda. Trumpism is trickling down to Republican lawmakers who are betting that voters want a less-engaged America, even if it means opposing efforts to alleviate global hunger and poverty.
Take the Global Food Security Act for example. Signed into law in late-June, it authorizes about $7 billion in spending to coordinate U.S. programs which combat malnutrition and food insecurity abroad. Almost 800 million people around the world suffer from food insecurity, which, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is when nutritional and safe food is unavailable or when people are resorting to scavenging or stealing in order to obtain it.
At least one Georgia Republican was behind the bill. Senator Johnny Isakson, who has a well-known affinity for impoverished nations in Africa, sponsored it in 2015. The bill’s major policy change is that it officially authorizes President Obama’s Feed the Future program, which identifies at-risk countries and provides investments in the agricultural sector and nutrition programs for women and children. Feed the Future has been funded in appropriations bills since 2009, but was never guaranteed funding. The Global Food Security Act ensures that there is a dedicated stream of funding behind Feed the Future and other similar programs until 2021. So far, Feed the Future has reduced poverty in its targeted areas (which include southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Central America) by 26 percent and has boosted the incomes of small farmers by $800 million.
Senator Isakson has a reputation for bipartisanship on Capitol Hill and it served him well as members from both parties who believe American foreign policy can make a difference in the world rallied to his cause. Pennsylvania Senator Robert Casey was the Democratic sponsor and former Georgia Democratic Senate candidate Michelle Nunn, who is now the head of the anti-poverty organization CARE, assisted with lobbying efforts. Isakson and Casey’s inclusive, bipartisan strategy paid off in the Senate. The bill passed by voice vote, with no recorded opposition. However, the House demanded a roll call vote and 53 Republicans voted against it. This group included Tea Party leaders Justin Amash and Raul Labrador as well as eight of the 10 Georgia Republicans. Isakson only managed to persuade Representatives Austin Scott and Rob Woodall to vote yes, even though they had opposed it in an earlier vote.
Much of the opposition against the Global Food Security Act was stoked by the organization FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group that funded the rise of the Tea Party in 2009. FreedomWorks predictably railed against increasing spending when the national debt is approaching $20 trillion, but it also took a Trumpian view, saying that the United States should focus on ensuring domestic food security before worrying about other countries. Georgia representatives agreed. Rep. Rick Allen said while he “obviously” wants to help people in other countries, he also believes in Trump’s message which is that “we’ve got to look after America first.”
The rift between Isakson and the Georgia Republicans shows the divergent worldviews simmering in the opposing GOP factions. The old school Republicans believe that foreign intervention makes the world a better place for everyone, including Americans. Isakson praised the bill not only for being “morally right,” but also “economically smart.” He thinks that combatting food insecurity and poverty will lessen the chances for political and ethnic conflict, therefore saving lives and the costs of future U.S. intervention. George W. Bush held a similar view. His administration spent billions fighting the AIDS epidemic in African countries. This largely bipartisan strategy stresses the importance of investing in impoverished countries now in order to stave off violence and terrorism years down the road.
Contrast this with Donald Trump’s view of American influence and what he sees as its limited ability to create positive change. In his “America First” foreign policy speech delivered in April, Trump said that America’s resources are “totally overextended” and criticized Presidents Bush and Obama for “rebuilding other countries while weakening our own.” This message resonates among the conservative base who resent their tax dollars being spent in foreign countries while domestic economic conditions struggle to improve.
The rise of the Republican Party’s isolationist wing is nothing new. In mid-20th Century, Senator Robert Taft led the opposition against the New Deal and entanglement in foreign conflict. Anti-Communist sentiment turned Republicans into foreign policy hawks and interventionism became the GOP’s governing ideology until the Bush doctrine led America straight into Iraq. Many Republicans are now tired of carrying water for the world and Trump has offered them an alternate course. If the party chooses to take it, then the era of Republican hawkishness—including initiatives to fight global poverty and promote international development— might be at its end.