Republicans’ betrayal of Ukraine is about one thing: Pleasing Donald Trump

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The pathetic capitulation of the Republican Party to Donald Trump may turn out to be the singular political phenomenon of the 21st century, possibly eclipsing even the 9/11 terrorist attacks in sheer scope and impact—not just on American society, but ultimately the rest of the world. What began as simply crass political opportunism on the part of one of the major political parties has by now morphed into a movement that embraces something profoundly worse and far more damaging. This strain of reflexive strongman-worship now threatens to eradicate the American democracy experiment altogether, and could take the rest of the world’s free societies down with it. 

Clear warning signs were all visible at the outset, well before Trump descended his golden escalator to the oohs and aahs of a fawning, fascinated media: The GOP was a party inherently susceptible to authoritarianism and disdain for the egalitarian nature of democracy. It comprised a shrinking demographic of aggrieved white males and white evangelicals facing unfamiliar, threatening cultural shifts and engendering a groundswell of racism and misogyny, all waiting to be galvanized by the cynical machinations of a golden demagogue appearing at just the right moment to exploit them. 

Those factors certainly combined to create the phenomenon we are witnessing today. But as David Frum convincingly explains in a new essay for The Atlantic, what has pushed Republicans irrevocably over the edge is the same thing you see in any totalitarian dictatorship: an irresistible, mandated compulsion to demonstrate fealty, over and over again, to the Great Leader. 

The latest, most glaring example of this imperative can be seen in congressional Republicans’ refusal to provide continued military aid to Ukraine. As Frum observes, fear of Donald Trump’s disapproval coupled with the frantic desire to please him have completely transformed many Republicans’ attitudes about supporting Ukraine. These attitudes were directly cultivated by Trump, based on his own sycophantic relationship to Vladimir Putin. Over a period of just a few years, these attitudes were amplified by Trump himself and by pro-Putin mouthpieces on Fox News and other right-wing media.

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They are now so deeply embedded in the GOP that in the event Trump is reelected in 2024, this country will likely abandon not only Ukraine but also the European NATO allies with whom we have worked for 75 years to preserve peace not just in Europe, but at home.

It might be decades before we know the real reasons for Donald Trump’s slavish admiration of a dictator like Putin. The most benign explanation, perverse as it is, is that he is simply enamored with the idea of absolute power, wielded cruelly and ruthlessly. There may be a more prosaic and insidious reason involving Trump’s convoluted history of shady business dealings with Russia that have intersected and overlapped with the Russian dictator’s strategic goals. It’s also entirely possible—as has long been theorized—that Trump himself is compromised or somehow beholden to Putin, who certainly has the capacity, motivation, and wherewithal to engage in blackmail.

But at this point in time, the reason is far less relevant than the end result. Because Trump’s grip on the Republican base is so tight, Republicans feel compelled not only to align themselves with their orange-hued leader, but to act in accordance with his wishes. Failure to do so means banishment from the party at minimum, and risks incurring the violent wrath of his legions of fanatic supporters at worst.

It’s been made clear over the last month that this fealty now includes—and ultimately requires, if Trump is reelected—cutting off military aid to Ukraine, where a Russian victory would cement and accelerate Putin’s long-term goal of intimidating and infiltrating the remaining Western democracies on the European continent. It’s obvious to those countries—or it should be—that Trump and Putin’s logical endgame would ultimately result in America’s abandonment of NATO.

Frum, the former speechwriter for George W. Bush, may be most recognized for his pithy summary of his fellow conservatives’ conditional relationship to democracy and its institutions. In a 2018 essay for The Atlantic, Frum took note of the marked drift towards authoritarianism by the Republican Party as it has evolved under Trump. He famously noted, “If conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy.“ 

Whatever you may think of Frum’s background or his own past culpability as a cog in the GOP machine, his statement has been thoroughly vindicated. Republicans are in fact quite demonstrably abandoning democratic institutions. Voter suppression, election denialism, and the draconian autocratic plans of the Heritage Institute—known as ”Project 2025”—are all evidence of a deliberate strategy to reshape the United States into a far more authoritarian country, one where the right to vote is diluted or otherwise manipulated—all to satisfy right-wing policy imperatives driven by white and/or Christian nationalism.

In his most recent piece in The Atlantic, Frum destroys the notion that congressional Republicans’ refusal to provide continued military aid to Ukraine stems from anything other than an abject desire to please Trump. He dispenses with Republicans’ pathetic attempt to equate providing Ukraine aid to sealing the U.S.-Mexican border. Since comprehensive immigration reform is the very last thing Republicans are actually willing to discuss, Frum believes that this comparison really only indicates that they have zero interest in helping Ukraine in the first place. The fact that Republicans have treated such aid as “barter” is more telling in and of itself.

What Republicans’ refusal to aid Ukraine in its war with Russia does indicate, however, is the complete coopting of a substantial portion of the Republican Party to Trump’s (and by extension, Putin’s) views about Ukraine. Frum explains that from 2015 to 2017, in tandem with extensive Russian efforts to secure Trump’s election, Republicans effected a remarkable turnaround on their views towards Russia and its dictator, Putin.

Pre-Trump, Republicans expressed much more hawkish views on Russia than Democrats did. Russia invaded eastern Ukraine and annexed Crimea in spring 2014. In a Pew Research survey in March of that year, 58 percent of Republicans complained that President Barack Obama’s response was “not tough enough,” compared with just 22 percent of Democrats. After the annexation, Republicans were more than twice as likely as Democrats to describe Russia as “an adversary” of the United States: 42 percent to 19 percent. As for Putin personally, his rule was condemned by overwhelming majorities of both parties. Only about 20 percent of Democrats expressed confidence in Putin in a 2015 Pew survey, and 17 percent of Republicans.

Trump changed all that—with a lot of help from pro-Putin voices on Fox News and right-wing social media.

As Frum observes, the process began with gushing tributes about Putin’s “manly” rule emanating from frustrated figures of what was then called the “New Right,” such as Pat Buchanan. If it had ended there, Frum believes, the Republican Party could have salvaged itself from the true implications of its then-nascent embrace of the Russian dictator. But as Frum explains, Russian intelligence then went to work infiltrating the party and its allied organizations in the years prior to Trump’s election.

By the mid-2010s, groups such as the National Rifle Association were susceptible to infiltration by Russian-intelligence assets. High-profile conservatives accepted free trips and speaking fees from organizations linked to the Russian government pre-Trump. A lucrative online marketplace for pro-Moscow messages and conspiracy theories already existed. White nationalists had acclaimed Putin as a savior of Christian civilization for years before the Trump campaign began.

But, as Frum notes, the coup de grace that connected these sentiments to the electoral fortunes of the Republican Party was the appearance of Donald Trump, whose unabashed admiration for Putin, combined with is undisputed status as both president and GOP leader, “tangled the whole party in his pro-Russia ties.”

At this point the sheer magnitude of the GOP’s reversal began to manifest itself. 

Frum writes:

The urge to align with the party’s new pro-Russian leader reshaped attitudes among Republican Party loyalists. From 2015 to 2017, Republican opinion shifted markedly in a pro-Russia and pro-Putin direction. In 2017, more than a third of surveyed Republicans expressed favorable views of Putin. By 2019, [Tucker]Carlson—who had risen to the top place among Fox News hosts—was regularly promoting pro-Russian, anti-Ukrainian messages to his conservative audience. His success inspired imitators among many other conservative would-be media stars.

Once Trump attempted to extort Ukraine by denying the country needed military aid to defend themselves against Russia, conditioning such aid only if Ukraine agreed to open an “investigation” to publicize dirt Trump’s allies had invented about his presumed 2020 opponent, Joe Biden, Republicans found themselves in a quandary. How could they reconcile such objectively obvious treachery with their newfound embrace of Putin?

Frum contends it was done by embracing what he refers to as “undernews,” regurgitating innuendo and social media-churned rumors that are too ridiculous or far-fetched for even Fox News to broadcast with a straight face, but are well understood by the Republican base. In the case of Trump’s first impeachment, Frum believes the “undernews” was that Trump’s acts did not rise to the level of high crimes necessary for impeachment, because in the end Ukraine had received its weapons. Frum also recalls this “undernews” involved “an elaborate fantasy that Trump had been right to act as he did.”

In this invented world, Ukraine became the villain as part of a Biden-connected “global criminal enterprise,” and Trump acted heroically by trying to unmask it. Frum’s example provides valuable insight into not just the delusional world that many Republican voters actually occupy, but how the party exploits it.

Frum believes that continued fealty to Trump is the sole motivation behind newly elected House Speaker Mike Johnson’s refusal to allow additional aid to Ukraine. Even as Putin issues warnings and threats against Poland and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (all now members of NATO), Republicans remain beholden to the notion of (as Frum describes it): ” Ukraine=enemy of Trump; abandoning Ukraine=proof of loyalty to Trump.” He believes a majority of House Republicans actually still support aid for Ukraine, but the calendar is controlled by those in leadership like Johnson, whose only interest is catering to the deluded, so-called “undernews” faction. 

Thus it is not only Ukraine, but also our European allies—whose perception of Putin’s real aims is based not on delusional notions or political loyalties but the real, existential threat Putin represents to their societies—find themselves left out in the cold by a Republican Party that places more priority on appeasing the whims of an indicted fraudster and Putin sycophant than on standing up to its own established and assumed strategic commitments.

As Frum emphasizes, “If Republicans in Congress abandon Ukraine to Russian aggression, they do so to please Trump. Every other excuse is a fiction or a lie.“

It’s probably not possible to capture in words the magnitude of betrayal that would be felt not just by Ukrainians—who have no choice but to fight on—but by the entirety of Europe. That abandonment would remain a stain on the history of the U.S. for the rest of its existence.

The economic and strategic impact on this country’s standing in the world would be incalculable, with our ability to establish other alliances forever compromised. Seventy-five years of cooperation and trust could be wiped out by the actions of one corrupt, ignorant man and the treachery of his delusion-ridden political party.

All of which, of course, would suit Vladimir Putin just fine.

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