President Biden walked with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky through the colonnade of the White House on Dec. 21.
ON DEC. 22, 1941, two weeks after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, Winston Churchill arrived at the Norfolk Navy Yard in Virginia aboard the Duke of York. From there he made his way to Washington, D.C., where he would be hosted at the White House by President Franklin D. Roosevelt until early the following month. The two leaders used that time to plan military operations and cement the "special relationship" between the world's foremost English-speaking nations.
For Great Britain, the war was already long underway. Germany had launched its "blitzkrieg" in September 1940, bombing London, Coventry, Birmingham, and other cities every night for weeks on end. By the spring of 1941, German raids had killed more than 43,000 British citizens. So when Churchill traveled to Washington during Christmas week of 1941, it was as the prime minister of a nation that had been facing murderous attacks for months from a ruthless totalitarian enemy. To drive home the urgency of the situation, Churchill showed up at the White House wearing a siren suit — the one-piece outfit that could be thrown on quickly when an air-raid siren sounded and it was imperative to find shelter.
Churchill's symbolic choice of clothing was recalled last week when Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky appeared before a joint session of Congress wearing his own symbolic wartime attire: the olive-drab sweatshirt and cargo pants in which he has presided over his nation's defense for the past 10 months. Like Churchill, Zelensky leads a people fighting a conscienceless foe that attacked without justification. As many as 13,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed so far. So have thousands of civilians, as Russia deliberately bombs noncombat targets: hospitals, preschools, post offices, train stations.
Zelensky's green fatigues, like Churchill's air-raid garb, provided a visual reminder of the savagery with which his nation has been attacked. They underscored the stakes for the West in preventing a Russian victory, while emphasizing that Ukrainians are battling alone. They are not asking anyone to send troops to fight for them. Their request is only for equipment and ammunition. As Churchill said in February 1941: "Give us the tools, and we will finish the job."
Zelensky's emotional address to Congress was among the most significant ever delivered by a foreign leader. "This struggle will define in what world our children and grandchildren will live, and then their children and grandchildren," he said. "Just like the brave American soldiers who held their lines and fought back Hitler's forces during the Christmas of 1944, brave Ukrainian soldiers are doing the same to Putin's forces this Christmas — Ukraine holds its lines and will never surrender."
Again and again, Zelensky thanked Congress and the American people for their generous support to date. But he made it clear that Ukraine needs more aid to stay alive. "Your money is not charity," Ukraine's president said. "It is an investment in global security and democracy."
Americans agree: Recent polls show that 65 percent of US adults support continued military and economic aid to Ukraine.
Still, as is always the case when it comes to foreign conflicts, there is a strain of isolationist opposition to any US involvement. Sometimes that opposition is principled, expressing itself as "no-entangling-alliances" libertarianism or as "address-unmet-needs-here-at-home" progressivism. When it comes to the war in Ukraine, however, the most vehement American opposition comes from hard-core Trumpian populists. From the outset they have shown considerable sympathy for Vladimir Putin and seethed with disdain for the embattled Ukrainians resisting the Russian onslaught.
With Zelensky's appearance before Congress last week, that MAGA fanaticism boiled over. One after another, they took to social media and the airwaves to rage against Ukraine's leader, viciously mocking him for — of all things — his choice of apparel.
On Fox News, Tucker Carlson declared that Zelensky came to Washington "dressed like the manager of a strip club" and called his presence on US soil a "humiliating" affront. Newsmax TV host Benny Johnson told his 1.2 million Twitter followers that Zelensky was an "ungrateful piece of s*** [who] does not have the decency to wear a suit to the White House." Charlie Kirk, a Trump sycophant who runs Turning Point USA, described Zelensky as "this punk, a foreign welfare queen," who wore a "costume" to advance his "multi-billion-dollar shakedown of American taxpayers." Melissa Mackenzie of The American Spectator looked at Zelensky and saw "a mafioso" engaged in "extorting" President Biden and Congress.
I came to political maturity in the 1970s and 1980s, when conservatives championed courageous foreign leaders who resisted Moscow's brutality. We on the right then regarded pro-freedom stalwarts like Poland's Lech Walesa, Czechoslovakia's Vaclav Havel, and the Soviet Union's Andrei Sakharov as heroes. Zelensky follows in their footsteps and, for many of us, inspires the same admiration.
But MAGA populists today embrace very different values. While many call themselves "national conservatives," there is nothing conservative about their rejection of the liberal, democratic ideals that brought down the Iron Curtain and secured a great victory in the Cold War.
"The question of why the Trumpian populist right is so consumed with hatred for Ukraine . . . doesn't have a simple answer," wrote Cathy Young in a perceptive essay at The Bulwark. "Partly, it's simply partisanship: If the libs are for it, we're against it, and the more offensively the better. And if the pre-Trump Republican establishment is also for it, then we're even more against it."
As Young observed, the "national conservative" distaste for liberalism applies not just to its manifestation on the left but even to the classical conservatism like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: "the outlook based on individual freedom and personal autonomy, equality before the law, limited government, and an international order rooted in those values." It is bizarre but true that many "national conservatives" have more sympathy for Russia's crusade against secular liberalism than for Ukraine's quest to be integrated into liberal, secular Europe.
The great majority of Americans have tuned out the bile of the anti-Ukraine populists. They not only support Ukraine's right to self-defense but understand the horrors that would ensue if the United States were to abandon Ukraine. In the wartime leader who came to Capitol Hill in his olive drab sweatshirt and slacks, they perceived a figure of bravery, honor, and charisma — someone not unlike the portly British prime minister whose courage and clarity helped mobilize the West against Nazi tyranny.
"We stand, we fight, and we will win because we are united — Ukraine, America, and the entire free world," Zelensky told a cheering Congress. On the fringe, the Trumpian agitators rage. But their hatred pales before Zelensky's heroism. Two days after his address, Congress approved almost $50 billion in fresh aid to help bring about the victory for which he and his people are risking their lives. Americans are deeply divided on many issues, but this isn't one of them. Slava Ukraini!
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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