Ukrainian courage shames GOP

by Kevin McDermott

A new hero to many Americans today is a man whose name they may have trouble pronouncing. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s bold stand against Russia’s invasion has shown many of us what courage in leaders looks like.

Meanwhile, one of our own leaders, top House Republican Kevin McCarthy, recently darted from TV cameras like a startled cat rather than publicly criticize a member of his caucus for speaking at a white nationalist gathering where a crowd of supposed Americans chanted its support for Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin.

For those keeping score at home, McCarthy’s refusal to call out this kind of evil for fear of offending the extremists in his party is the opposite of courage. It’s called cowardice — and it’s a defining characteristic of elected Republicans today.

It began two weekends ago, when Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Lunatic, spoke at an event organized by Nicholas Fuentes. He is a well-known white nationalist organizer who the FBI has dubbed a white supremacist. Greene, the Georgia congresswoman, nonetheless claims never to have heard of him when she agreed to speak at his event.

Even if we accept the premise that Greene was utterly ignorant about the background of her controversial host, she might want to claim deafness as well. Just before she spoke, Fuentes bragged to his crowd about “our secret sauce here, it’s these young white men.” He noted that people are “going on about Russia and ‘Vladimir Putin is Hitler,’ ” then mused: “They say that’s not a good thing.” He asked for and got “a round of applause for Russia.” The crowd then broke into a chant of “Putin! Putin! Putin!”

All this as Greene waited to take the stage.

What strange times we’re in. I’m old enough to remember when those on the political right prided themselves on rock-ribbed resistance against foreign adversaries, Russia chief among them. Actually, anyone older than about 8 is old enough to remember that. As with so much of the GOP’s dysfunction today, this weird new Russia-coddling thing among a lot of self-proclaimed conservatives can be traced in a straight line right back to former President Donald Trump.

(And let’s pause here for all the moaning and groaning from those who just can’t believe we’re still talking about the only U.S. president who ever tried to stay in power after being voted out, and who still leads a toxic nationalist movement that could very well return him to power, and which, in turn, could very well mean the end of American democracy. But, but, but — Hunter Biden!)

Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s 44-year-old president, is the same leader who then-President Trump tried to strong-arm for campaign help in 2019, holding U.S. military aid over his head. Yet almost every congressional Republican stood by him — not out of loyalty, most of them, but out of cowering terror that he would tweet something nasty and sic his base on them if they tried to hold him accountable.

Now the leader of the U.S. ally they betrayed along with their oaths is standing courageously against Russia’s invasion, while the top House Republican doesn’t have the borscht to stand up to a bunch of Putin-loving skinheads and a deranged congresswoman.

Zelenskyy is pinned down in Kyiv, predicting his own death but defiantly rallying his country to stand firm, while McCarthy can’t make his mouth say the words Rep. Greene shouldn’t have spoken to that racist, pro-Putin gathering while cameras are rolling. Among the questions McCarthy hadn’t answered by mid-week was whether the party that just ex-communicated two of its House members for having the audacity to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol should take similarly strong action against two other members who played footsie with pro-Russia traitors and neo-Nazi creeps.

This is notable because, though McCarthy’s Lion-from-The-Wizard-of-Oz-like cowardice regarding Trump has been well-documented, this event wasn’t specifically about Trump. (That is, beyond the involvement of white supremacists, who of course adore the former president.)

So Trump’s cowardice-inspiring effects on elected Republicans have apparently spread, cancer-like, to topics beyond Trump himself. It’s no longer enough to make sure you aren’t stepping directly on his delicate ego. Now you also have to make sure you aren’t offending any people, groups or events even loosely aligned with the MAGA fringe. If you’re a Republican House leader hoping to become House speaker next year, that means treading lightly around a nut-case congresswoman and her white-supremacist goons.

So the next time you see footage of President Zelenskyy (still alive at this writing, but by the time you read this, who knows?), by all means, let his courage inspire you. But don’t expect to find even a pale shadow of it in what used to be considered America’s party of patriotism.

Kevin McDermott is a member of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editorial Board.