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Putin’s Useful Idiots: Right Wingers Lose It Over Zelensky Visit

The anti-Ukraine right can’t stand America standing as the arsenal of democracy.
December 22, 2022
Putin’s Useful Idiots: Right Wingers Lose It Over Zelensky Visit
(Photos: Screenshot via Twitter / GettyImages)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s surprise arrival in Washington on Wednesday for a meeting with President Joe Biden and a speech before Congress has unhinged the always-seething anti-Ukraine Trumpian right, triggering a deluge of snark and grievance. For instance, after the Washington Examiner’s Byron York tut-tutted that Zelensky was about to tell Congress that U.S. aid to Ukraine so far was not enough, the former First Son weighed in with this:

“National conservative” pundit and Newsweek opinion editor Josh Hammer, who played the “obviously Putin is a thug and Ukraine is the victim here, but . . .” game in the early days of the war, went full Putin this time around.

To top it off, Hammer, who shares Zelensky’s Jewish heritage, also accused the Ukrainian president of being a bad Jew—unseemly under any circumstances, but all the more so considering that only a few days earlier, Hammer had been spotted at a New York Young Republicans’ Club Gala in the company of various alt-right types with, shall we say, a complicated relationship to anti-Semitism. (Among them: Rep. Marjorie “Jewish Space Lasers” Taylor Greene, the founders of the white-nationalist website VDARE, and erstwhile Jew-baiting troll Jack Posobiec.)

Hammer’s deputy op-ed editor, progressive-turned-populist Batya Ungar-Sargon (for whom, I must mention, I used to write during her stint as an editor at the Forward), at least made an effort to stay classy while making a de facto pitch for throwing Ukraine under the bus:

That’s more than can be said for the vast majority of the “no money for Ukraine” crowd, from the Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh (“Get this grifting leech out of our country please”) to Tucker Carlson, who referred to Zelensky as a “Ukrainian strip club manager”—apparently because he was dressed in a olive-drab sweatshirt—and asserted that “it may be impossible to imagine a more humiliating scenario for the greatest country on Earth.” He also insisted that Zelensky is seeking not just to “push the Russian army back to pre-invasion borders,” which even Carlson conceded “sounds reasonable,” but to topple Vladimir Putin and bring about “regime change” in Russia. After Zelensky’s speech to Congress, Carlson brought on former Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, the “maverick” Democrat from Hawaii, to sing along with his assertions that Zelensky was actually an autocrat muzzling critical media outlets, jailing opposition politicians, and now trying to shut down an entire church because he finds it insufficiently loyal.

(In reality, the situation involving the Moscow-affiliated branch of the Orthodox Church—one of the two Orthodox denominations in Ukraine—is massively complicated; in wartime, there are legitimate security concerns about its clergy’s reported activities in support of the invaders. However, a quote Carlson attributes to Zelensky, threatening “economic and restrictive sanctions [on] any Christian caught worshiping in unapproved ways,” does not seem to have any source other than Carlson himself.)

Then there was this from Red State commentator Brandon Morse, asserting that Zelensky has done much more damage to the United States than the January 6th rioters:

A few other right-wing pundits, including career plagiarist-turned-conspiracy-theory-peddler Benny Johnson and Turning Point USA grifting leech Charlie Kirk, homed in on the really important stuff: Zelensky’s outfit.

Of course Zelensky’s clothes were meant to visually convey the fact that he’s in the middle of a brutal war. When you’re just back from a visit to the front lines in an area that looks like a ghost warscape from World War I come back to life, you’ve earned the right to make that particular fashion statement—even on a visit to Washington, D.C.

But wait, is it a military outfit or a mafia one? The American Spectator’s Melissa Mackenzie has got the goods:

I could go on and on. But perhaps this parade of indecency should come back full circle to a literal obscenity from Don Jr.: a photoshopped image that put a naked Hunter Biden next to Zelensky on the podium addressing Congress. (Warning: this tweet may be hazardous to your eyes.) It’s vile, of course. It’s also the sort of thing you post when you have no substantive way to attack someone.

The extent and purpose of U.S. military aid to Ukraine is certainly a legitimate subject for debate. Right now, there is a powerful consensus in the United States and Europe that Ukraine, for all the flaws and imperfections of its still-young democracy, is fighting for freedom against an authoritarian Goliath and that its fight is also a fight for the free world and its values.

The question of why the Trumpian populist right is so consumed with hatred for Ukraine—a hatred that clearly goes beyond concerns about U.S. spending, a very small portion of our military budget, or about the nonexistent involvement of American troops—doesn’t have a simple answer. 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.) Partly, it’s the belief that Ukrainian democracy is a Biden/Obama/Hillary Clinton/”Deep State” project, all the more suspect because it’s related to Trump’s first impeachment. Partly, it’s the “national conservative” distaste for liberalism—not only in its American progressive iteration, but in the more fundamental sense that includes conservatives 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. Many NatCons are far more sympathetic to Russia’s crusade against secular liberalism than to Ukraine’s desire for integration into liberal, secular Europe.

Whatever the reason, the anti-Ukraine animus on the right is quite real and widespread. (When journalist Bari Weiss, who has a largely “anti-woke” following, retweeted a Hanukkah greeting from Zelensky, the responses from her followers in the thread were mostly hostile.) But right now, it also smells of desperation. Ukraine’s cause is still massively popular in the United States, with two-thirds of Americans supportive of sending money and arms. Disingenuous laments about the poor Ukrainians exploited by American and European globalists ring hollow and false when the vast majority of Ukrainians are so clearly determined to resist the invasion. And Zelensky, as the smarter among the aid opponents, like Ungar-Sargon, can see, is a genuine hero: patriotic, incredibly courageous and charismatic, and a speaker so compelling that even congressional right-wingers who initially refused to join in the standing ovations (including Matt Gaetz, Lauren Boebert, and Andrew Clyde) finally rose up during the last portions of his speech.

There’s a nineteenth-century Russian fable called “The Elephant and the Pug” in which a pug yaps furiously at an elephant to get attention and show off how tough it is, while the elephant simply ignores it. Zelensky would obviously be the elephant in this scenario; but that would make the Zelensky haters the pugs—and that’s frankly a hideous insult to pugs.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.