Once again, democracy is under attack. And while I could be talking about Russia’s still-shocking, full-scale invasion of Ukraine and its fledgling democracy, I’m actually talking about the ugly rantings of Vladimir Putin’s poodle, Donald Trump.
In the wake of the Russian attack, as I’m sure you know, Trump celebrated Putin’s “genius,” his “savvy” and added a few other words of praise that the Former Guy usually reserves for himself. In his speech to the annual CPAC gathering of right-wing activists Saturday night, Trump briefly praised Ukraine for bravery in the face of “horrific” war. And then he amended his “genius” branding of Putin with this: “The problem is not that Putin is smart … The problem is our leaders are dumb. So dumb.”
Trump did call the war in Ukraine “an assault on humanity.” What he didn’t do, though, was blame Putin or demand that Putin pull back or say what he might have done to stop the war — only that it could never have happened if, you guessed it, the 2020 election hadn’t been rigged.
As I watched what was basically Trump’s 2024 campaign speech, I couldn’t help but wonder whether it’s Trump or Putin who clings more doggedly to his version of the Big Lie.
And while Trump’s words are, of course, protected speech, they’re also definitely offensive and could be rightly called a betrayal of, let’s count the ways, democratic principles, the legacy of Ronald Reagan, NATO, the ideal of national sovereignty, and possibly the very life of Trump’s perfect phone-call buddy, Volodymyr Zelensky, who has, to nearly everyone’s surprise, turned into a hero of this story.
In fact, Zelensky’s stand in Kyiv — and the level of fight from outmanned Ukrainian soldiers and citizens — has pretty much forced Western allies to get tougher on Russia. It even forced Trump to praise Zelensky.
I bring this up only because Trump received 74 million votes in 2020, is very likely running again in 2024, and most Republicans — who, like most of us, don’t actually like Putin — are being so careful in walking a line so as not to directly criticize Trump. Instead we hear repeatedly, from Trump and his sycophants, that the lesson to take from Ukraine is that Trump was strong and Biden is somehow weak.
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The crazy thing is, they might be right about Putin and Ukraine. Why would Putin have to invade Ukraine when weakening NATO — almost certainly a prime Putin objective — was among Trump’s most successful, if damaging, foreign policy goals? By the way, Putin’s genius moves seem to have only strengthened NATO and American unity while some brave Russians, meanwhile, have taken to the streets in protest.
And give Trump full credit — I know Putin would — for trying to coerce Zelensky into smearing Joe Biden and Biden’s son, Hunter. Look at how Putin is smearing Zelensky and other democratically elected Ukrainian officials, going so far as to call them neo-Nazis. It may be a tough case to make, though, since Zelensky is Jewish, had relatives who died in the Holocaust and whose grandfather fought against the Nazis.
So there’s the old question, being asked anew, whether Trump has finally crossed a line that would possibly break his hold on Republican politicians and voters. You might think so, unless, of course, you had paid attention to the last five years. I mean, we started talking about this long ago, back when Trump was saying John McCain wasn’t a war hero because he had been captured.
There have been dozens of other opportunities for Republicans to finally call it quits with Trump, particularly following the Trump-encouraged January 6 insurrection. Instead, in most cases, some initial harsh words for Trump were walked back in favor of censuring GOP dissidents Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger. Of course, that move by the Republican National Committee turned out to be fatally botched when its resolution called the assault on the Capitol “legitimate public discourse.”
Let’s face it, Trump has long been a Putin toady who sucked up to him for all four years in office. Meanwhile Biden, after mismanaging the chaotic departure from Afghanistan, has done far better in rebutting Putin.
With Putin’s help, Biden managed to go a long way toward patching relations with NATO that Trump had undermined. And Biden’s strategy of declassifying Russia’s movements regarding Ukraine, sharing it with NATO partners and then with the world, clearly caught Putin off guard. And now sanctions from the U.S. and the European Union — including those against Putin himself and Russian banks — are getting tougher and deeper while more military aid is being sent to Ukraine.
That said, none of it stopped the invasion. And the hope by many that Putin might stop at a small-scale incursion, as a follow-up to his phony recognition of so-called separatist Ukrainian states, have been dashed. Putin’s ahistorical claims that Ukraine had never really been an independent country gave away his plans for a full-scale invasion.
We still don’t know what Putin’s goals are or what happens next, but you can’t overstate how dangerous the situation is. Historians point back to Hitler and the Sudetenland in 1938 or to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. I’m old enough to remember Cuba, although what I mainly recall is the duck-and-cover exercises in school, which would supposedly protect us during a nuclear war.
These days, we wake up early to turn on cable TV news — which I usually assiduously avoid — and to read the papers, by which I mean the paper’s web sites. The news since going to sleep has generally turned for the worse, and by the time we go to sleep the next night, we have seen desperate refugees, fighting in city streets, Russian missiles hitting residential areas and fears of an all-out aerial attack.
Still, most expect Russia, with its overwhelming force, to eventually win this first phase, but I haven’t heard anyone say how Russia could possibly maintain a long-term occupation of a country as large as Ukraine. Americans know something about the difficulty in fighting insurgencies. Whatever else happens in Ukraine — and wars rarely go the way they’re planned or we wouldn’t have been in Afghanistan for 20 years — there’s no way to guess the ending.
But Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the first such European invasion since World War II, is now looking not only like an unforgivable tragedy but also a gross miscalculation by Putin. And there may be one easy way to measure that. We’ll know it has gone really, truly bad if Trump is forced to finally throw Putin under the bus.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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