By Robert Reich
The world is currently and frighteningly locked in a battle to the death between democracy and authoritarianism. Yesterday, Vladimir Putin issued a new threat to the West — telling his defense minister and his top military commander to place Russia’s nuclear forces on alert.
It is a new cold war.
The biggest difference between the old cold war and the new one is that authoritarian neo-fascism is not just an external threat. A version of it has also taken over one of the major political parties in the United States.
The Trump-led Republican Party does not openly support Putin, but the GOP’s animus toward democracy is expressed in ways familiar to Putin and other autocrats. Trump Republicans continue to refuse to acknowledge the outcome of the 2020 election, claiming without evidence that it was “stolen” from Trump. In many states, on the basis of this big lie, they are making it more difficult for people who don’t share their beliefs to vote. In several states they are laying the groundwork for ignoring the popular vote altogether and throwing a future presidential election to Trump or another strongman. They have stopped even pretending to be the party of free speech: They are banning books from schools and prohibiting teachers from talking about America’s struggles against racism and homophobia.
Putin’s attack on Ukraine, starting February 24, 2022, and the attack by followers of Donald Trump on the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021 are different, of course, but they resemble one another in their contempt for democratic institutions and their attempts to justify violence by asserting a threat to a dominant racial or ethnic group. Each also represents the logical culmination of leadership by a dangerous narcissist who flagrantly lies about his intentions and his opponents and who sees the world only in terms of his personal power.
Donald Trump has long admired Vladimir Putin who, evidence shows, personally authorized a secret spy agency operation to support a “mentally unstable” Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Believing that a Trump White House would help secure Moscow’s strategic objectives, Russia’s spy agencies were ordered to use “all possible force” to ensure Trump’s victory. Again in the 2020 election, according to a recently unclassified report by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Putin authorized “influence operations” aimed at “supporting Trump” and “denigrating President Biden’s candidacy.”
Presumably Putin supported Trump in 2016 and in 2020 in part because of Trump’s disdain for NATO. As president, Trump did all he could to undermine the organization, even suggesting the U.S. should withdraw from it. Is it pure coincidence that once Trump was out of office and NATO remained intact, Putin attacked Ukraine?
Defending democracy and standing up against authoritarian neo-fascism requires courage. In 2019, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky refused Trump’s demand for help in rigging the 2020 election in the United States, even after Trump threatened to withhold money Congress had appropriated to help Ukraine resist Russian expansion. Today, Zelensky won’t be bullied by Putin. He turned down America’s offer to evacuate him, saying “I need ammunition, not a ride.” Zelensky’s courage in the face of overwhelming brute force has fortified Ukrainians now defending their country against invaders.
Contrast this with the toadies at the Republican National Committee who in February censured Republican Representatives Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois for participating in Congress’s select committee investigating the events of January 6, and who called the January 6 attack on the Capitol “legitimate political discourse.” Also contrast Zelensky’s courage with most elected Republicans who still refuse to stand up to Trump. Just yesterday on national television, Senator Tom Cotton refused four times to condemn Trump for calling Putin “smart” and “savvy” and NATO and the US “dumb.”
Make no mistake. Putin’s authoritarian neo-fascism has rooted itself in America.
We may be able to prevent Putin’s aggression from spreading to the rest of Europe. But we cannot win a cold civil war inside America without destroying this nation — another of Putin’s objectives when he ordered his spy agencies to help Trump.
In the months and years ahead, those of us who believe in democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and truth, must do everything we can to win back our fellow countrymen to these same overriding values.