The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Have Zelensky (and Putin) created a come-to-democracy moment? That’s up to us.

Demonstrators watch an address from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Tbilisi, Georgia, on March 4. (Vano Shlamov/AFP via Getty Images)

The outpouring of admiration for President Volodymyr Zelensky and the bravery of the Ukrainian people is rooted in healthy impulses. In overwhelming numbers, Americans recognize authentic virtue when we see it and understand that this struggle really is about freedom, democracy and justice.

But beneath our appreciation for a nobly embattled foreign leader lurks a form of avoidance, a wish that we might redeem our own democracy vicariously without facing up to our division, polarization and decay. We come together behind Zelensky partly because we can unite on little else.

At our most optimistic, we might imagine that Vladimir Putin’s aggression has, at long last, unleashed a come-to-democracy moment.

This is already underway in Europe, where leaders of nationalist parties who once heaped praise on Putin are fleeing him in embarrassment. In France, the National Rally Party of far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has ordered its organizers to throw away 1.2 million pamphlets that featured Le Pen shaking hands with Putin. With French voting starting April 10, she doesn’t have a lot of time for her Putin cleansing operation.

Eugene Robinson: Putin and Zelensky illustrate how history is shape by people — and character

In the United States, we can be grateful that Ukraine’s cause draws support across the political spectrum. Witness the applause when President Biden denounced Putin and embraced Zelensky and the Ukrainian people in his State of the Union speech. Especially well-received: Biden’s invocation of Zelensky’s promise that “light will win over darkness.”

That’s what friends of democracy are hoping for in the long run, despite Russia’s overwhelming advantage in firepower. But Zelensky should not be used as a source of cheap grace. We cannot ignore the shadows that have fallen across American democracy, cast largely by the power of an increasingly antidemocratic far right in the Republican Party.

With admirable exceptions such as Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah and Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, Republicans have been very slow in coming to terms with the depth of Putinization that Donald Trump bred in their party. The former president will now forever be remembered as the man whose initial reaction to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was to call it an act of “genius.”

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I suppose it’s a good sign that former vice president Mike Pence — very, very belatedly — now says “there is no room in this party for apologists for Putin.” But Republicans largely sidestep Trump and ignore the many ways he undermined Zelensky while in office. Their preferred path, reflected in the reply of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) to Biden’s State of the Union address, is to blame Putin’s aggression on Biden’s “weakness on the world stage” and to characterize Biden’s foreign policy as “too little, too late.”

Reynolds’s speech reflected a central current in the GOP — to get on the right side of popular sentiment in favor of Ukraine without cutting ties to Trump, and without giving Biden any credit for his work in corralling a broad global coalition against Russia’s imperial adventure.

Max Boot: With his praise for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Trump makes his apologists look foolish. Again.

The Biden speech to which Reynolds responded was resolutely nonpartisan about Ukraine — and a lot of other matters, too. Couldn’t Republicans shelve their reflexive hostility toward Biden for at least the initial spell of the Ukraine crisis? This is what Democrats did after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

But we now seem incapable of recognizing common ground, even where it exists. A revealing episode: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) chose the moment when Biden is moving to loosen masking rules to issue a rude reprimand to a group of high school students last week for wearing masks and engaging in what DeSantis called “covid theater.”

DeSantis may think it’s okay to beat up on teenagers to make a political point. Well, he made a point all right: He showed how destructive and self-serving it has been for politicians like himself to politicize masking and vaccine requirements.

And until Putin discredited himself entirely with his Ukraine aggression, the Russian leader had successfully weaponized social divisions among Western democracies to make their politics even more dysfunctional. He built a following by casting himself as a foe of permissiveness, feminism, LGBTQ activists, secularists and diversity advocates. The more he aggravated feelings around these issues — in alliance with politicians who had an interest in driving wedges — the weaker he made the democracies.

With his criminal assault on Ukraine, Putin has reminded the world of where nationalist authoritarianism can lead and how costly a smash-mouth brand of politics that accentuates and exaggerates our differences can be. At the same time, the courage shown by Zelensky and his fellow Ukrainians in standing up to brutality should give heart to all defenders of democracy and self-rule.

But Zelensky can’t save anyone else’s democracy. We have to do this ourselves. Perhaps this terrible episode will help us recognize that our shared commitment to democracy runs a lot deeper than we thought. We need to come together to fight for it — starting at home.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russia fired at least 85 missiles on at least six major cities in Ukraine on November 15, in one of the most widespread attacks of the war so far. The strikes came just hours after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, speaking by video link, presented a 10-point peace plan to G-20 leaders at a summit in Indonesia. As in previous Russian missile attacks, critical civilian infrastructure appeared to be primary targets. Parts of several cities that were hit were left without electrical power on Tuesday afternoon.

Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

Read our full coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war. Are you on Telegram? Subscribe to our channel for updates and exclusive video.