The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Hannity’s clownish contortions on Ukraine reveal the rot at Trumpism’s core

President Donald Trump greets Fox News host Sean Hannity in Cape Girardeau, Mo., on Nov. 5, 2018. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
5 min

Donald Trump’s most slavish propagandists have a problem. Trump withheld military aid from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in an extortion scheme of unfathomable corruption and depravity. But amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Zelensky has emerged as a heroic symbol of resistance to tyranny across the Western world. Now what?

Sean Hannity’s plight is particularly instructive, given the Fox News host’s role as a leading defender of Trump during the 2019 Ukraine scandal. It’s worth a look not just because of its comedic value, but also because it exposes deep deficiencies in Trumpism, a genuine worldview that still holds sway on the right.

Zelensky’s extraordinary appeal to Congress for more military assistance has sharpened the dilemma for pro-Trump spinners, and on Wednesday night, Hannity called on President Biden to increase military aid. But Hannity’s specific language was intriguing.

“President Zelensky is begging Joe Biden for help,” Hannity said. He bashed Biden for failing to deliver that help and castigated him as “weak” and “frail.”

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Zelensky is begging Biden for help, you say?

Recall that on that “perfect phone call” with Zelensky in 2019, this is very close to what Zelensky did with Trump. Zelensky cited Ukraine’s need for more “support in the area of defense,” whereupon Trump pressed Zelensky to help smear Biden in advance of the 2020 election.

Hannity went to extraordinary lengths to downplay this corruption. He asserted there had been no corrupt ask by Trump, no mention of military aid, nothing of serious note at all. Indeed, as Matthew Gertz of Media Matters demonstrates, Hannity helped build up conspiracy theories about Ukraine that fueled Trump’s broader effort to align the United States with Russia’s interests against those of Ukraine and the West.

Hannity’s answer is to claim Biden is failing to heed Zelensky’s appeals for military aid. But to get here, Hannity engages in extraordinary contortions, and this is what’s revealing about the deficiencies in the pro-Trump worldview.

Notably, Hannity agrees with much of Biden’s position on Ukraine. Both oppose imposing a no-fly zone and sending in troops.

And so, to depict Biden as “weak” in assisting Ukraine, Hannity slammed the president for refusing to provide Polish jet fighters, which Zelensky has requested, along with that no-fly zone.

“Unfortunately our weak, and frail, and cognitively struggling president, Joe Biden, single-handedly nixed that plan,” Hannity seethed.

Yes, Biden has nixed this plan. That’s because U.S. intelligence has concluded that supplying those jets could be construed by Vladimir Putin as an overt act of war, leading to a Russia-NATO escalation, and everyone wants to avoid nuclear war.

One could have a legitimate debate over this question. Hannity could argue that our intelligence services are wrong, that this move wouldn’t produce such an escalation. But this isn’t Hannity’s main thrust. He doesn’t seriously engage with the reason Biden will not supply the fighter jets (even though Hannity himself says he wants to avoid World War III).

On March 16, President Biden announced an additional $800 million in aid for Ukraine following Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s address to Congress. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Biden is already supplying extensive military aid to Ukraine, but he’s attempting to manage the delicate balance of doing so without provoking escalation. Hannity could meaningfully explain why he believes Biden’s version of this balance is wrong. But that would require informing Fox News viewers of what Biden is actually doing in defense of Ukraine.

Instead, Hannity prefers dwelling on simple-minded bromides about the need for unilateral toughness from the United States. Not coincidentally, this allows him to tell us how strong Trump was as president.

Which brings us to the rot at Trumpism’s core. Trump’s foreign policy worldview is often misconstrued as a mere “isolationist” and “antiglobalist” turn away from foreign entanglements. But as Zack Beauchamp of Vox has shown, Trumpism actually favors a combination of extricating the United States from international alliances while using overwhelming unilateral force to vanquish narrowly defined threats and bolster crudely defined national interests.

Hannity cites this approach to hail Trump’s supposed toughness. He extols Trump’s campaign against the Islamic State and insists we should emulate this now by maximally arming Ukraine.

But Russia is a nuclear-armed superpower. Again, what if doing this now provokes Putin to escalate? Hannity doesn’t engage seriously with this question. Hannity also makes a tortured comparison to President Ronald Reagan’s Cold War arming of rebel groups as a model, but those were proxy wars, whereas here direct conflict with Russia is the risk.

The threat of provoking this Putin escalation is why Biden is combining an effort at the right balance on arming Ukraine with a robust internationalist response involving allies imposing punishing economic sanctions on Russia. This might yet fail, but Hannity can’t seriously deny that this has proved an extraordinary effort. It might yet succeed, at least to some degree, with the help of Ukraine’s extraordinary bravery and tenacity.

But engaging seriously with any of this would require asking whether Trump was wrong in his goal of weakening NATO and what this means for the present. It would mean admitting Trump aggressively aligned himself with Putin’s interests against Ukraine’s, while Biden is doing the opposite and rallying our allies in doing so.

If everything flows from the core imperative of portraying Trump as strong and his political opponents as weak, it creates a propaganda bubble that such debate and such an accounting must not be permitted to penetrate.