This is an excerpt from Arguable, a Globe Opinion newsletter from columnist Jeff Jacoby. Sign up to get Arguable in your inbox each week.
On Dec. 22, 1941, two weeks after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor propelled the United States into World War II, Winston Churchill arrived at the Norfolk Navy Yard in Virginia aboard the Duke of York. From there he made his way to Washington, D.C., where he would be hosted at the White House by President Franklin D. Roosevelt until early the following month. The two leaders used that time to plan military operations and cement the “special relationship” between the world’s foremost English-speaking nations.
For Great Britain, the war was already long underway. Germany had launched its “blitzkrieg” in September 1940, bombing London, Coventry, Birmingham, and other cities night after night for weeks on end. By the spring of 1941, German raids had killed more than 43,000 British citizens and wounded countless others. So when Churchill traveled to Washington during Christmas week of 1941, it was as the prime minister of a nation that had been facing murderous attacks for months from a ruthless totalitarian enemy. To drive home the urgency of the situation, Churchill showed up at the White House wearing a siren suit — the unglamorous one-piece outfit that could quickly be put on when an air-raid siren sounded and it was imperative to quickly find shelter.
Churchill’s symbolic choice of clothing was recalled last week when President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine appeared before a joint session of Congress wearing his own symbolic wartime attire: the olive-drab sweatshirt and cargo pants in which he has presided over his embattled nation’s defense for the past 10 months. Like Churchill, Zelensky leads a people fighting a conscienceless foe that attacked without provocation or justification. As many as 13,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed so far. Thousands of Ukrainian civilians — women, children, the elderly — have been slaughtered as well, as Russia has deliberately bombarded noncombat targets: hospitals, preschools, post offices, train stations.
Zelensky’s military fatigues, like Churchill’s air-raid garb, provided a visual reminder of the savagery with which his nation has been attacked. They underscored the stakes for the civilized world in preventing a Russian victory. They also reinforced what Zelensky told members of Congress: Ukrainians are battling alone. They are not asking America and the West to send troops to fight for them. Their request is only for equipment and ammunition. As Churchill put it in February 1941: “Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.”
Zelensky’s emotional address to Congress was among the most significant ever delivered by an embattled foreign leader. “This struggle will define in what world our children and grandchildren will live, and then their children and grandchildren,” he said.
‘Just like the brave American soldiers who held their lines and fought back Hitler’s forces during the Christmas of 1944, brave Ukrainian soldiers are doing the same to Putin’s forces this Christmas — Ukraine holds its lines and will never surrender. . . . Russia could stop its aggression if it wanted to, but you can speed up our victory. I know it. And it will prove to any potential aggressor that no one can succeed in breaking national borders, no one committing atrocities and reigning over people against their will’
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine
Again and again, Zelensky thanked Congress and the American people for their generous support to date. At the same time, he made it clear that Ukraine needs more financial aid and equipment if it is to stay alive. “Your money is not charity,” Ukraine’s president told Congress. “It is an investment in global security and democracy.”
Most Americans agree. Recent polls show that 65 percent of US adults support sending military and economic aid to Ukraine; an even higher share of respondents favor admitting Ukrainian refugees into the United States.
Still, as is always the case when it comes to foreign conflicts, there is a strain of isolationist opposition to any US involvement. Sometimes that opposition expresses itself as principled “no-entangling-alliances” libertarianism; sometimes as a “focus on unmet needs here at home” progressivism. When it comes to helping Ukraine, however, the most vehement American opposition is expressed by hard-core Trumpian populists. From the outset they have shown considerable sympathy for Vladimir Putin and seethed with disdain for the embattled Ukrainians resisting the Russian onslaught.
With Zelensky’s appearance before Congress last week, that right-wing MAGA fanaticism boiled over. One after another, they took to social media and the airwaves to rage against Ukraine’s leader, viciously mocking him for — of all things — his choice of apparel.
On Fox News, Tucker Carlson declared that Zelensky came to Washington “dressed like the manager of a strip club” and called his presence on US soil a “humiliating” affront to “the greatest country on Earth.” Newsmax TV host Benny Johnson told his 1.2 million Twitter followers that Zelensky, an “ungrateful piece of [expletive] does not have the decency to wear a suit to the White House — no respect the country that is funding his survival.” Charlie Kirk, a Trump sycophant who runs Turning Point USA, described Zelensky as “this punk, a foreign welfare queen,” who wore a “costume” to advance his “multi-billion-dollar shakedown of American taxpayers.” Melissa Mackenzie of The American Spectator looked at Zelensky and saw “a mafioso” engaged in “extorting” President Biden and Congress.
I came to political maturity in the 1970s and 1980s, when conservatives championed courageous foreign leaders who resisted Moscow’s brutality. On the right then, we regarded pro-freedom, pro-Western stalwarts like Poland’s Lech Walesa, Czechoslovakia’s Vaclav Havel, and the Soviet Union’s Andrei Sakharov as heroes. To those of us whose political values have remained consistent, Zelensky follows in their footsteps and inspires the same admiration.
But those aren’t the values embraced by MAGA populists today. Many call themselves “national conservatives,” but there is nothing conservative about their rejection of the liberal, democratic ideals that brought down the Iron Curtain and secured a great victory in the Cold War.
“The question of why the Trumpian populist right is so consumed with hatred for Ukraine . . . doesn’t have a simple answer,” wrote Cathy Young in a perceptive essay at The Bulwark.
‘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 “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.’
Fortunately, the great majority of Americans have tuned out the anti-Ukraine bile of the hard-right populists. Most Americans not only support Ukraine’s right to defend its independence but understand the horrors that would ensue if the United States were to abandon Ukraine. In the wartime leader who came to Capitol Hill in his olive-drab sweatshirt and slacks, they perceived a figure of bravery, honor, and charisma — a figure not unlike the portly British leader during World War II whose courage and clarity helped mobilize the West against Nazi tyranny.
“We stand, we fight, and we will win because we are united — Ukraine, America, and the entire free world,” Zelensky told a cheering Congress last week. The Trumpian agitators rage, but their hatred cannot overcome Zelensky’s manifest heroism. Two days after his address, Congress approved almost $50 billion in additional aid to help bring about the victory for which he and his people are risking their lives. Americans are deeply divided on many issues, but this isn’t one of them. Slava Ukraini!