Dear God: I am not very religious, but please do something because it sure looks like only You can spare that amazing Zelenskyy and the incredibly brave people of Ukraine from the insanity of an unhinged, amoral, authoritarian monster.
As for the rest of us, God’s work must truly be our own.
Are a people responsible for their government?
In the coverage of Russia’s barbaric attack on a peaceful neighbor, we are learning that the sanctions that are being imposed on Russia are causing economic carnage in the lives of ordinary Russian people.
There are Russian citizens complaining that their own government’s actions in Ukraine have triggered the meltdown that is cratering the value of the Ruble, triggering Russia’s cultural excommunication from the rest of the world, and rendering even the most basic tools of modern commerce – charge cards and app-based payment systems -- useless. A small percentage of Russians are actually protesting the barbarian behavior of its leaders, but many seem to be just pissed off that there are long lines at the subway to pay in cash.
Uh, yes, Russians. This is what happens when your government commits war crimes and atrocities. It’s your government.
Many of us are pleased at the ferocity of the sanctions against Russia, and feel justified at the devastating impact that the sanctions are causing. Wouldn’t it be great, we wonder, if Biden would announce that the sanctions will stay in place until three conditions are met: the Russian army leaves Ukraine, Putin is removed as the leader of Russia, and Russia surrenders its nuclear arsenal. Until then, cut them off. Russia is now proving itself to be – beyond any doubt – a plundering, rogue, terrorist nation that is bombing residential housing, attacking nuclear facilities, and killing children. It is now time to take every step at our disposal to eradicate this criminal, barbarian regime… including severely punishing their citizens.
Is that fair, you ask? To what degree are the citizens who are ruled by a ruthless despot responsible for the actions of their government?
Russians, it seems, are about to discover what citizens of Dresden found out, and what was evident in the fate of Japanese civilians in Hiroshima. Individual citizens may be disinterested in government, or may try to claim that they don’t support the actions of their government, but in war, there is no distinction between the government and the citizens. They are one in the same.
People who believe their government is just will fight to preserve it. (See: Ukraine.) People who disagree with their government have the option to protest it, resist it, or fight it. But people who accept the actions of a criminal government are enablers, complicit in the villainy… and will be treated as such. So, Russian people, get the message: your Apple Pay no longer works because you are paying the price of tolerating and enabling a murderous thug as the leader of your country.
The Russian people can hope that its haughty, yacht-y oligarchy can bring pressure on Vlad, but I’m not betting that those sick-o sycophants are going to confront Putin on the blitz. Perhaps the Russian military will attempt to educate Putin that the government in Ukraine can indeed be toppled, but at an unacceptable cost of human life, and that such a conquest would lead to an occupation that cannot be maintained as sanctions suck every molecule of oxygen out of the Russian economy. Nothing blows my mind more than the Russian failure to realize that every building, hospital, school, and infrastructure they blow up is something they will have to rebuild. You break it, you own it.
There was Lindsay Graham’s suggestion that someone in Russia should assassinate Putin, noting that such a deed would be “doing your country – and the world – a great service.” Lindsey took a great deal of grief for this on the theory that it’s not a good look for a senior U.S. government official to be advocating the murder of a head of state. But since I say this so rarely, allow me my moment: I agree with Lindsey Graham. If anyone in Russia can get off a clean shot, take it.
The hard truth is that if the Russian people want to stop this war, there is only one way to do it: pour into the streets in the millions, in numbers that Putin cannot ignore, cannot imprison, and cannot kill. Yes, Russians! Start behaving like the brave Ukrainian citizens your barbarian leader is now killing. Take to the streets and defy the tyrants, the authoritarians, and the murderers.
It’s up to the Russian people. In the end, a people are responsible for the government that they submit to.
And what, exactly, do we – as Americans -- learn from this?
In the United States, the people are responsible for our government. That was the entire motivation for the shocking new paradigm that our Founding Fathers advanced in the Constitution: a government of the people, by the people, for the people.
And yet today’s sobering reality today is how many Americans are oblivious to the fact that our government “of, by, and for the people” is under assault from within. We, the people, do not seem to grasp that there are forces in the United States that make this era much closer to Weimar Germany than we seem aware of, let alone capable of grappling with.
Millions of Americans are aghast that Putin is rolling tanks toward Kyiv to overthrow a freely-elected government -- but somehow do not make the connection that Donald Trump tried overthrow our own government.
It is painful and embarrassing to remind ourselves that just three years ago our government was shaking down Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, committing extortion by conditioning the delivery of Congressionally-approved military aid on the delivery of political dirt on Joe Biden, Donald Trump’s political adversary.
Yes, just three years ago, it was our president, Donald Trump, who was treating this extraordinary Zelenskyy – now a global icon of defiance, freedom, and democracy -- with loathing, contempt, and disrespect. Our leaders were the boorish, barbaric thugs trying to muscle and hustle a fragile democracy for political gain.
That was our government, not Russia.
And we, the people, were responsible for it.
Can you imagine what would be unfolding today if Donald Trump were still President of the United States?
Trump was Putin’s useful idiot. Trump was merely an odious, obsequious ostrich sticking his head in the sand, at once intimidated and enthralled by a real murderous strongman, nodding and smiling at Putin’s every utterance. Trump famously refused to confront Putin in Helsinki over allegations of interference in the 2016 election, publically choosing to side with Putin over the beliefs of the entire United States intelligence community.
No doubt citing his “America First” retreat from global responsibility and his overt hostility to NATO, Trump would never have rallied the global alliance that is bringing Russia to its economic knees. Trump would have expressed his admiration for Putin – as, indeed, he actually did on the first day of the invasion.
It’s popular among Trump loyalists to argue that Putin did not invade Ukraine when Trump was President, implying that Putin was only emboldened to invade due to a perception that Biden was weaker. Indeed, Putin did not invade Ukraine during Trump’s first term, but for an entirely different reason. Having a pliable lapdog like Trump in the White House was more important to Putin than Ukraine, so it is more than likely that he held off his invasion out of concern that it could have damaged Trump’s chances for re-election. And, of course, Putin realized that it would be easier to roll tanks into Ukraine during a second Trump term than a far tougher Democratic President.
Don’t believe me? Believe John Bolton, former national security advisor to Trump, who said in a recent Washington Post interview that “In a second Trump term, I think he may well have withdrawn from NATO, and I think Putin was waiting for that.”
Would Trump have helped unify the world in support of Ukraine? Are you kidding? Today, Tucker Carlson aggressively represents the Trump Party in openly questioning whether the United States should actually be supporting the Russian dictatorship over the Ukrainian democracy.
If Trump were President today and there were only minimal sanctions against Russia, Putin would be emboldened to continue his plunder and invade other sovereign nations, knowing that he could do so with impunity. Guess what, cold war historians? The domino theory lives anew.
Yes, the crisis of the moment is that a crazed, frustrated, and cornered authoritarian in Moscow is waging an immoral war against a peaceful neighbor, and has the power to initiate a nuclear war.
But there is a crisis here at home that appears to be invisible to many Americans.
The rise of authoritarianism in the United States – and the threat to our democracy that it represents – does not lend itself to the hellish CNN video montages flashed across our screens from the streets of Kyiv.
But – like the months that Putin amassed his troops along the border of Ukraine – the threat of that authoritarianism is a growing cancer in our country. And – again, like Putin -- we are kidding ourselves if we don’t think this building surge of authoritarianism will not metastasize into ever more violent efforts to sieze control of our government.
The crisis at home is that a shocking percentage of Americans – most polls estimate a full one-third -- believe a lying authoritarian’s claims that the election of 2020 was “stolen.”
The crisis at home is that in spite of a four-year term characterized by willful ignorance and aggressive dismissal of scientific and medical fact, Donald Trump received seventy-four million votes in the 2020 election.
The crisis at home is that Donald Trump incited a violent attack on the United States Capitol for the purpose of attempting to overturn the free and fair election of a U.S. President, and now – a year later – his party has formally declared that the insurrection was “legitimate political discourse.” Yes, it is awful to watch Putin’s tanks roll into Ukraine, but why do millions of Republicans fail to make the equation that Putin’s invasion and Trump’s insurrection were both acts of violence intended to undo the rights of citizens in a democracy to choose their government and their leaders?
Yes, there is a crazed, frustrated, and belligerent authoritarian in Moscow… but there is also one in Mar-a-Lago. A man who tried to destroy our democracy, and who may well get another chance to do it.
It happens that in the mad world of coincidence, just as Vladimir Putin was committing numerous violations of international law in his attack on Ukraine, the January 6 Committee here in the United States advanced an argument that Donald Trump had committed crimes in his efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
In the most overt baring of cards yet, the January 6 Committee presented evidence of possible criminal behavior on the part of the former President in order to convince a Federal Judge to reject Trump lawyer John Eastman’s claims of Attorney Client privilege. As reported by The New York Times, the committee alleged that “Trump committed two crimes: obstructing an official proceeding by working to disrupt the vote count, and conspiring with his allies, including lawyer John Eastman, to defraud the United States by working to overturn the election results.”
Many of us read this news with a healthy dose of cynicism, having watched the first impeachment, the second impeachment, and hearing the fresh news that two veteran prosecutors in the Manhattan D.A.’s office resigned after the recently-installed District Attorney Alvin Bragg indicated that he did not support bringing charges against Trump. There’s still more out there: New York State Attorney General’s Letitia James case against Trump and the State of Georgia’s investigation into whether Trump was guilty of interfering with an election.
But we have learned that we cannot trust our legal system to have the courage to bring Trump to justice. The bet has to be that the squeamish Merrick Garland will not allow the DoJ to bring any criminal charges recommended by the January 6 Committee to a Grand Jury.
Which leaves us, once again, solely and nakedly in charge of our government, and our fate.
We, the people.
I find myself praying that a just God will spare the incredibly brave people of Ukraine from slaughter at the hands of the Hitler of our time.
I pray that the people of Russia will be inspired by the courage of Ukrainians to spill into the streets in numbers that will overwhelm Vladimir Putin, demanding the end of his reign of terror.
And I hope that the people of the United States will see in the example of the brave people of Ukraine that freedom and democracy are under increasing threat by authoritarians, and we must be prepared to fight to preserve them.
It is a call for the few lingering Republicans of conscience to emulate that bravery by standing up and condemning the lying, the cheating, the suppression, the denial, and the enabling that is propping up Donald Trump in his own party.
It is a call for “Independents” to realize they are no longer self-identifying along an axis of “Republican” and “Democrat,” but along an axis of “Authoritarianism” and “Democracy.” To claim to be “independent” by that measure is not principle, it is abdication. There is a huge difference between being “independent” and being “neutral.” Make a choice, independents. Get in the game.
It is a call for Democrats to stop relying on a small cadre of energized volunteers to fight the grassroots, hand-to-hand combat that we call democracy. The party that brings its adherents to the polls in the largest number is the party that wins, and that cannot be accomplished by glitzy ad campaigns, lazy re-posting on social media, or the permanent procrastination of wishful thinking that volunteering is “something I will do someday.”
Please, Democrats, now is the time to stop prioritizing the book group, the Zoom cocktail hour, and the pickle ball game over the hard work of democracy.
Be inspired to volunteer by the screen images from a far-off land where ordinary human beings are lying down in front of tanks, braving bullets, and being recorded on cell phone cameras telling Vladimir Putin to fxxk off, all in their defiant urgency to breathe free.
Here – as everywhere on this planet -- we the people are responsible for our government.
Here, God’s work must truly be our own.
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