President Joe Biden’s response to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has thus far been a model in how to play a difficult hand well. To date, he has either done or helped facilitate most of the things he can do: He’s spotlighted the lies that Putin has deployed to justify his invasion and built consensus among our Western allies; together, they’ve imposed significant sanctions on the Russian president’s regime. Notably, Biden has also shown restraint in avoiding doing things he shouldn’t—such as imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine or committing American boots to Eastern European ground. He’s had to resist these calls, and likely will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. But the world is better for it, as these actions would almost certainly provoke a more dangerous conflict with a nuclear power.
Biden’s deftness hasn’t gone entirely unnoticed. As The New Republic’s Tim Noah wrote this week, ahead of the president’s State of the Union address, one big source of praise for Biden has come from disaffected “Never Trump” Republicans. The Bulwark’s Jonathan V. Last has been among the sharpest of these voices: “The West is stronger because of the actions of the Biden administration and Russia is weaker because of them,” he wrote, adding, “The last month has represented America’s best showing in foreign policy in a generation.”
Still, Noah couldn’t help but notice a gap: “I’m surprised by how little notice liberals and the left have given Biden’s strong performance on Ukraine.” It’s possible that Biden’s address to the nation will catalyze a stronger positive response from his Democratic colleagues. Writing in his newsletter, The Big Tent, Crooked Media’s Brian Beutler said that it was long past time for Democrats to “do the kind of demagoguing and line-drawing that simply terrifies them”—that is, the way Republicans do.
As Beutler noted, the midterm elections make the stakes of figuring out how to rally Democrats around Biden’s response to the war extremely high: “The urgency to deny [Republicans] power has just grown significantly, because if they win we can’t count on them to be on the side of global democracy in a new war against fascism that just turned hot.” To Beutler’s mind, Democrats urgently need to launch a “rhetorical counteroffensive” against the GOP’s Putin pussyfooting and, more broadly, bring the “fascist temptation overtaking the party out into the light, and [ask] the public to reject it.”
History should remind us of how important it is to confront these “fascist temptations,” because in years too recent for comfort, they have flowered on these shores, threatening some dark turns. In 1939, as Europe was about to plunge into its Second World War, New York City’s Madison Square Garden played host to a Nazi rally, sponsored by the German American Bund and billed as a rally for “Americanism.” Events such as this one were recently chronicled in an Academy Award–nominated documentary short by Marshall Curry, A Night at the Garden. In a Q&A, Curry remarked on how easy it was for onlookers in the United States to be swayed toward fascism when the war seemed so far away. “When the Nazis began killing American soldiers, we started erasing the fact that any Americans had ever shared their philosophy,” he said. “In the end, America pulled away from the cliff, but this rally is a reminder that things didn’t have to work out that way.”
I thought about that night at Madison Square Garden this weekend, as Republican lawmakers Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar attended a white nationalist rally in Orlando, Florida, staged as a competitor to the slightly less batshit Conservative Political Action Committee, or CPAC. The America First Political Action Conference, or AFPAC, was founded by the far-right extremist Nick Fuentes, and as Laura Jedeed, who covered the conferences for The New Republic, noted, Fuentes “is not coy about what he believes. In his own words: ‘All I want is a total Aryan victory. All I want is revenge.… I’m just like Hitler.’” Gosar and Greene received merely a slap on the wrist from Republican leadership for their attendance (The Washington Post originally characterized it as an “indirect chiding”). If this is the best Republicans can do, then Beutler is right: Democrats must do them one better.
It’s understandable that Democrats might be queasy with a robust display of rallying round the flag on Ukraine. The memories of the fumbled pullout from Afghanistan still loom large. Moreover, the war in Ukraine is likely to take some perilous turns, and Biden’s efforts to bring Putin to heel could fail. It’s also the case that Democrats will have to confront a slew of unreckoned-with hypocrisies that substantially weaken our moral standing and give fuel to Putin’s whataboutism—the War in Afghanistan, our hand in a similar ongoing atrocity in Yemen, and our failures to preserve and defend democracy at many levels at home.
Nevertheless, a dark historical turn is upon us, like it or not: The threat of a global war hangs overhead; autocrats and fascists are enjoying themselves in the sun. The best way to prevent the world from plunging into something truly despairing is to start forcefully articulating what a more just world should look like, and isolate its enemies, at home and abroad. The hour is late, but let’s start now.
This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.