September 12, 2022
Many thanks for all your good wishes on our marriage. Someone saw the picture and wrote, “Heather is betting on the future.”
I am indeed.
And there are reasons to be hopeful about that future.
When I last wrote about the news, on Friday, Ukraine was launching a counteroffensive against the Russian troops occupying their territory, but it was still too early to be sure of what was happening. Now it is clear: over the weekend, Ukrainian forces drove Russian troops back, retaking more than 1000 square miles of Ukrainian territory and handing Russia a humiliating operational defeat.
Ukraine had been indicating it would launch its offensive in the south, prompting Russia to move 15,000 to 25,000 troops to that front. Instead, it pushed forward farther north, moving with lightning speed as the Russian occupiers, already suffering from low morale, crumbled. Ukrainian plans reflected cooperation with U.S. intelligence, as well as support from weapons systems provided by allies, including HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems) from the U.S.
While this will not end the crisis, it has put Russia on the defensive and turned the war in Ukraine’s favor. Noting that Russian soldiers abandoned their equipment and fled, Europe specialist Anne Applebaum noted that “[t]he fundamental difference between Ukrainian soldiers, who are fighting for their country’s existence, and Russian soldiers, who are fighting for their salary, has finally begun to matter.”
This shift in the war continues the process of undermining the argument right-wing politicians have made for ending liberal democracy. They claim that it is inefficient, making democratically led countries unable to react as quickly to the modern world as countries with a strong leader, and that the secular values of democracy that emphasize equality weaken a country’s morals and ultimately weaken the country itself.
As recently as May 2021, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) shared a Russian propaganda video about its troops and suggested they were superior to the American military, which was trying to demonstrate that it includes all Americans equally. He tweeted: “Holy crap. Perhaps a woke, emasculated military is not the best idea….”
But Russia’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine, thwarted by Ukraine and its democratic allies, has undermined the myth of an invincible Russian army, while the invaders’ commission of war crimes has made it clear they have no moral ground to stand on. Meanwhile, internal arguments in Russia as the economy has tanked and the war gone badly have created a rash of “accidental” deaths of senior officials, suggesting that autocratic governments are anything but stable. Further, Applebaum suggests, since Putin tied his legitimacy to the success of the Ukraine invasion, its failure might turn out to be his own as well.
Former president Trump openly admired Russian president Vladimir Putin, and Fox News Channel personality Tucker Carlson followed suit, backing Putin’s characterization of his invasion of Ukraine. Carlson has also celebrated Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, who has called for the replacement of liberal democracy with “illiberal democracy,” or “Christian democracy,” claiming to defend patriarchal and Christian systems. That process has involved a takeover of the country’s media, crackdowns on opposition, rampant corruption, and restrictions on voting.
Carlson and right-wing leaders have praised the antiabortion and anti-immigration policies of Orbán’s political party. In September 2021, former vice president Mike Pence spoke in Budapest at a forum denouncing immigration and urging traditional social values, where he told the audience he hoped that the U.S. Supreme Court would outlaw abortion thanks to the three justices Trump put on the court. In 2022, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) was held in Budapest, and months later, at CPAC’s convention in Texas, Orbán was a keynote speaker.
In July the European Parliament (EP), which passes European legislation, took a strong stand against Hungary’s anti-LGBTQ laws and Orbán’s attack on “democracy, the rule of law, and fundamental rights,” and withheld billions of dollars from the country. In response, Orbán’s Fidesz party passed a resolution to weaken the European Parliament, saying European democracy was at a “dead end.” It also called for members of the EP to be chosen not by the voters of their countries, but by the parliaments of those countries.
This week, members of the European Parliament will debate whether the values of the European Union are under systemic threat in Hungary. The EP is expected to declare that Hungary can no longer be considered a full democracy and consider suspending its rights within the European Union.
And there are other signs that right-wing extremism is facing resistance. Today, more than 150 prominent Michigan Republicans—including a former head of the Michigan Republican Party—backed Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer for reelection. The current Michigan Republican Party has backed far-right candidates for governor, secretary of state, and attorney general and has lined up behind Trump, who made attacking Whitmer a feature of his 2020 campaign. Those Republicans jumping behind the Democratic governor note that she has signed more than 900 bipartisan bills into law and has focused on issues that are good for everyone, regardless of party.
“During her time as governor, she has focused on growing our economy with major investments, strengthening our skilled workforce, investing in the education of our children, and making government work for us,” said former Republican representative Joe Schwarz. “I know she will continue to advocate on behalf of hardworking Michiganders and that’s why I'm proud to support her for re-election this fall.”
Others pointed to her protection of reproductive rights as key to their support. Whitmer is currently polling 13 points higher than her opponent, Tudor Dixon, who opposes abortion without exception.
In the last week, federal grand juries have issued subpoenas to about 40 people associated with Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election, including the money raised over the lie that the election was stolen. Legal affairs columnist for the Los Angeles Times Harry Litman noted that many of the recipients were junior staffers who can testify to Trump’s behavior around January 6 and who have no legal reason not to cooperate.
Last week, excerpts from a forthcoming book by former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey S. Berman revealed that Trump tried to use the Department of Justice against those he considered his enemies and to protect those he considered his friends. The Justice Department is supposed to enforce the law impartially, but “[t]hroughout my tenure as U.S. attorney,” Berman says in the book, “Trump’s Justice Department kept demanding that I use my office to aid them politically, and I kept declining—in ways just tactful enough to keep me from being fired.”
Today the Senate Judiciary Committee told Attorney General Merrick Garland it would investigate the allegations.
Finally, last night Trump arrived unexpectedly at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C., and today photographers recorded him meeting with a group of men on the grounds of his Virginia golf course, although they did not appear to be playing or even to have clubs.