America is better than its worst parts. Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump don't define us.

Polls show that large majorities of Democrats and Republicans support Biden’s sanctions on Russia, which he stepped up this month to ban all new investments there.

Jonathan Zimmerman
Opinion contributor
  • American is united against Russia and in support of Ukraine.
  • Trump has demonstrated his disdain for democratic norms and practices.
  • Democrats have to resist the Trump-like impulse to write off American democracy.

Can the war in Ukraine bring unity to the United States? I’ve spent my career studying the many ways that Americans hate on each other. And it’s only gotten worse in recent years, as more and more of us reject the founding premise of America itself: that we can create a more perfect union.

But since Russia invaded the Ukraine, we have joined hands – across our enormous differences – in support of an imperiled democracy. And that gives me renewed hope for our own democratic aspirations. Rallying to save the Ukraine might save us, too.

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Witness President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address last month, when the entire chamber rose repeatedly to applaud Biden’s condemnations of Russia and his pledges to assist Ukraine. Everyone clapped when Biden announced he would close American airspace to Russian flights. And they also stood up to hail Oksana Markarova, the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States, who whispered “thank you” as her eyes filled with tears.

Sanctions have bipartisan support

Polls show that large majorities of Democrats and Republicans support Biden’s sanctions on Russia, which he stepped up this month to ban all new investments there. He also announced sanctions against the two adult daughters of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, which won bipartisan praise as well. 

Our faith in American government – and in each other – is hugely frayed. But on the Ukrainian crisis, we stand together.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson has praised Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and criticized Ukraine's democratic government.

What’s going on here? Russia’s brazen attack on Ukraine – and Ukrainians’ courageous efforts to defend their country – have reminded Americans about the virtues of liberal democracy. But to rejuvenate our own battered system, we will also have to reject illiberal cynics – on both sides of the political aisle – who don't believe in democracy at all.

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Start with the Republicans and their still-putative leader, Donald Trump, who called Putin a “genius” shortly after Putin ordered the Ukrainian invasion. Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon echoed Putin’s claim that Ukraine is “not even a country.” And on Fox News, Tucker Carlson called it a sham democracy.

But to these people, democracy itself is something of a sham. Over and over again, Trump has demonstrated his disdain for democratic norms and practices. Elections are mere niceties, easily ignored when they don’t go your way. So are courts and laws, which you can bend to your purposes.

Progressives are cynical about U.S. democracy

On the left, a growing number of Americans view our democracy as a hollow set of rituals designed to camouflage – or, even, to further – racism, sexism and a host of other historic sins. In this analysis, our institutions do not serve the people; they instead oppress the people, all in the guise of representing them.

The police are an occupying force in American cities, visiting violence and trauma on citizens of color. The so-called free press is a corporate shill, touting the capitalist interests that bankroll it. And lawmakers are the henchmen of systemic racism, which is built into the law itself.

That’s cynicism, masquerading as radicalism. Of course our institutions are imperfect, which is why we must hold them to account. That’s what democracy is supposed to do. And if you think it can’t, you’re on the same side as Trump and Bannon. No matter how you vote, you share their scorn for democratic politics.

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So does Vladimir Putin, of course. He’s betting that American democracy doesn’t have enough faith in itself to block his imperial ambitions.

How can we prove him wrong? A good first step would be to reject the opponents of democracy in our midst. Republicans need to renounce the authoritarians in their party, starting with Trump himself. His Big Lie about the "stolen" 2020 election bears a terrifying resemblance to Putin's falsehoods about "denazifying" Ukraine. You can’t fight a deceitful autocrat overseas if you’re coddling one at home. Period.

Republicans must also reject media personalities who echo Russian propaganda, including the canard about American bioweapon labs in the Ukraine. (I'm looking at you, Mr. Carlson.) Russia has highlighted these fabulists in its recent disinformation campaign about Ukraine, which tells you all you need to know about which side they're on.

Don't write off democracy

Meanwhile, Democrats have to resist the Trump-like impulse to write off American democracy as a conspiracy against justice. Our country inherited a shameful legacy of hatred and oppression, especially around race. But if we assume that our democratic institutions continue to perpetuate it, we undermine the same spirit that Ukrainians are fighting – and dying – for.

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We are better than the worst parts of our past. Supporting the Ukrainian people – in every way we can – puts us on the right side of history.

And it might help us rediscover our own best traditions: democracy, freedom and faith in each other. Now there’s a project we should all get behind.   

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of “Whose America?: Culture Wars in the Public Schools,” which will be released this fall in a revised 20th-century edition by the University of Chicago Press.