Essential Politics: U.S. unity around Ukraine creates problems for Trump. Here’s why

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, seated, with his hand over his heart, on a video screen before members of Congress
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses the U.S. Congress by video Wednesday. The standing ovation for him at the Capitol highlighted bipartisan support for Ukraine.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Pool photo)

In a deeply divided country, support for Ukraine’s struggle against a Russian invasion stands out as a rare topic on which a large majority of Americans agree.

That wide consensus has shifted U.S. politics — pushing aside other issues and marginalizing some voices, most notably that of the former president whose 2019 effort to pressure Ukraine into helping him dig up dirt on then-candidate Joe Biden led to his first impeachment.

Former President Trump‘s history with Ukraine puts him at a unique disadvantage amid the current adulation of Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian leader whom Trump attempted to strong arm three years ago.

Trump’s influence within the GOP remains powerful, but it was starting to show erosion even before the outbreak of war rendered toxic his previous embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump’s attempts to backpedal on that topic haven’t gotten much traction so far, and so long as the war — and Putin’s brutality — stays at the center of national attention, it will continue to complicate his effort to regain power.

But Trump isn’t the only political figure who has an interest in disrupting the current national unity around Ukraine. And some would at least like to shift attention. The focus on the war in Europe has at least temporarily foreclosed legislative debate on a long list of issues. Advocates in both parties will wait only so long before impatience boils over.

How long that takes — and whether the consensus on Ukraine can hold — will play a major role in how the American political picture develops between now and this fall’s midterm elections.


A repudiation of Trumpism

The scene on Wednesday when Zelensky spoke to Congress over a video hookup highlighted the current consensus around Ukraine. Elected officials from both parties gave the Ukrainian president sustained ovations.

The applause reflects public opinion: A Pew Research Center survey released Tuesday found that 79% of Americans favored working with U.S. allies to respond to the Russian invasion, and 85% favored strict economic sanctions on Russia. Strikingly, 69% favored “admitting thousands of Ukrainian refugees into the U.S.” — a sharp departure from public skepticism about refugees from recent conflicts in the Mideast, Africa and Asia.

Within that broad consensus, some partisan divisions do exist: Democrats give more support for admitting people fleeing the conflict than Republicans do, for example. But even on that question, the supporters are in the majority in both parties — 57% of Republicans and 80% of Democrats.

All that marks a repudiation — at least for now — of some basic tenets of Trumpism, which denigrated U.S. alliances, deprecated refugees (at least those who weren’t from Norway) and delivered compliments to Putin.

Trump has made some efforts to shift away from his praise for Putin’s “genius.” But his long and very well documented record of support for the former KGB agent doesn’t give a lot of room for maneuver, especially for a political figure who is notoriously allergic to admitting error.

Beyond that, a sizable segment of Trump’s base continues to admire Putin, and the former president has seldom been willing to risk alienating those supporters.


Trump’s former strategist Stephen K. Bannon typifies that group, which has tried for much of the past five years to construct an alliance among blood-and-soil nationalists in Europe and the Americas against what they see as a decadent, liberal globalist elite. They have long seen an ally in Putin, who has cultivated ties to right-wing parties and candidates across Europe.

That support for Putin continues among some of Trump’s allies, including some elected officials and GOP candidates, who in the past week have pushed conspiracy theories and Russian propaganda, including the false claim that the U.S. has a network of bioweapons laboratories in Ukraine.

More broadly, any sustained mood of national unity would create difficulties for Trump, a political figure whose great skill lies in profiting from division.

Trump has always eschewed appeals to the middle and, instead, aimed to pump up excitement on his side. That strategy can work because participation is the big upside of political polarization. It’s no coincidence that the two presidential elections in which Trump was on the ballot featured some of the highest turnouts in more than a century.

In theory, a candidate can achieve extremely large turnouts based on positive emotions, like pride or hope — then-candidate Barack Obama achieved record turnout among Black voters on that basis, for example. But anger and division provide the fastest route to high turnout; unity almost always dampens political engagement.

Generating anger is easier than sustaining it over a long term, however. The outbreak of war in Europe came at a time when cracks were already appearing in Trump’s hold on the GOP.


The first big indication came early last month when former Vice President Mike Pence broke a long silence and publicly rebutted Trump’s claim that the vice president could have blocked Biden’s election when Congress met to formally review the electoral college results last year.

A bigger test could come later this spring in a series of Republican primaries in Southern states that feature Trump-backed candidates facing tough opposition. Trump’s endorsed candidate for Senate in Alabama, Rep. Mo Brooks, is trailing so badly that the former president may be on the verge of pulling his support, according to news reports. Trump’s endorsed candidate in North Carolina, Rep. Ted Budd, is also in trouble.

In Georgia, a recent Fox News poll found Gov. Brian Kemp with a 50%-39% lead over former Sen. David Perdue, who is challenging him in the state’s May 24 primary. Trump endorsed Perdue and has attacked Kemp for refusing to back his false claim that he beat Biden in Georgia in the 2020 election.

Because the white South forms the core of Trump’s support in the GOP, defeats in those primaries could severely weaken his image as a GOP kingmaker.

Trump is not the only political figure with an interest in changing the subject away from Ukraine. That shift would also suit his opponents within the GOP.

So far, public support for U.S. policy toward Ukraine has not translated into much stronger support for Biden. But for the GOP, the possibility that it could do so remains a risk. And, of course, the vast majority of current Republican officeholders declined to criticize Trump’s support for Putin when he was president — a point of vulnerability they’d just as soon avoid.

Republicans would much prefer to have the midterm debate focus on topics where they have an advantage.


Immigration provides an example. Last year, Republicans effectively used an upsurge of migrants at the southern border as a way of galvanizing their voters and undermining public confidence in Biden’s ability as an executive. Look for them to renew that line of attack this spring.

The administration must decide soon whether to continue renewing a Trump-era policy that barred most asylum seekers from entering the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic. A decision to keep the policy, referred to as Title 42 because of the section of U.S. law that authorizes it, would anger the left. A decision to end it likely would generate an increase in migration.

Even if the administration maintains the Title 42 ban, migration almost always surges during the late spring. Either way, Republicans likely will use the opportunity to accuse Biden of being weak on the border.

That underscores one of Biden’s chief electoral vulnerabilities: Since the start of his presidential campaign, Biden pitched himself as a leader who could bring the country together, contrasting that with Trump’s skill at division. The public is judging him, at least in part, on his ability to fulfill that promise.

So far — and unity on Ukraine notwithstanding — the public’s verdict on that score is clear. This month the Monmouth University poll asked a sample of Americans to give one word or phrase to describe the U.S. today. The most frequent answer: “Divided.”

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Appeal and response

Throughout his presidency, Biden has spoken often about the world being at “an inflection point” in the “battle between democracies and autocracies,” vowing that the U.S. and allies are determined to deliver for those who’ve chosen freedom. But as Eli Stokols reported, Biden’s response to Zelensky’s appeals for more weapons also displayed the sharp lines he’s drawn to limit how far the U.S. will go.


Zelensky appealed directly to U.S. lawmakers Wednesday with an emotional request for additional financial support, weaponry and a no-fly zone to help his country fend off the Russian invasion. The rare speech essentially circumvented the White House and went directly to the American people, Jennifer Haberkorn reported.

The Fed moves on inflation

The Federal Reserve responded to the nation’s surging inflation Wednesday by boosting interest rates by a quarter of a percentage point and signaling it plans more hikes in the months to come. But as Don Lee reported, many economists said that with consumer prices accelerating at a pace not seen for 40 years, the central bank’s action was too little, too late.

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The latest from Washington

After a prohibition that lasted a decade, the practice of members of Congress specifically designating federal funds for projects in their districts — earmarking, as it’s known — made a return this week. As Haberkorn reported, the result was more than $760 million in transportation, military, healthcare and other projects for California as part of a $1.5-trillion government spending bill that Biden signed into law Tuesday. The bill included nearly 500 California-specific projects.

Vice President Kamala Harris on Wednesday announced grants to historically Black colleges and universities that have been targeted with bomb threats in recent months, saying the administration would “do everything in our power to protect all our communities from violence and from hate.” As Erin Logan reported, Harris said that since January, more than 80 anonymous bomb threats have been made against dozens of HBCUs as well as historically Black churches and synagogues and other institutions.

A Texas man pleaded guilty Thursday to assaulting a police officer with a dangerous weapon at the Jan. 6 riot, potentially avoiding decades in prison after federal prosecutors lost track of his case for months. As Sarah Wire reported, prosecutors admit that after Lucas Denney’s arrest in December, they lost track of his case among the hundreds of others from the Capitol insurrection and missed a deadline to bring more serious charges. His lawyer advised him to plead guilty to the one count in hope of ending the case and forestalling additional charges.

The latest from California

Reverge Anselmo, a former U.S. Marine, former novelist, ex-filmmaker, former vintner and guardian of a vast fortune, abandoned his stunning Shasta County estate in 2014 in a huff. He’d been battling the county over, among other things, his decision to construct a Catholic chapel without full permits on his vineyard, and after a legal setback decided to pack it in. Then in 2021, as Jessica Garrison reported, Anselmo decided to get his revenge, pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into a right-wing effort to oust Shasta County officials.

Billionaire Rick Caruso has put millions of dollars toward television ads and is expected to vastly outspend his competitors in the Los Angeles mayor’s race. But as Benjamin Oreskes reported, supporters of Rep. Karen Bass have launched an independent expenditure committee to help the longtime officeholder compete with Caruso’s wealth. The newly formed committee reported raising nearly $270,000 in the last two weeks, according to disclosure forms filed with the City Ethics Commission.

In a nine-minute video posted Thursday, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pleaded with the Russian people to see the truth about the war in Ukraine, invoking his father’s Nazi past to illustrate the power of lies, Lila Seidman reported. In the video, which has spread rapidly on social media, Schwarzenegger said he’s sending the message through different channels in an attempt to punch through propaganda and reach Russian citizens and Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine.


As Anita Chabria wrote, the video marks the second time in a little over a year that the former governor has offered powerful veracity and authenticity about current events that are otherwise overrun by lies. He previously produced a video denouncing the Jan. 6 rioters.

A Superior Court judge has cleared the way for former Los Angeles City Councilman Herb Wesson to return to City Hall, at least for the time being. As David Zahniser reported, the judge said that groups who challenged Wesson’s appointment to temporarily replace Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas had failed to follow the proper legal procedures.

The field is set now for elections to the L.A. school board, including a potential pivotal race to replace Monica Garcia, a leading supporter of charter schools, whose tenure is ending because of term limits. As Howard Blume reported, four candidates will vie to replace her.

A group of Democratic state lawmakers has proposed sending every California taxpayer a $400 tax rebate to reduce the financial pain of high gas prices and other goods, Phil Willon reported. But it’s by no means a done deal, so don’t expect to see any checks in the mail next week.

The proposal has reopened a long-running debate about who deserves help and whether across-the-board rebates are the right response given the state’s many needs, Mackenzie Mays wrote.

And as John Myers wrote, the cost of driving has long been a hot political issue in California.

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