Indifferent to Life
The world is watching what happens when a grievance-filled dictator has been empowered to pursue his deadly delusions. Can it wake up the GOP from its infatuation with violent strongmen?
The photos would be hilarious if they weren’t so tragic, indicative of a troubled, paranoid, isolated and unwell man. You’ve probably seen the images before Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, in which he’s at one end of a ridiculously long table and French President Emmanuel Macron or German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is at the other end. Last week he was sitting by himself at a small desk in a massive, high-ceilinged room while a small coterie of yes men are seated far, far away.
These may be documents of his continuing fear of Covid-19. His protocol has included not permitting anyone near him who hasn’t quarantined for at least a week. Some of his operatives are said to quarantine for weeks at a time just in case they might be asked to speak to their Kremlin boss.
But the photos—in their surreal set-up—also suggest the increasingly disconnected state of a dictator who no longer listens to advisors and permits the release of these photos, no longer grasping (or caring) just how untethered they show him to be.
“In recent years—and especially since the start of the pandemic—he has cut off most contacts with advisers and friends,” writes Mikhail Zygar, Russian author of All the Kremlin’s Men. “While he used to look like an emperor who enjoyed playing on the controversies of his subjects, listening to them denounce one another and pitting them against one another, he is now isolated and distant, even from most of his old entourage.”
As the world has watched the increasing horror, this isolated decision-making—inflamed by decades-old grievances toward the West, delusions of his ultimate power to achieve his ends, and a singular conviction that only he can save Russia—is now raising the possibility of bloody conflict expanding beyond Ukraine’s borders. While Ukraine may be winning the information war and demonstrating their profound resolve to maintain their sovereignty and resist Putin’s brutal invasion, the criminally depraved and intensifying attacks on civilians illustrate his determination to achieve his goals no matter how much suffering and death it causes.
This should not be a surprise, not after the buildup of an estimated 190,000 troops along the Ukraine border last month, not after invading and occupying Crimea in 2014, not after his calling the breakup of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” in 2005—and not after the former KGB agent’s cold-blooded willingness to eliminate his political rivals and critics (some shot, hanged, poisoned and beaten to death).
That’s the thing: Whatever the precise confluence of circumstances that led to this misery-strewn moment, the murderous impulses of this man were knowable and known. It may have been increasingly challenging for Russians to push back against his hostile ways. But what of the previous occupant of the White House and far too many of his Republican enablers who expressed their admiration and support for this “strong leader”—flattering him, empowering him, convincing him of his ability to do what he wants?
At the risk of stating the obvious, we should expect leaders who care more about improving lives than ending them for their own political advantage. And yet: Tens of millions of Americans ignored or applauded when the GOP candidate for the US presidency, then occupant of the Oval Office, expressed his comfort with—or even sadistic admiration for—killing.
Don’t forget Trump in February 2017 telling Fox host Bill O’Reilly, who had called Putin a killer, “There are a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers. Well, you think our country is so innocent?”
Or two years earlier when he told Joe Scarborough, who noted that Putin kills journalists, “Well, I think our country does plenty of killing, too, Joe.”
Or, after the bone-sawing murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, when Trump sickeningly sided with the Saudi prince, Mohammed bin Salman, despite the CIA’s “high confidence” that MBS was behind it. “America First! The world is a very dangerous place!” he said in a statement, adding, “It could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event—maybe he did and maybe he didn’t! That being said, we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi. In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
Before he lied about the deadly dangers of Covid or incited the deadly attack on the US Capitol after losing the 2020 election, Trump’s sociopathic mindset was both knowable and known. There’s a serious sickness in the body politic when a man like that can be voted into office.
Tragically, we are now witnessing in Ukraine the consequences of failing to reject with unanimity the butcher of Moscow’s murderous ways—or worse, praising and glamorizing it—and we are still in danger of letting this “tough guy” type of leader finally succeed in America. It’s intolerable to think there’s nothing we can do about this downward spiral from democratic idealism to corrupt gangsterism.
In a world fraught with dangers—when growing complexity, uncertainty and fear create the conditions for demagogues and wannabe dictators to exploit people’s hatreds and doubts—we should demand leaders who rise above the most basic standard of human civilization and reject killing and killers. That should never be too much to ask.
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