In literary studies, a foil is a character who stands in contrast to another character, thereby throwing the qualities of the other character into sharp relief. I’d like to share an example, which I’ll call, “A Tale of Two Republics.”
A Republic Fights for the Right to Govern Itself Democratically
In 2013, the overwhelming majority of members of Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, voted to support the signing of the European Union-Ukraine Association Agreement as a step toward EU membership. In all, 315 of the 349 Ukrainian MPs voted in favor of this. Instead, the government of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych announced that it was going to suspend preparations for signing the agreement and pursue closer ties with Moscow. In November, protests against this turn toward Russia broke out in the capital, centered on Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square. These protests came to be known as the Euromaidan. These protests intensified through February of 2014, included takeovers of government buildings, and ended with President Yanukovych’s Berkut Secret Police killing 100 protestors. Shortly after that, the Rada called for a replacement interim government and new elections. Yanukovych fled to Russia. The Rada then voted 380 to 0 to remove Yanukovych from office.
That, folks, is what democracy looks like.
In February and March of 2014, masked soldiers in unmarked green army uniforms but with Russian weapons, invaded the Southern Ukrainian territory of Crimea, on the Black Sea. These Russian “little green men” seized the territory and declared it a part of Russia. This place was strategically important to Russia because of the port city of Sevastopol, home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet. In March of 2014, Russian separatist uprisings, supported by Russian troops and equipment, occurred in the Eastern Ukrainian oblasts (provinces) of Donetsk and Luhansk, collectively known as the Donbas. Russia increased its involvement, eventually sending in what it called a “humanitarian convoy,” consisting of troops and artillery. In other words, an invasion. Russians have been conducting their “humanitarian” killing of Ukrainians in Donbas ever since.
Then, in 2022, Russia amassed some 170,000 troops on three borders of Ukraine while claiming that it had no intention of invading the country. So, of course, it invaded the country, in keeping with an imperialist screed written by Tsar Vladimir Putin, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” which basically says that Ukraine isn’t a real nation and that Russia has the right to rule it and much of the rest of Eurasia, including former client states of the Soviet Union. And what we have seen since these aforementioned Crimes of Aggression under International Law is breathtaking brutality on the part of the Russians—shelling of homes, apartments, hospitals, schools, farms, shops, and workplaces; the reduction of Mariupol, a city of almost 500,000 inhabitants, to rubble and ashes; widespread coldblooded murder and rape of Ukrainian civilians; use of weapons prohibited by international law; forced deportations to Russia of Ukrainian citizens; and so on—in short, widespread and various War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity as defined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. But what is most spectacular in all this, is what we’ve seen from the Ukrainians: a courageous response on the part of a brave and disciplined Ukrainian army and stiff, united resistance by ordinary citizens sufficient to repulse Russia’s attempted seizure of the capital, Kyiv. Ukrainians will have long, long memories of this.
These are people who REALLY care about democracy, about ruling themselves, who are willing to lay down their lives for it, who will fight to the bitter end for their right to rule themselves. As U.S. General Keith Kellogg has noted, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” We should remember the grandmother who took out a Russian drone by heaving a jar of pickles at it. A hero.
A Republic Looks at an Attempt to Overthrow Its Democratic Governance, Shrugs, and Turns to See What’s on Netflix
How very different is our case. Imagine if, ten years ago, someone had told you that a president of the United States would make several different, parallel attempts to overturn a democratic election, including trying to get the Supreme Court to overturn the election results and ask the state legislatures to vote instead, claiming with zero evidence that ballots were changed or invented and that voting machines were rigged by Venezuelans, asking states not to certify their election results, asking state election officials to “find” additional ballots, illegally setting up slates of “alternate electors” in various states, asking the Vice President not to certify the election results, inciting a mob to attack the Capitol to stop the certification of the election, and that that guy–the one who committed such treason–would then walk away from having done this scot free and go live like a rajah and play golf and continue to be the kingmaker for his party. Further imagine that after over 60 failed court cases attempting to overthrow the election and after being told by his own Attorney General that there was zero evidence of fraud in the election, this guy would continue to push the utter lie that the election was stolen from him and that 80 percent of the voters in his party would believe this. If I had invented this scenario for a novel, it would have been too ludicrous, too unbelievable, to pass muster. But here we are. House minority leader Kevin McCarthy is on tape saying, right after January 6th, in a call with Liz Cheney, that he was going to ask Trump to resign. He KNEW. He KNEW how serious this was, that it was treason by a sitting president. And then McCarthy simply lied, denied that he had said such a thing, until the tape of his statement was released.
[Insert Leonard Cohen’s song “Everybody Knows” here.]
All the “little guy” idiots who participated in Trump’s attempted coup are speedily being tried and sent to prison. Meanwhile, all the suits who orchestrated the Cuckoo Coup, including the big suit, are immune, a race of seemingly invincible supermen and superwomen (if you can imagine superman with orange skin, blonde troll-doll hair, a paunch, tiny hands, a malignantly narcissistic ego, and a tiny little mouth spouting big, big lies about a stolen election). So, clearly, we have two systems of justice, and Donald Trump, the Teflon Don 2.0, continues to get away with things, as he always has, right out in the open, knowing that he is rich and powerful enough that he can do whatever he wants in the middle of 5th Avenue or on the Capitol grounds in broad daylight.
Over the entrance to the Supreme Court are carved, in marble, the words “Equal Justice under Law.” The fact that Donald Trump and his co-conspirators have not been prosecuted for attempting to overthrow the democratically elected government of the United States makes a joke, a complete joke, of those words. Clearly, in the United States, if you are rich and powerful, you can get away with anything. One law for you and me. Another for people like Donald Trump.
And clearly, unlike the Ukrainians, we don’t care enough about democracy to do a thing about some evil _______’s attempt to overthrow it.
The Sad Summation
The Ukrainian people are showing us every hour of every day, right now, what it really means to care about democracy and rule of law. What signal does our inaction against Trump and his co-conspirators send to the rest of the world? Well, this continued inaction in response to the attempted coup shows that democracy and rule of law in the United States are negotiable, depending on how wealthy and powerful a particular individual happens to be. You know, as in Putin’s Russia.