Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, (@fridaghitis) a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
The United States has performed impressively in its efforts to counter Russia’s brutal aggression against Ukraine. The combination of Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s miscalculation, Ukraine’s bravery and Washington’s effective global leadership is reshaping the geopolitical landscape in a way that favors democracy, strengthens a NATO alliance that is now attracting new members and restores America’s place as the leader of the world’s democracies.
Unless, that is, you look at what is happening within the United States.
A White man allegedly drove more than 200 miles to a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, last week, looking to kill Black Americans, according to social media posts the suspect is believed to have made in the months leading up to the attack. He shot 13 people, killing 10. He was allegedly fueled by the racist and anti-Semitic “replacement theory,” which weaponizes a normal, centuries-old pattern of migration and ethnic diversity to perpetuate the idea that White people are slowly and intentionally being replaced by minorities.
Racism, anti-Semitism and a resentment of immigrants are nothing new. What is new is that in America, a land of diversity and immigrants, what used to be a fringe theory has found sympathetic voices in one of the two main political parties.
As if to confirm the dangerous trajectory of the Republican Party, which is steadily moving away from its more reasonable ideas and leaders and embracing extremism, primary elections in several states this week showed a clear pattern. Republican voters overwhelmingly supported fierce proponents of the “Big Lie” who rejected the legitimate results of the 2020 election.
In Pennsylvania, for example, voters backed Doug Mastriano, a far-right election denier who is now the Republican nominee for governor. In North Carolina, Rep. Ted Budd, who won the GOP Senate primary, shared a baseless claim about Dominion Voting Systems in a text to White House chief of staff Mark Meadows in the days after the 2020 election.
The country is deeply polarized. But it’s not just a matter of diverging views about policy. Something else, something much more dangerous is happening.
Sure, there are people in the Democratic Party who espouse views that many view as radical. And there are Republicans who are reality-based conservatives. But looking at the GOP as a whole, the fringe has become more and more the mainstream.
Voters are falling in line behind people like House Republican conference chair Elise Stefanik, who has promoted the replacement theory, and far-right Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, who has referenced and drawn from the replacement conspiracy on numerous occasions as part of his apparent efforts to stoke White fear. (A day after the Buffalo shooting, Stefanik’s senior adviser denied that the congresswoman “advocated for any racist position” and told the Washington Post, “Any implication or attempt to blame the heinous shooting in Buffalo on the Congresswoman is a disgusting low for the Left, their Never Trump allies and the sycophant stenographers in the media.” Carlson, on the other hand, tried to distance himself from the document allegedly written by the Buffalo shooting suspect.)
And Republicans are increasingly embracing the anti-democratic falsehood that the 2020 election was rigged – a lie pushed by the party’s most influential figure, former President Donald Trump. And all of this is happening while the country is awash with weapons.
It’s a dangerous cocktail of cultish authoritarianism, extremist ideology, readily accessible firearms and a willingness to deny inconvenient truths.
Ironically, the growing threat to democracy in the United States is occurring at a moment when US foreign policy has accomplished an extraordinary, historic feat; one that among other things serves to fortify democracy around the world.
This week, Finland and Sweden, two countries that had for decades sought to remain neutral on great power clashes, submitted their applications to join NATO.
It’s difficult to fathom just how dramatic a shift this is. It was only recently that the very survival of NATO seemed in doubt. French President Emmanuel Macron had warned about the “brain death of NATO” in 2019. Trump had disparaged the alliance as irrelevant and cast doubt on the US’s commitment to mutual defense.
And, according to former national security adviser John Bolton, Trump might have pulled the US out of NATO if he had won a second term. (Taylor Budowich, a spokesman for Trump, dismissed Bolton’s criticism, saying the former adviser “is only happy when America is at war.”)
But Finland and Sweden saw what everyone else did after Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, prompting the US to respond by warning Russia that it would face “the full force of American power” if it moved into NATO territory. It became apparent that belonging to NATO, an alliance of democracies, protects against aggressive countries with imperial designs.
Despite some internal disagreements, NATO now looks stronger, more united and more necessary than it has in decades.
It’s easy to see how this could have gone a different way. Another president – the previous one – might have sat this out and rendered NATO powerless.
Without Washington’s diplomatic, political, financial and military support, Ukraine could now be in a much worse position; Putin could be stronger than ever, with his eye on Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and who knows where else. China could be rejoicing in its links with Moscow, revving up for an assault on Taiwan. Other world leaders, seeking to boost their standing at home, might be looking to history to reclaim lost territories.
But the US led its allies in taking a stand even before Putin attacked, affirming the sovereignty of Ukraine and its territorial integrity.
Even before the first Russian tank crossed into Ukraine, President Joe Biden sought to pursue an extraordinarily difficult path. His goals were to prevent Putin from conquering Ukraine; to do it without triggering a direct clash between Russia and the United States, two nuclear-armed powers; and to deny Russia a geopolitical victory. It was a needle-threading challenge of the highest order. So far, it looks like he has succeeded.
Biden and his team rallied the world to Ukraine’s side. They made sure NATO was united in its support of Kyiv, and they provided a massive supply of armaments that helped Ukrainian defenders push the Russians back. Three men – Putin, Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky – are most responsible for this turn of events.
Today, Russia looks like a paper tiger, albeit a brutally destructive one. China is surely less enthusiastic about its “no limits” friendship with Russia.
And the United States has regained its undisputed place as the leader of a mighty alliance of democracies.
And yet, when the world looks at what is happening in the US, it sees a struggling democracy riven with violence, hate and division.
This is a high point in America’s global leadership, but only if you look at it with one eye closed.
Mark Esper, who served as one of Trump’s defense secretaries, recently noted that the greatest threat to America is not China, but the extreme partisan dysfunction in Washington. He’s now calling on the GOP to divorce Trump. But Trumpism has already conquered much of the GOP.
It’s not just the House, the Senate and the White House that are in play in the upcoming midterm elections. It’s democracy itself. If the candidates who reject election results, demonize minorities and fuel internal divisions continue to gain power in 2022 and 2024, it’s very possible American democracy will not survive. And, of course, the US’s position as a global beacon of freedom and a leader of the world’s democracies will perish along with it.