Republicans turn up the racism to drive up GOP opposition to Ukraine

The GOP's "welfare queen" attack on Zelenskyy makes clear a much larger dynamic at play in Ukraine war

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published March 1, 2023 5:45AM (EST)

Jim Jordan and Vladimir Putin (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Jim Jordan and Vladimir Putin (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

In 1987, President Ronald Reagan told Mikhail Gorbachev and the Soviet Union to "tear down this wall." Today's Republicans and "conservatives" would have told them to keep the wall up, build it higher — and we will help you do it. In the Age of Trump, the Republican Party has fully jettisoned the Cold War-era rule that "politics stops at the water's edge." 

Here in the United States, the Republican Party is trying to end multiracial pluralistic democracy. Today's Republican Party no longer believes in American Exceptionalism. As part of their revolutionary campaign to end multiracial democracy, they are looking to autocracies and neofascist regimes abroad in countries such as Poland, Hungary and Vladimir Putin's Russia for inspiration and guidance on how to transform American society in their twisted vision. In one of the most striking and worrying examples, Gov. Ron DeSantis is in the process of using Florida as a laboratory for neofascism which will be a model for Republicans and their forces around the country.

For his part, Putin ordered his military to invade Ukraine with the goal of destroying that country's nascent democracy. Per international law, his war of aggression is illegal. He now leads a pariah state that is engaging in war crimes and other barbarism against the Ukrainian people.

So how have Republicans responded?

Instead of standing up with Democrats and presenting a unified front against Russian aggression, many of the Republican Party's loudest and most influential voices have made the decision to lean toward Putin and Russia.

Salon's Amanda Marcotte describes their maneuvering:

The reason MAGA Republicans won't say what they're actually thinking is because they want the U.S. to pull support from Ukraine. They want Ukraine to lose. And they want Ukraine to lose because a Ukrainian success would be a boost to democratic sentiment worldwide. That would harm the war on democracy the Trumpists are waging at home. It's really no more complicated than that, no matter how many random talking points they generate by the hour.

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Donald Trump, the de facto leader of the Republican Party, a traitor who attempted a coup on Jan. 6 and an apologist for Putin, recently sent this email to his followers in response to President Biden's visit to Ukraine:

Joe Biden just told the people of Ukraine, "All across my country... Ukrainian flags fly from American homes!"

While Biden loves the Ukrainian flag – and prioritizing their citizens over YOU – I love the AMERICAN flag and OUR citizens.

That's why, before we have to close the books on February for Tuesday's FEC deadline, I'm asking every patriot who PROUDLY flies an American flag to contribute just $1 to help me FIRE Biden….

When we CRUSH this deadline, we'll show Biden just how many hardworking Americans are sick and tired of being put DEAD LAST.

Because that is exactly what he's done to you… over and over.

First, he prioritized illegal immigrants ahead of you, then criminals, and now, an entirely different nation is a higher priority to Joe Biden than YOU.

Republicans in Congress — contrary to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's wishes – are becoming increasingly vocal in their opposition to America's support for Ukraine. The right-wing disinformation echo chamber, meanwhile, has been consistent in its opposition to American support for the Ukrainian people in their existential freedom struggle against the Russian invaders. GOP voters are starting to take the hint. Recent polling shows a decline in Republican support for Ukraine.

In a very revealing moment last December, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy gave a powerful and impassioned address to Congress where he made his case for more assistance in what he framed as a history defining battle for democracy against autocracy and authoritarianism.

"The 'welfare queen' attack on Zelenskyy makes clear a much larger dynamic at play in this war: white racial resentment."

Zelenskyy was mocked and disrespected by Republicans like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. Donald Trump's eldest son went so far as to slur Zelenskyy as a "welfare queen." Most Americans know (even if many among the professional punditry feign otherwise) that "welfare queen" is a white supremacist attack on Black people generally and Black women specifically, as supposedly being societal parasites. It is a phrase meant to degrade "takers not makers" who are dependent on "big government," supposedly unlike "hard working" white citizens.

Of course, that is a lie. Whiteness as a political, economic and social project is the largest "welfare" program in American history.

As a practical matter, Donald Trump Jr. called Zelenskyy a "welfare queen" because he knew that the public would hear that racist dog whistle loud and clear. 

The "welfare queen" attack represents a much larger dynamic: Racism and white racial resentment impact public opinion and political behavior across a range of policy issues. This includes political questions and public policy that on the surface would otherwise appear to be "race-neutral," including but not limited to foreign policy and international affairs. Research by Vladimir Enrique Medenica and David Ebner examines this dynamic. In an essay at the Conversation, the University of Delaware professors summarized their findings:

Based on responses to the racial resentment scale in the most recent American National Election Studies — administered in 2012 and 2016 to about 3,000 non-Hispanic white respondents each — we found that racist attitudes are correlated with and meaningfully influence white Americans' support for U.S. military interventions in other countries.

For example, people with racist attitudes favored more aggressive action against Iran. Thirty-five percent would support bombing Iranian suspected nuclear development sites, compared with 15% of whites with less racist attitudes and 31% of white Americans overall.

White Americans with racist views also favor military engagement against Muslim populations. For example, they are five percentage points more supportive of continuing the global "war on terror" than the overall white population, 46% to 41%.

Because a number of factors influence people's foreign policy opinions — including educational status, income, gender, ideology, military service and partisan affiliation — we adjusted for these in our study. We also controlled for respondents' reported attention to political news, their level of white ethnocentrism and their authoritarian leanings.

We find that racial resentment has a significant effect above and beyond these other variables.

Political scientists and other researchers have repeatedly shown that racism and white racial resentment overdetermine support for Trumpism and the Republican Party more generally. Today's Republican Party is also a de facto white identity organization. Those factors do not just disappear relative to support for Ukraine.

In total, the relationship between racial attitudes and foreign policy as seen with Ukraine highlights the need for a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the color line and the many ways that white racial animus impacts American society more broadly. A more critical and rigorous understanding of race and politics and society begins with a systemic approach to understanding racism and white supremacy as institutions and systems and not individual bad behavior or something in "the heart" or that infamous "bone in my body." Of course, this is the type of critical thinking and inquiry that the Republicans are trying to outlaw with their Orwellian attacks on the "critical race theory" bogeyman.

In the post-civil rights era, "race-neutral" politics and public policy are a deceptive type of oxymoron and right-wing newspeak; "Race neutral" is an oxymoron in a society that is structured by racial inequality and white supremacy. The societal phenomenon of "racism denial" must also be intervened against.

At the Boston Globe, Phillippe Copeland explains:

Racism denial involves obscuring the reality of racism or minimizing its significance. Racism denial is a political strategy. Its proponents know they benefit from racism and want to perpetuate it. They attempt to convince people racism is no longer an issue or is not a big enough one to require attention.

Racism denial is a coping tool. The contradiction of living in a society that preaches equality, freedom, and democracy but often practices the opposite, generates psychic distress, triggering denial. Whether reflecting strategy or psychology, racism denial comes in many forms.

Refuting denies that racism is a problem, claiming that it is not a relevant factor in certain situations. Tactics include demanding absolute certainty to prove something is indeed racist. Such demands are often followed by dismissing whatever evidence is provided.

Ultimately, Republicans have been so successful in their war on multiracial pluralistic democracy because too many Americans, especially the so-called political experts in the Fourth Estate and commentariat and larger mainstream political class – have a very naïve, thin, and unsophisticated understanding of the real relationship between race, politics, and power. In their role as guardians of democracy, they must do better. But if the last seven years of the Age of Trump, ascendant neofascism, and naked White Rage are any indication, it is almost assured that they will choose not to.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Democracy Crisis Donald Trump Jr. President Zelensky Race Racism Republicans Ukraine