“In 2024, a year of war and a year of elections, a year that will test decency and democracy, the weak man wants to see his fear in our eyes.  We will need the courage to admire the courageous, and to say something that might feel risky.  For example: we believe in our values, and we believe in our strength.  Ukraine can win this war, Biden can win this election, and democracy can thrive.” Timothy Snyder

Timothy Snyder, author and historian, provides regular commentary through Substack. A link is provided if you would like to read more.

Beware the Weak Man, Thoughts from the Munich Security Conference – 2/22/24

Who is the weak man?  You shall know him by his itinerary.  The weak man knows that Ukraine is what matters, so he goes to Texas.  The weak man of Congress buys some casual clothes, has a staffer write a speech about the border, and recites it word-for-word.  A real invasion is replaced by a pretend one.  The weak man invites us to fear phantoms rather than face issues. 

House Speaker Mike Johnson did this, as did other American legislators seeking excuses not to help Ukraine.  While I was in Munich, Elon Musk put on a cowboy hat and took his turn.  In fall 2022, when Ukraine might have won the war, Musk cut the Ukrainians off from Starlink.  Rather than going to Ukraine and learning, he made a profoundly bad decision on the basis of personal fear. 

The Munich Security Conference is a place where people get together to take action.  Unlike Johnson and Musk, Senator J.D. Vance was at least present.  But he was there to demotivate.  Invited to meet Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelens’kyi, Vance made his excuses.  Rather than looking a courageous man in the eye, he retreated to his hotel room and searched for “dolphin” and “women” on the internet.

At a meeting I attended, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen announced that her country would donate its entire stock of artillery shells to Ukraine. Vance stood outside the building and said that we should give up.  He told the leaders of a democracy (but not to their faces) to give up territory.  If the Ukrainians followed his advice, the chain of events would be similar to what happened the last time fascism was appeased in Munich: the collapse of faith in order, and a world war.

Ukraine could win, if Americans would help; but our weak men have cut off the weapons.  Musk spreads Russian propaganda.  Vance amplifies Russian foreign policy.  Trump follows Putin’s wishes.  Johnson maneuvers for months to block a vote on aid to Ukraine.  And so the Ukrainians, fighting for their lives, run out of artillery shells, and must withdraw from losses from Avdiivka. 

The weak man kills because he lacks the energy to act and consumes the energy of others.  He scorns those who struggle with real danger, and want them to fail and die. 

The problem is not masculinity.  Radek Sikorski, the foreign minister of Poland, is a man’s man from central casting: good looks, deep voice, firm stare, bad jokes.  When not in office, he was raising money for pickup trucks and driving them to the front.  At Munich, plenty of competent men were at work: such as Czech President Petr Pavel, a former general, who has been searching the world for artillery shells to send to Ukraine.  The problem is brittle masculinity, the male form of weakness that substitutes mendacious prattle for necessary action. 

Instead of aiding Ukraine, the weak men of Congress have dedicated months to a long series of lies that have wasted the energy and good faith of others.  First Johnson said that he wanted to protect the border and would pass aid for Ukraine if it was connected to a border bill; then, when presented with exactly this solution, he rejected it.  When aid for Ukraine was then separated from the border issue in another bill, he rejected that too, on the grounds that the border was not mentioned.  The weak men of Congress want inaction both at the border and in Ukraine.  They only mention the one to explain why they are not acting on the other.

After this parade, Johnson called to House of Representatives to recess.  But Johnson himself is not on vacation.  He has to put on a tie and abase himself before Trump in Florida.  In the photograph Johnson posted, Trump lacks the strength to raise his thumb.  Trump submits to Putin, and encourages Russia to attack American allies. 

And Putin, in his turn, is all fear.  He kills opponents because he fears that a younger generation might do better.  He attacks Ukraine because he cannot stand the thought of democracy in Russia.  The submission chain that runs through Johnson and Trump to Putin ends in a vacuum. 

The danger is that this vacuum will consume our democracy.  The weak man runs from danger by running for office.  Not strong enough to believe in law or to live by it, the weak man breaks laws and then tries to break law itself.  Putin wants to die in his bed.  And so we will soon have another fake Russian presidential election.  Trump wants to pardon himself or otherwise avoid prosecution for all the crimes he seems to know he has committed.  For the weak man, fear is everything, and fear must also become everything for us.

On the first day of the Munich Security Conference, the news arrived that Alexei Navalny, the foremost Russian oppositionist, had been killed in Russian prison. Navalny was known for his courage.  He had returned to Russia after Russian authorities poisoned him. After his poisoning, but before he returned to Russia, he telephoned the Russian secret police, impersonated one of its officers, and elicited the truth about what happened.  He was also courageous enough to be a friend to his friends and a father to his children.

Weak men therefore find Navalny unbearable.  Putin cannot say his name.  Nor can Musk — and the social media platform he owns suspended the account of Navalny’s widow.  Trump claimed that Navalny died to show how much Trump suffers.  Navalny committed no crimes, but drew attention to those of oligarchs.  Trump is a wannabe oligarch who says that, should he become president again, he will round up and imprison his political opponents.  He wants to be able to do with all Americans what Putin did to Navalny.  And, like Putin, he will claim to be the victim as he does so.  The weak man always says that he is the victim.

One way the weak man kills is by broadcasting his fears.  Putin might or might not have given a direct order to kill Navalny.  More likely it was an indirect suggestion, picked up by other weak men.  On January 6th, 2021, Trump used language other weak men understood.  He now uses the internet to encourage violence against elected representatives, prosecutors, and judges.  He prepares for a second coup attempt.

Munich is a city full of resonances for a historian.  Hitler’s first coup attempt took place here.  After his second one, the one that succeeded after an election, he let others understand what he wanted done.  Like Putin, and for that matter like Trump, he made his general wishes known, and let others turn them into fearful acts.  And so institutions changed, and society altered, and life became fear.

Americans don’t tend to learn from foreign examples or from the past.  We don’t recognize a politics of fear, which makes us vulnerable to it.  We assume that any action they take from personal fear must be justified.  And so we normalize fear, and spread it, and institutionalize it. 

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The Republican Party is becoming a party of fear, in which Republicans fear other Republicans, fear their constituents, and fear Trump, which means fearing Russia.  Republicans enter the submission chain that binds them to Trump, and to Putin, and then rationalize what they have done.  From the position, actual cooperation with actual Russians no longer seems to be a problem, as we have just seen in the attempt to impeach Biden with the help of Russian lies, and for that matter in a series of events going back a decade.

Americans beyond the cult of MAGA submit in a different way.  They decide that the weak man is the strong man, and thereby make it so.  They instruct us, absurdly, that the war in Ukraine or the work of democracy makes us “fatigued.”  If we think that labor and courage are bad things, we are conceding the point — and our democracy — to the weak man.  But the work itself is invigorating, and is the example of those doing the work.

American newspapers instruct us that Biden is old.  If he’s old (goes the thinking), he must be weak; and if he is weak, then we are permitted to give up.  But Biden is not weak.  He is not running away from prison, or from anything else.  He does not act from fear.  He gets work done.  His record is one of the strongest in the history of the American presidency.  And he went to Ukraine with zero military protection.  That was courageous.  No other president has ever done that. 

In Munich I thought of the Ukrainian writer Stanislav Aseyev, whom I last saw in Kyiv.  He survived a Russian torture camp, tracked down his own persecutor, and wrote a book about it.  Aseyev is now at the front in the Ukrainian army.  He doesn’t like being in a bunker, because it reminds him of his cell.  I saw another Ukrainian soldier I know at the conference.  The last time I talked to him he had his right pants leg tied below the amputation.  This time he had a prosthesis.  He stood and spoke of the “spirit of freedom.” 

It is absurd, in such a world, where so much is at stake, where so much is to be won, to speak of our “fatigue” either with the struggle in Ukraine or the struggle for our own democracy.  Doing so is the prologue to a story of weakness, which ends with the victory of the weak man.  When we fall in line behind the fearful, when we forget the “spirit of freedom,” we help the weak men create a politics of fear.  When we obey in advance, we invite the weak man to take power over our souls, which then means power over our politics.

In 2024, a year of war and a year of elections, a year that will test decency and democracy, the weak man wants to see his fear in our eyes.  We will need the courage to admire the courageous, and to say something that might feel risky.  For example: we believe in our values, and we believe in our strength.  Ukraine can win this war, Biden can win this election, and democracy can thrive.