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A far-away conflict reaches the streets of Atlanta and the Georgia campaign trail

By Tom Baxter

The world is very close to us right now, and moving fast.

It might seem over the top to talk about what effect the war in Ukraine might have on the political fortunes of Brian Kemp, Stacey Abrams, David Perdue and dozens of candidates whose names will appear down the ballot from them later this year, but there are rare moments when the wheels that move things globally and locally come into alignment. This could be one of those moments.

At the beginning of Monday’s General Assembly session, House Speaker David Ralston announced that the state has begun a review to determine if it has any investments in Russia, and to terminate them immediately.

“I don’t know about y’all, but I don’t want one penny of a Georgian’s money going to subsidize Vladimir Putin,” Ralston says.

The speaker got a standing ovation, as you would expect. In this crisis, however, expressions of patriotic solidarity are more complicated than in times past.

The widely held idea on both the right and left that Putin is tougher and smarter than his adversaries has suffered a gut punch, as the Russian war machine has stumbled in the face of fierce Ukrainian resistance. In a stroke, Putin’s blunder has tanked Russia’s economy, stiffened Europe’s resolve and put his cronies in grave danger of having their yachts confiscated, their mistresses evicted and their children kicked out of exclusive schools.

The larger idea that the times call for strong men such as the Russian leader, which has been gaining ground on the right, has also been deflated. Although Ukraine still faces long odds against a much larger enemy, its people have already directed the world’s attention toward a new model for the future.

It must have irritated Adolf Hitler when Charlie Chaplin satirized him in “The Great Dictator.” Imagine how Putin must feel about Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Conservatives in the United States who until a week ago were saying Joe Biden was no match for Putin now disparage Biden as having a weaker spine than Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian president.

In some circles, there is still resistance to the idea of a Jewish comedian becoming a hero. “And now they’re going on about Russia and “Vladimir Putin is Hitler.” They say that’s not a good thing,” joked Nick Fuentes, organizer of the white nationalist gathering in Orlando where Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene spoke Friday night. Ominously, there were reports early Monday that the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary outfit named after Hitler’s favorite composer, has joined the invasion with the mission of hunting down and killing Ukrainian leaders.

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has praised Putin as “a very talented statesman,” but even he condemned Greene for “playing footsies” with “anti-Semitic neo-nazis.” So have most of Greene’s Republican colleagues in Congress, and a former chairman of the Floyd County Republican Party.

At roughly the same time Greene was “playing footsies,” Perdue announced he would headline an event Tuesday “to stop Soros-funded Rivian and protect rural Georgia.” A week ago, it would have been much easier to get away with a well-known anti-Semitic dog-whistle, “Soros-funded,” than it is today.

A rift was already emerging between traditional Republicans, like Ralston, and those, like Greene, who want to move the GOP in the direction of a white nationalist party. The Ukraine invasion has deepened that growing divide. This could affect the presidential aspirations of Donald Trump, who at the outset of the invasion declared it a work of “genius,” and it could give this year’s beleaguered Democratic congressional candidates a fresh wind.

Lastly, a word about Slavic Atlanta, which is bigger and more diverse than one might think. Most of the hundreds who attended a downtown rally Saturday afternoon were Ukrainian, but the flags of several other Slavic countries were also on display, carried by immigrants who reside now across Metro Atlanta.

Except perhaps in some local races, these communities aren’t numerous enough to sway elections in Georgia, but they include many talented and hard-working people, and they are highly mobilized in reaction to the events of the past week. In politics, that can count for a lot.

Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.


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