History is full of strange odysseys and intersections. But it’s bizarre that two men who were both front-page news in Friday’s New York Times started on similar paths and, with a consequential encounter along the way, ended up so differently.
Donald Trump and Volodymyr Zelenskiy both played leaders on television shows and then became leaders in real life. They both used social media to gain power. And they both had zany acting gigs.
In 2015, Trump, who had a cameo in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, debated whether to play a president in Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No! or actually run for the presidency. Zelenskiy starred in romantic comedies and played the president of Ukraine in a sitcom.
He shimmied in a fringed, hot-pink number to win the Ukrainian version of Dancing With the Stars, did the voice of Paddington Bear when the Paddington movies were dubbed in Ukrainian, and entertained a roaring live audience by dropping his pants and providing a lewd performance of Hava Nagila – a nod to his Jewish heritage.
But after they ascended to power, the would-be president of Sharknado 3 and the Ukrainian voice of Paddington Bear took on very different roles. Trump became a blackguard. Zelenskiy donned a white hat. Trump tried to overturn American democracy. Zelenskiy tried to save Ukrainian democracy.
Trump was always a faux tough guy who bragged about grabbing women and loved all things military except serving in it. Cadet Bone Spurs. Courage was an alien concept to this spoiled brat; he has always been a bully who let other people do the fighting for him.
He sicced a mob on the Capitol, while he went back to the comfort of the White House to watch his attempted coup play out on television and to gloat about the frightened, barricaded lawmakers and his own trapped vice-president.
Zelenskiy has stayed rooted in Kyiv to rally the morale of his brutalised country and face down Vladimir Putin and the invading Russian army. He admits he is afraid, but he doesn't show it as danger closes in. Zelenskiy knows, as Putin's "Target No 1", he could lose his life.
The 44-year-old Ukrainian president has become a symbol of bravery. His leadership has been defined by nimble action against overwhelming odds, great one-liners such as “I need ammunition, not a ride”, and modesty. As he said in his inauguration speech in 2019: “I would very much like for you to not have my portrait in your offices. No portraits! A president is not an icon, nor an idol. A president is not a portrait. Put photographs of your children there, instead. And before making any decision, look them in the eyes.”
Stubbly and exhausted, operating on three hours of sleep a night, dressed in an army-green T-shirt, he dragged his own chair into position at a news conference he held while in hiding.
Trump, in a nimbus of selfishness and narcissism, inverted revered American ideals. He soiled the image of his country and reshaped it around his grievances and inadequacies.
Zelenskiy stood up for Ukrainian ideals. He helped imbue his country with a shining, resilient image, reinforced when the world saw remarkable images of battle-ready mothers and grannies making Molotov cocktails. Trump was impeached in 2019 for withholding military aid to Ukraine – ("I would like you to do us a favour though") – until Zelenskiy dug up dirt on Joe Biden, Trump's rival, and Hunter Biden, who was on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company.
As Franklin Foer wrote in the Atlantic, before that call, America had always tried to inject morality into Ukrainian politics. But Trump "polluted Ukraine with his own transactional politics".
Adam Schiff and other Democratic leaders of that impeachment say people can now see how wrong Trump was to try to withhold aid to Zelenskiy, then in office only two months. "It hammers home how despicable an act it was to treat Ukraine as a political plaything," Schiff told Rolling Stone.
The claim by Trump and his sycophants that his relationship with Putin had kept Russia out of Ukraine is ludicrous. He was Putin's poodle and Putin would have rolled over him; he was biding his time as Trump weakened Nato.
Trump praised Putin for an act of “genius” even as the rest of the world was watching in horror as the mad Russian president prepared to order the bloody march through Ukraine and suffocated the remnants of a free press in Moscow. That was a shameful moment, as was a House committee on Wednesday producing evidence it said showed that Trump had conspired to commit fraud and obstruction by bamboozling Americans about the election and trying to flip the result.
There were even some Republicans – mirabile dictu – backing away from the toxic Trump over Ukraine. In a speech to top GOP donors Friday night in New Orleans, Mike Pence included the line, "There is no room in this party for apologists for Putin."
By standing up to the Evil Empire, Zelenskiy could earn comparisons to another performer turned pol, and that should grate on Trump as much as having his vice-president turn on him. Ronald Reagan helped lift the Iron Curtain. Zelenskiy is trying his best to stop it from slamming down again. – This article originally appeared in The New York Times