In some ways, it’s obvious why Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s president, has become an international celebrity. The story of an actor who played the president on television getting elected as the actual president in a landslide, and then having to lead his nation through war is simply too wild and interesting to ignore.
Zelensky’s celebrity reflects a magnificent political performance. It turns out that acting is a useful skill for a politician.
But Zelenskyy’s celebrity also reflects a magnificent political performance. It turns out that acting is a useful skill for a politician, and he has used his talent to great effect. It’s a lesson Democrats could learn as they confront a Republican Party that wants to replicate what Russian President Vladimir Putin has done to Russia — that is, turn it into a right-wing dictatorship.
One must admit that prior to this war, Zelenskyy did not enjoy much presidential glory. On the contrary, his popularity was declining fast. He was appointing inexperienced cronies to top positions, and he had sparked outrage by banning a few opposition media outlets. It was nothing too extreme or out of the ordinary for Ukrainian politics, but there was no sign of great political talent either.
But when the war started, Zelenskyy transformed overnight into an extraordinarily effective leader. Part of that, of course, is that he has real physical courage. When Russian troops bore down on Kyiv, he refused to leave, which as we now know meant he took a terrible risk. If Kyiv had fallen, he certainly would have been kidnapped and probably shot along with the rest of his government. By all accounts, this boosted morale among Ukrainian civilians and troops.
If one wanted an example of the polar opposite of Zelenskyy’s energetic theatricality, the Democratic Party is full to bursting with them. Where he is 44 years old, courageous and both media- and tech-savvy, the party’s leadership is almost entirely in its late 70s and 80s, and seemingly allergic to sweeping, dramatic gestures. And while Democrats are not fighting a war (yet), they are facing an extremist Republican Party that is increasingly bent on overthrowing democracy. The last president tried to overturn the election by force, and it seems ever more clear the GOP will try to finish the job next time.
History provides innumerable examples of leaders inspiring furious dedication through their own personal example — or enabling defeats or routs by running in terror. (We saw this last year when former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled his country with a sack full of cash at the first sign of danger, and the Taliban subsequently strolled into Kabul.) One reason why there is such a mood of gloom and despair among loyal liberal Democrats is that there is no Zelenskyy-like figure to catalyze them into action, much less outline a plan to save the republic from fascism.
More important, Zelenskyy leveraged his courage to create a riveting political performance that captured the hearts of his people and half the world. As it became clear the invasion was imminent, he gave an emotional speech arguing a war would be a pointless horror, that Putin’s propaganda about “denazification” was ridiculous and that Russians and Ukrainians had nothing to fear from each other. His own identity and presentation underlined the case: a Ukrainian Jew speaking in Russian, his first language.
When Russian propaganda claimed he had fled Kyiv, Zelenskyy personally filmed an instantly-famous cell phone video with his top advisers out on the street, noting each one in turn. “The president is here. We are all here. Our soldiers are here. The citizens are here and we are here. We defend our independence,” he said, with undeniable gravitas.
Zelenskyy’s acting chops were also instrumental in obtaining another crucial factor in Ukrainian success: the massive support of Western powers. He gave remote speeches to prime ministers and legislatures from the U.S. to the U.K. to Germany, expertly delivering a personalized guilt trip to each one in turn. His appeal reportedly turned the tide on sanctions and rearmament in Germany in a matter of minutes.
Ukraine would not have gotten nearly the same level of American intelligence support without Zelenskyy’s performances.
I strongly suspect that Ukraine would not have gotten nearly the same level of American intelligence support without Zelenskyy’s performances. Recent reporting has detailed how Ukraine has gotten the kind of extensive backing from American agencies that is totally unprecedented for a non-NATO power, allowing Ukrainian troops to move vital equipment ahead of Russian strikes, attack Russian forces and keep the president himself safe from assassins. After all, it’s the first time in decades that American spies have been unquestionably on the side of the good guys.
To be clear, it is not a criticism of Zelenskyy to observe a theatrical note in his leadership over the past two months, nor is it meant to suggest that it has been somehow inauthentic. He really does care for his country, and he really has put his life at risk. The point is that political leadership is inherently theatrical — it’s part of the job description.
This brings me back to the Democrats. As Brian Beutler details, for decades now Democrats have tried to evade stark confrontations with conservatives. The whole party leadership came up in the 1980s and ’90s and taught themselves to always tiptoe around right-wing backlash. So rather than grand gestures to contest Republicans on reproductive or LGBTQ rights, where conservatives have gone all-in on hideously unpopular schemes to ban abortion even for rape and incest victims, along with showing open homophobia and transphobia, Democrats tend to ignore such things and run on “kitchen table issues” like cutting drug prices (which they consistently fail to actually deliver on). A similar learned helplessness explains why Attorney General Merrick Garland has so far refused to charge Donald Trump or any of his top cronies with seditious conspiracy or insurrection.
We saw how desperate liberals are for leadership with the enthusiastic national reaction to Michigan state Sen. Mallory McMorrow’s blistering takedown of a Republican colleague who implied she sexually abuses children. It’s an opportunity for anyone in the party ranks willing and able to seize it. The question is, who? It may seem hopeless given the iron grip the gerentocratic leadership has had over the Democratic Party for the past 20 years. But Zelenskyy went from actor to president in a little over a year. It would not be impossible to follow a similar track — especially if some of the aging party grandees would step down.