Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

America: Divided by Donald Trump, is united by Ukraine

After two years of political divisions and economic disruptions bolstered by an unending pandemic, many Americans say they are coming together around a common cause: support for Ukraine, a country under daily siege by Russian forces

By Audra D. S. Burch, Jennifer Medina, Jazmine Ulloa and Maya King
Published: Mar 19, 2022

America: Divided by Donald Trump, is united by UkraineAlejandro Tenorio, a tech support specialist who described himself as a left-leaning moderate, in Doraville, Ga. on Mach 11, 2022. Americans across the political spectrum express broad support for Ukraine. “I think Biden is doing as much as he can, or as much as he’s allowed to do.” Tenorio said. (Nicole Craine/The New York Times)

After two years of political divisions and economic disruptions bolstered by an unending pandemic, many Americans say they are coming together around a common cause: support for Ukraine, a country under daily siege by Russian forces.

The rare moment of solidarity is driven, in part, by the perception of America as a steadfast global defender of freedom and democracy. Many Americans say they see a lopsided fight pitting a great power against a weaker neighbor. They see relentless images of dead families and collapsed cities. They see Ukraine’s president pleading for help.

In polls and interviews since the attack, Americans across the political spectrum said the nation has a duty to respond to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brazen invasion — even if that means feeling, at least in the short term, the pinch of high gas prices and inflation.

“I understand we want to stay out of it, but what’s happening is worse than anyone could imagine. We can do without gas when there are children there being killed,” said Danna Bone, a 65-year-old retiree in McMinnville, Oregon, and a Republican. “It’s horrific what’s happening there, and we need to be doing our part. I would like to see them doing more. What that looks like, I really don’t know.”

Interviews with more than three dozen Americans from Georgia to California show that, beyond broad consensus that Ukraine deserves support, they are unsettled and even divided on essential questions: How far should America go to defend Ukraine without thrusting the nation into another Cold War? Does the war demand U.S. military involvement?

The Biden administration has imposed an array of painful economic sanctions on Russia and blocked its oil, gas and coal imports. The administration has already approved $1.2 billion in aid to Ukraine, and President Joe Biden announced another $800 million in military assistance. Three weeks into the invasion, most Americans in both political parties support U.S. aid to Ukraine and overwhelmingly support economic sanctions, a new Pew Research Center survey found.

Already, the issue of America’s role in Ukraine is scrambling U.S. politics and reinvigorating the bond between the United States and its European allies.

About one-third of Americans said the United States is providing the appropriate amount of support to Ukraine, but an even larger share, 42%, is in favor of the country doing even more, the Pew survey showed. The same poll found, however, that about two-thirds of Americans do not support military intervention.

In pockets across the country, how people saw U.S. global might and obligations was often influenced by their individual circumstances and economic stability. They often drew a line, if a crooked one, between the war and the crises at home. Conversations about Russian strikes and shellshocked refugees fleeing Ukraine quickly gave way to discussion about the personal cost of gas and food, a sputtering economy and the enduring pain of the pandemic, the kind of grievances that might temper support for Ukraine over time.

North of Detroit, where Macomb and Oakland counties sit side by side but have been moving in opposite political directions in recent years — Macomb to the right, Oakland to the left — liberals and conservatives are united in a belief that what is happening in Ukraine is wrong and that the United States could be doing more. But they offered divergent opinions on the causes of the war and whether Biden has been adept at handling the foreign policy crisis.

“I call it Russia’s unfinished business,” Roland Benberry Jr., 61, an artist and illustrator, said of the invasion. Benberry served in the Air Force in the early 1980s when Russia was considered an imminent threat. Thirty years later, he is experiencing those feelings again. “We thought we were done with that,” he said. “We thought the Soviet Union was gone, and it basically just went underground for a while.”

Benberry, a Democrat who lives in Oakland County, believes sanctions could be the most powerful and effective tool against Russia and that the U.S. military should only get involved directly if the Ukrainian military is forced to fall back. He saw Putin as a demagogue acting on his own, against the will of many Russian citizens.

On a suburban street in Macomb County, Kathleen Pate, 75, has helped to organize donated clothing and medication to be sent to Ukraine. Her son and her daughter-in-law, who is from Ukraine, converted their garage into a makeshift donation hub.

“The support is overwhelming,” said Pate, a Republican who has spent her recent days worrying about Ukrainian families. “I can’t sleep at night. I can’t get it out of mind.”

She said she supports establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine and has been unhappy with the U.S. response. “I truly believe that it could be doing more to help,” she said. “It is the humane thing to do.”

An Economist/YouGov survey conducted in early March showed that the majority of Americans, about 73%, sympathized more with Ukraine than Russia. The poll also showed that 68% approved of imposing economic sanctions, and slightly less approved of sending financial aid or weapons. But only 20% favored sending U.S. troops to fight Russians in Ukraine.

Alejandro Tenorio, 24, said sanctions ought to be the primary tool to force Putin to back down and maybe motivate the Russian people to act.

“I think these political sanctions should continue. Let the people from Russia take matters into their own hands to maybe try to change the government and change their ways,” said Tenorio, a tech support specialist for a data company who described himself as a “left-leaning moderate.”

The Biden administration, said Tenorio, who lives in Johns Creek, Georgia, could be a bit more aggressive, with “more things to hurt their economy.”

“I think that should be about it,” he said. “I think Biden is doing as much as he can, or as much as he’s allowed to do.”

Others believe U.S. troops on the ground are a dangerous but necessary response.

Dan Cunha is a 74-year-old Vietnam veteran and retired small business owner who lives in Anaheim, California. He describes himself as a political independent and wrote in John Kasich, a Republican former governor of Ohio, in the 2020 election.

“It breaks my heart to see what is happening there now, to see an autocrat rise to power, and we’re not doing anything to stop it,” he said. “He is nationalist in the extreme. If it were up to me, I would put troops there. Putin is a bully, and bullies need to be slapped back.”

©2019 New York Times News Service