President Joe Biden has a new running mate. No, Vice President Kamala Harris isn’t going anywhere. But Biden and Harris should make room for a third wheel on the Democratic axle this year: the heroic Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny.

Navalny was very likely murdered Friday at the behest of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. Navalny’s death, like his imprisonment on phony charges, is an outrage – but only to people who care about laws and democracy and human rights. (Navalny’s fate is also more cause for alarm about Russia’s imprisonment of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, whom Putin continues to hold hostage.)

There was a time when the murder of a democracy activist by foreign thugs would have produced bipartisan condemnation in the U.S. But democracy, rule of law, human rights — those are not values that MAGA is eager to defend. So, Navalny’s killing has powerful implications – and applications – for domestic U.S. politics.

“Putin murdered his political opponent and Trump hasn’t said a word after he said he would encourage Putin to invade our allies,” Nikki Haley (Trump’s former UN ambassador) posted on social media Friday, hours after Navalny’s death became public. Biden said there was “no doubt” Putin was responsible for Navalny’s death.

Trump’s silence was uncharacteristic but hardly a surprise. Only last week Trump had signaled, again, his desire to abandon NATO allies and thus speed the triumph, and expansion, of Putin’s aggression. MAGA politicians in the U.S. House of Representatives are withholding funding from Ukraine, aiding the vicious Russian assault against a European nation seeking to resist 21st century fascism. The people who launched a violent attack to overthrow the U.S. republic and continue to spread lies about the 2020 election (although not so much when they are under oath) are Putin’s American allies.

Meanwhile, in the moral slum of Mar-a-Lago, the MAGA gang is working to bring Russia to Washington, with plans to install MAGA hacks throughout the federal bureaucracy, “ weaponize ” the Justice Department against political opponents and create a red-state militia to terrorize immigrants – and surely additional targets as well. They seek to complete the transformation of the GOP into an affiliate of Putin’s party, United Russia.


That’s why Navalny’s ghost would be such a useful addition to the U.S. presidential contest. Campaigns are about contrasts. Democracy, which is taken for granted by millions of Americans, is a difficult concept to campaign on. It’s not a number, like a tax rate, or a plan, like a health-care policy. Navalny is a powerful symbol of the commitments that a democratic civilization must honor. He concisely distills democracy, just as Putin is a distillation of autocratic thuggery.

As Biden’s spectral running mate, Navalny also brings Trump’s shadow running mate, Putin, into the light. Trump’s inability to speak ill of Putin sits atop the mountain of evidence of his devotion to the Russian dictator.

“They’re always going after Russia,” Trump complained about the civic-minded, rule-of-law crowd whom both Trump and Putin detest. Whether Trump is in hock to Putin or merely idolizes the self-made man who sabotaged Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign to assist her corrupt opponent hardly matters. The entire world watched Putin walk Trump like a dog on a leash in Helsinki in 2018. Trump and much of MAGA’s White Christian nationalist base thrill to Putin’s reactionary culture war and revanchist aggression, and the brutality with which he pursues his aims.

Posting about the “dissident who stood up to Putin’s blood-soaked reign of murder,” American evangelical refusenik Russell Moore wrote, “It requires a seared conscience to look at Russia’s KGB tyranny and call it ‘Christian.’”

Of course, Trump prefers consciences, like steak, burnt to a cinder. But the moral contrast between American democracy and MAGA Putinism is more difficult to obscure if Navalny remains a presence in American politics. House Speaker Mike Johnson, one of Trump’s broken tools in Washington, said Friday that Putin is “a vicious dictator” and that Navalny’s death appears “emblematic of Putin’s global pattern of silencing critics and eliminating opponents out of fear of dissent.” Navalny’s death forced Johnson to straddle lip service to American values and loyalty to Trump. Johnson is not a good enough contortionist to keep that up through November without falling.

In the New Yorker, Masha Gessen described Navalny as “a man whose very existence seemed to make people capable of overcoming their own fears.”

Trump, by contrast, is a man whose very existence depends on instilling fear – in the witnesses to his many alleged crimes, and in the spiritually and morally bankrupt ranks of MAGA, where fear of Black people, fear of immigrants, fear of LGBTQ Americans, fear of feminists, fear of books, learning, science and of reason itself makes Trump’s degradation and corruption seem a safer option than reality.

Describing Navalny, Gessen wrote: “He saw the targets of his investigations as ridiculous men with large yachts, small egos, and staggeringly bad taste.”

Trump, the serial fraudster convicted in civil court of sexual assault, is likewise a ridiculous man. Navalny’s presence in Democratic speeches and images on the campaign trail can drive home not just Trump’s Putinist corruption but his pathetic absurdity. Navalny can be an ambassador to what former AFL-CIO political director Michael Podhorzer calls the “anti-MAGA majority” of America. Navalny deserves a prime speaking role at the Democratic National Convention in August. The dead Russian is a living indictment of MAGA disgrace.

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