In an age when absolutely anything can be politicized, perhaps it was inevitable that the attire of John Fetterman would become a cause célèbre in the Republicans’ culture wars. The hulking Democratic senator from Pennsylvania, who suffered a campaign-season stroke during his 2022 race, has since then preferred to wear an unorthodox uniform of baggy gym shorts and hoodies, even in the august halls of the U.S. Senate. After it was revealed this past weekend that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had quietly decided he would no longer enforce the chamber’s long-standing but unofficial dress code, thus permitting Fetterman to vote on the floor and even preside over the Senate in his informal getup, numerous hyperventilating op-eds, tweets, and Fox News segments followed. (A sampling: “Fetterman dress code fail begs big question about America’s deep decline”; “Does John Fetterman really want to be a senator?”) Senator Susan Collins, of Maine, threatened to wear a bikini on the Senate floor in protest. Senator Bill Hagerty, of Tennessee, accused Democrats of trying to “transform America.”
Soon enough, Fetterman was selling campaign merchandise making fun of his sanctimonious critics, touting a fifty-dollar “I vote in this hoodie” sweatshirt, among other slouchy apparel. When Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor whose Republican Presidential campaign has been foundering in the polls, attacked Fetterman for “dumbing down” the country, the Pennsylvania senator clapped back: “I dress like he campaigns.” By Wednesday, Fetterman clearly was having too much fun to let the story die. In a tweet seemingly designed for maximum viral impact, Fetterman made an offer: “If those jagoffs in the House stop trying to shut our government down, and fully support Ukraine,” he vowed, “then I will save democracy by wearing a suit on the Senate floor next week.” (A jagoff, according to Dictionary.com, is Pittsburgh slang, used to refer to “a jerk, idiot, or really any kind of irritating or unlikeable person.”)
Putting aside what might be the first known use of the word in an official statement by a U.S. senator, it seems safe to say that Fetterman probably won’t have to put that suit on. But he sure had a point: it’s silly season once again in Washington, as various nihilistic Republicans in the House of Representatives—Fetterman’s jagoffs—careen the country toward a government shutdown when funding runs out at the end of September. Stopping U.S. military aid to Ukraine is one of their central demands, and a twenty-four-billion-dollar supplemental-appropriation request from the Biden Administration to keep the weapons and assistance flowing has now become entangled in the government-shutdown fight.
The feckless House Speaker, Kevin McCarthy, has been trying to thwart them but with such notable ineffectiveness that by midweek the inevitability of a shutdown had become conventional wisdom in Washington, the presumed political costs to Republicans notwithstanding. “We always get the blame,” Representative Mike Simpson of Idaho complained. But there’s no surprise why: it’s Republicans, not Democrats, who have tended to push for government shutdowns ever since Newt Gingrich embraced the tactic in 1995 as a blunt-force instrument to get their way in Washington’s regular spending fights. When, late on Wednesday, McCarthy emerged from a House Republican Conference meeting optimistic about a prospective new plan to win over his hardest-right opponents, a new problem soon emerged: Donald Trump.
Within hours, the ex-President—on whose watch, in 2018 and early 2019, the longest government shutdown in history occurred, ending with Trump having achieved none of the goals he sought—publicly demanded that Republicans flout McCarthy and press ahead. “Republicans in Congress can and must defund all aspects of Crooked Joe Biden’s weaponized Government,” he said. Trump, who is facing two criminal cases brought by the Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith, framed the fight, as he does most things, in explicitly personal terms: “This is also the last chance to defund these political prosecutions against me and other Patriots.” To him, the House Republicans seeking to bring the operations of the U.S. government to a halt are nothing more than an extension of his 2024 campaign to return to office and exact revenge on those who sought to hold him to account—his political Praetorian Guard.
On Thursday, with McCarthy’s would-be breakthrough stymied by his party’s actual leader, his rebel caucus rebelled yet again, joining with Democrats to vote down for the second time a rule to govern floor consideration of the annual defense-appropriations bill. “This is a whole new concept of individuals that just want to burn the whole place down,” the Speaker told reporters afterward. But, shortly after that, reporters for Punchbowl News revealed that McCarthy was considering caving in once more, this time by considering removing any Ukraine-related funding from the defense measure.
Politics is all about contrast. And one of the sharpest contrasts going in Washington has been exposed by the brewing opposition among House Republicans to Ukraine funding. It’s a cause that many of Trump’s loudest adherents on Capitol Hill have taken up with increasing fervor as polls have shown that the initial, strongly bipartisan support for assistance is ebbing and a majority of the G.O.P. electorate is now opposed to continuing to fund the war effort.
President Biden has made backing Ukraine the signature foreign policy of his tenure, securing congressional approval for more than forty-five billion dollars in military aid and rallying NATO allies against Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression on its neighbor. On Tuesday, in his annual speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Biden framed support for Kyiv as a basic test of the international order: “If we allow Ukraine to be carved up,” he said, “is the independence of any nation secure?” On Thursday, he hosted Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, at the White House. “Mr. President, we’re with you, and we’re staying with you,” Biden promised.
Biden’s steadfast defense of Zelensky, commitment to allies, and opposition to Putin are among his strongest claims to international leadership, not to mention the strongest possible contrast with Trump. Have we forgotten so soon Trump’s excruciating meeting with Zelensky in 2019, when the young Ukrainian leader squirmed like a hostage as he sat alongside Trump and awkwardly claimed that “nobody pushed” him to investigate Biden, hours after Trump released the transcript of his infamous phone call with Zelensky showing that he had done just that? When he was President, Trump rarely missed a chance to excoriate the nation’s allies and praise its adversaries and parroted Russian talking points on Ukraine. After the 2022 invasion, he even went so far as to laud Putin’s strategic “genius.” Just a few days ago, Trump revelled once again in praise from Putin, who has all but endorsed the former President’s campaign to return to the White House in 2024.
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill this week, McCarthy bowed down to his Trump-inspired anti-Ukraine fringe—seventy House Republicans, or one-third of the G.O.P. conference voted to cut off aid in a vote earlier this summer—and refused to agree to Zelensky’s request to address a joint session of Congress, or to convene a meeting between Zelensky and all House members. McCarthy claimed that the chamber was too busy with spending negotiations, which, given the embarrassing chaos that swirled all day in the House after the defense appropriation rule was defeated, seemed like a particularly lame excuse. Once again, the contrast could not have been starker.
Over on the Senate side of the Capitol, where the Republican leader Mitch McConnell is an outspoken supporter of Ukraine, he and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer hosted Zelensky for a special session in the old Senate chamber, where the Ukrainian President received two standing ovations. According to Schumer, Zelensky summed up the stakes of the present Washington debate with admirable succinctness: “If we don’t get the aid,” he told the senators, “we will lose the war.”
Most of the seasoned Hill watchers I’ve spoken with in recent weeks still believe that support for Ukraine is there, at least for now. The bigger problem is the American political calendar: 2024 looms, and, with it, the prospect of Trump—or another Republican taking his pro-Putin line—returning to power. No wonder the boss in the Kremlin is paying such close attention. ♦