Lee Zeldin speaks at a rally in support of Mazi...

Lee Zeldin speaks at a rally in support of Mazi Pilip. Credit: Jeff Bachner

Long Islanders who voted overwhelmingly for Ronald Reagan in the 1980s likely remember his strong principled stance against tyranny in the Soviet Union and his unequivocal support for Russian dissidents who spoke out for democracy. After the 1986 death of activist Anatoly Marchenko inside a Russian jail, Reagan called him a “martyr for the cause of human rights.” Four decades later, the struggle with Russia is much the same, but our response is not nearly as united.

The recent death of dissident Alexei Navalny in a Russian prison — likely a murder ordered by ruler Vladimir Putin — evoked cries of outrage worldwide. Navalny was a martyr for democracy who died in an Arctic Circle prison for challenging Putin’s authoritarian regime.

But within a prevailing part of today’s Republican Party, the moral clarity of Reagan’s call for freedom has given way to a disturbing equivocation, likening Navalny’s death to the fate of Donald Trump. Perhaps the most glaring example comes from former Long Island Rep. Lee Zeldin.

On X, formerly Twitter, Zeldin wrote: “As the world reflects on the murder of Alexei Navalny at the hands of Putin, it’s worth remembering that Democrats are actively doing Biden’s bidding as they also try to imprison his chief political opponent, Donald Trump, remove him from the ballot, and ensure he dies in prison.”

Zeldin’s comments are an affront to both democracy and decency. The four-term GOP congressman, who lost his bid to become governor in 2022, should not use Navalny’s death to make unfounded comparisons for political gain. Republicans should question Zeldin’s judgment but also wonder where their party is headed with words that are clearly of comfort to Putin’s Soviet-style tyranny.

Whatever legal troubles Trump may face — and they are many, often of his own making — they are in no way comparable to what happened to Navalny. America’s legal system has given Trump every opportunity to defend himself. As the leading GOP candidate for president, Trump has been strikingly without sympathy for Navalny’s death or the democratic cause for which Navalny gave his life. Instead, in his own social media comparison, Trump suggested he was being politically persecuted just like Navalny. Trump has been a major force in undermining congressional attempts to send critically needed military aid to Ukraine to fight off Russia’s invading army, another example of his worrisome worship of the dangerous Putin.

Trump’s distant rival for the GOP presidential nomination, Nikki Haley, had a clear-eye assessment of Navalny’s death. “Putin did this,” she said. “The same Putin who Donald Trump praises and defends.”

Instead of sowing false comparisons like Zeldin and Trump, all responsible political leaders, including the three GOP members of Long Island’s House delegation, should immediately support the Ukraine aid bill as the firmest rebuke to Putin’s tyranny threatening world peace. It is the best way to honor Navalny’s ultimate sacrifice for freedom.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.

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