The Official Republican Party Line Is Pro-Ukraine, But The Far Right Trumpist Fringe Ain't Buyin' It
On Sunday, the Durham Herald-Sun editorial board addressed Madison Cawthorn's outburst about President Zelenskyy, probably the most admired man in the world right now, being a "thug." Cawthorn is not the most admired man in the world-- or even in North Carolina. And the outburst made it less likely that he'll ever be headed in that direction. The editors lumped Cawthorn in with North Carolina's Lt. Gov., Mark Robinson, also a Republican, but more of a garden variety Republican-- crazy and vicious but not quite as crazy and vicious as Cawthorn. "A growing number of Republicans seem to be coming around to an idea that’s old news: people like Madison Cawthorn maybe shouldn’t hold public office. Cawthorn, only a first-term congressman, frequently makes national headlines for all the wrong reasons. Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, the state’s top-ranking Republican, hasn’t shied away from divisive rhetoric of his own. In so many respects, they define what the North Carolina Republican Party has become: a party of extremism. A party that, despite everything, has stood by former President Donald Trump. And apparently, some within their party are unhappy with that branding-- at least behind the scenes.
“Cawthorn is not well-regarded with Republicans statewide in North Carolina. Many of us think he is an embarrassment to our party and state,” a GOP strategist, speaking anonymously, told the conservative Washington Examiner. But it might be too late to reclaim the moral high ground.
The despicable rhetoric coming from certain Republican politicians is hardly a new phenomenon. It didn’t come as a surprise, either-- Cawthorn and Robinson campaigned on the same toxic messaging they’re spouting now. And for far too long, it was enabled by the Republican establishment, the vast majority of whom said and did very little to stop it. They were silent when people like Cawthorn peddled election fraud conspiracies. They were silent when he warned of “bloodshed” if elections continue to be “rigged.” And when Robinson repeatedly disparaged the LGBTQ+ community? Yep, you guessed it-- nothing. Even the events of Jan. 6, in which a wave of Trump supporters descended on the U.S. Capitol to overturn an election they were told was “stolen,” didn’t prove to be much of a wake-up call for many Republican politicians. Cawthorn and Robinson may have positioned themselves as future leaders of the Republican Party, but it was hardly a hostile takeover. The party gave their most radical members the tools to dismantle democracy. They gave them a platform, helped fund their campaigns and looked the other way when they strayed into vitriolic territory.
They let people like Cawthorn and Robinson become the face of the Republican Party. But that brand of politics is becoming less of an asset and more of a liability. And now that Republicans realize it may not bode well for them politically, some want to take it back. Many others continue to, at least implicitly, support them. Cawthorn’s labeling of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as a “thug,” for example, has elicited pushback from his fellow Republicans. “When you see a member of Congress say things like this, the one thing I want you to know, they are outliers in the largest sense possible on our side,” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said at a press conference. But aside from his position on Ukraine, Cawthorn is hardly an outlier. There are plenty of Cawthorns in Congress right now, and even more of them are seeking public office in 2022. So far, none of them has been shunned by their party. Even speaking at a conference organized by white nationalists didn’t yield any real consequences for U.S. Reps. Paul Gosar and Marjorie Taylor Greene. In fact, the only people who have been exiled-- or at least formally reprimanded-- are those who challenge the Trumpified status quo. When Sen. Richard Burr cast a “guilty” vote in Trump’s second impeachment trial, the North Carolina Republican Party voted unanimously to censure him. U.S. Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger have faced an onslaught of criticism from their fellow Republicans for their involvement in the House’s January 6 committee.
That’s why Cawthorn and his ilk, abhorrent as they may be, are not exactly the problem. They’re a symptom of a greater one. Because this is what happens when you spend half a decade allying yourself with the former president and allow his poisonous, incendiary trademark to go unchecked. It may be that many Republicans have always had reservations about the Cawthorns and the Robinsons of their party, at least in private. But as an elected official, what matters most is what you do in public-- and it took way too long for Republicans in power to even say something. So when Republicans try to paint themselves as rational and morally grounded actors-- the very antithesis of people like Cawthorn-- North Carolinians should remember all the times that they weren’t.
Their central premise is that it has been and continues to be the Republican party that has been "responsible for Cawthorn’s rise... Cawthorn and his ilk, abhorrent as they may be, are not exactly the problem. They’re a symptom of a greater one. Because this is what happens when you spend half a decade allying yourself with the former president and allow his poisonous, incendiary trademark to go unchecked."
This morning Dan Pfeiffer reminded his readers that "Many, many Republicans beyond Trump praised Putin and dishonestly absolved him of his interference in the 2016 election. But as the horrors of the invasion unfolded on live television and social media feeds, the bulk of the Republican Party united behind the Ukrainians in their fight against the Russians... But the Republican establishment doing the bare minimum to support a U.S. ally being invaded by an adversary should not obscure the raging pro-Putin sentiment on the Right. Pay attention to what Tucker Carlson, Steve Bannon, and others are saying because the sentiments of the Far Right are a leading indicator of where the party is headed."
"Russian state television has been re-running clips of Tucker Carlson’s comments in support of Russia and critical of Ukraine," wrote Pfeiffer. "Most dangerously, Carlson has been aggressively pushing a debunked piece of Russian propaganda about biolabs in Ukraine. If you want to read more about what a dishonest dupe Tucker Carlson is, check out this New York Times fact check. And speaking of dupes, Sean Hannity recently quoted the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov as evidence of his long-running bullshit claims about Biden’s cognitive abilities. Fox’s pro-Putin commentary has been so consistent that Lavrov recently praised Fox’s coverage." So why the MAGA obsession with Putin? Pfeiffer has come up with 4 reasons:
1- Addicted to Strength: The concept of strength is the axis on which Republican politics has long rotated. Every Republican political campaign is about portraying the GOPer as strong and the Democrat as weak. This is why so much hay was made of Michael Dukakis’s tank photo op. Republicans worked hard to undermine John Kerry’s military service, and pushed false narratives about the health and cognitive abilities of Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. The type of strength and how it is used is irrelevant. When strength at all costs is emphasized at the expense of empathy, compassion, and morals, Putin can become the ideal leader for a morally bankrupt political party.
2- An Apocalyptic Mentality: The public tends to gravitate towards strongman-like figures out of fear. And fear is a central feature of Republican messaging. Watch any GOP campaign ads or consume Right Wing media and experience a constant stream of apocalyptic imagery. America is under ceaseless assult from immigrants, terrorists, criminals, and an array of non-White bogey men and women. Partly, this is a political strategy designed to keep the shrinking, mostly White GOP in a rabid state. According to a January NPR/Ipsos poll, 47 percent of Republicans strongly agree that “America is in crisis and at risk of failing” compared to 29 percent of Democrats. The driving force in the politics of fear is that before too long White people will represent a minority of Americans and the dominant political position that many believe is their birthright is at risk. Putin’s restorative nationalism is appealing to this segment of the population. His death grip on power and aims to restore the Soviet Union is essentially a platform to Make Russia Great Again. Supporting Trump doesn’t necessarily equate to becoming a political apologist, but the sentiments driving the very Far Right to embrace Trump above all else are the same sentiments causing the folks to side with Putin right now.
3- White Power: There is something grossly ironic about the America First movement idolizing a former KGB agent trying to reestablish America’s greatest adversary. But “America First,” really means “White America First.” As Emily Tamkin wrote in the New York Times: “Many of the admirers of the world’s strongmen on the American right appear to believe that the countries each of these men lead are beacons of whiteness, Christianity and conservative values… The white nationalist Richard Spencer has referred to Russia as ‘the sole white power in the world.’” Matthew Heimbach, a founder of the Traditionalist Worker Party, told The Times in 2016, “I see President Putin as the leader of the free world.” As the nomination of Trump indicates, the White nationalist fringes of the Republican Party are the tail that wags the dog. If you are skeptical about the central role of race, ask yourself why the Far Right loves Putin and Orban but disdains Xi Jinping of China? Pay close attention to what they are saying today in order to be prepared for tomorrow.
4-The Perverse Incentives of the Internet Attention Economy: Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, and Tucker Carlson have a lot in common. One of these commonalities is an inherent understanding of how to get and maintain attention in a media ecosystem powered by outrage. There is financial and political incentive to say outrageous things that generate backlash. You get attention for what you said and then you get to scream “cancel culture” when people get mad. The anger and outrage fuels the algorithms pushing your content to even more people, lining your pocket and increasing your political power. So, if you are looking for someone to blame, feel free to add Mark Zuckerberg and other tech folks to your list.
This morning, Greg Olear proposed we look at Putin's American cheerleaders and named the usual suspects: Señor Trumpanzee, Tucker Carlson, Wisconsin's neo-fascist Senator Ron Johnson ("the most egregious disseminator of Russian propaganda-- his ardor for Putin knows no bounds), Rand Paul, Marjorie Traitor Greene, obviously Madison Cawthorn, treason-machine-for-sale Michael Flynn and former Democrat (or pretend Democrat) Tulsi Gabbard. But the name that caught my attention most was Australian neo-Nazi Rupert Murdoch. "Earlier this month," wrote Olear, "Rupert Murdoch turned 91. He did not repent on his birthday. He kept on doing the dread work of despots, dictators, and destroyers of the planet. He continues to platform Tucker Carlson and the other Putin boosters on Fox News, Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity. Murdoch is a wretched traitor, not just to the country, but to humanity itself. He is accelerating our collective doom. Few individuals have done more harm to the species than Jerry Hall’s husband."