When voters elected Democrats to take charge of the national government in 2020—despite the efforts of some Trump supporters to stop that from happening—Republican lawmakers built on the anger the former president had whipped up among his supporters to impose a Trumpian vision on their states.
They reworked election laws to solidify their hold on their state governments. According to the nonpartisan Voting Rights Lab, so far 18 states have put in place more than 30 laws restricting access to the ballot. These laws will affect around 36 million people, or about 15% of all eligible voters. In Georgia, a new law means that county election boards will no longer be bipartisan but will be appointed by Republicans; other states are similarly stripping power from Democrats to put Republicans in charge.
In some cases, state governors appear to be jockeying to run for president in 2024 as the new “Trump” of the party. In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott has defunded the legislature to punish Democrats for leaving the session and thus keeping Republicans from passing an extreme elections bill, even though Republicans themselves later said they had not intended to pass all of the provisions in the bill. Abbott has recently announced that Texas will build its own border wall, trying to elevate the issue of immigration at a time when his own handling of two crises in Texas’s electrical grid have been attracting criticism.
Not to be outdone, in Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis today signed a law requiring that public colleges and universities survey students, faculty, and staff about their beliefs in order to make sure the institutions support “intellectual diversity.” The law does not say what the state will do with the survey results, but sponsors—and DeSantis—suggested that the legislature might cut budgets for any schools found to be “indoctrinating” students. Without citing any evidence, Republican lawmakers have warned that there are “socialism factories” in the state universities. The law permits students to record lectures without the consent of the professor or other students to be used in legal cases against the school.
Lawmakers in these Republican-dominated states are focusing on cultural issues, apparently trying to keep Trump voters, angry because they believe (falsely) that the former president won the 2020 election, fired up enough to continue to support Republicans. They have expanded the rights of gun owners, restricted abortion to the point it is virtually outlawed, targeted transgender athletes, and refused both coronavirus guidelines and federal unemployment benefits.
But their biggest public relations angle has been the attack on Critical Race Theory, a theory conceived in the 1970s by legal scholars trying to understand why the civil rights legislation of the past twenty years had not eliminated racial inequality in America. They argued that general racial biases were baked into American law so that efforts to protect individuals from discrimination did not really get at the heart of the issue. While this theory focused on the law, it echoed the arguments historians have made—and proved—since the 1940s: our economy, education, housing, medical care, and so on, have developed with racial biases. This is not actually controversial among scholars.
While CRT explicitly focuses on systems, not individuals, and while it is largely limited to legal theory classes rather than public schools, Republicans have turned this theory into the ideas that it attacks white Americans and that history teachers are indoctrinating schoolchildren to hate America. In the past three and half months, the Fox News Channel has talked about CRT nearly 1300 times.
Republicans are open about their hopes that pushing cultural issues, especially CRT, will win them control of Congress in 2022. “This is the Tea Party to the 10th power,” Steve Bannon, Trump’s former adviser, said in an interview with Politico reporters Theodoric Meyer, Maggie Severns, and Meridith McGraw. “I look at this and say, ‘Hey, this is how we are going to win.’ I see 50 [House Republican] seats in 2022. Keep this up,” Bannon said. “I think you’re going to see a lot more emphasis from Trump on it and DeSantis and others. People who are serious in 2024 and beyond are going to focus on it.”
But the extreme stances of the Trump Republicans are not going unchallenged. A new Monmouth poll shows that the numbers of Americans who believe that Biden won the election have not moved since November. Most Americans think continued agitation is an attempt to undermine the results of the election.
In Arizona, as the so-called “audit” by the inexperienced Cyber Ninjas company hired by the Republican-dominated state senate has become embroiled in controversy—one of the theories investigated was that a Maricopa supervisor fed 165,000 chickens at his egg farm shredded ballots and then burned down the barn to kill them all—Republicans are distancing themselves from it. Arizona talk show host Mike Broomhead, who initially supported the investigation, now says it has become partisan and biased and should end.
Today, in Michigan, the Republican-led Michigan Senate Oversight Committee released a 55-page report summarizing their 8 months of research into alleged voter fraud: “This Committee found no evidence of widespread or systematic fraud in Michigan’s prosecution of the 2020 election,” it concluded. The report added, “The Committee strongly recommends citizens use a critical eye and ear toward those who have pushed demonstrably false theories for their own personal gain.”
This month, the Southern Baptist Convention veered away from its formerly hard-right stance to elect as president Ed Litton, senior pastor of Redemption Church in Saraland, Alabama, who has focused since at least 2014 on racial reconciliation.
Most dramatic, though, was today’s testimony of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, at a House Armed Services Committee hearing to discuss the 2022 Defense Department budget. When Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL) suggested that Critical Race Theory was weakening the U.S. military, the general responded sharply.
“A lot of us have to get much smarter on whatever the theory is,” he began, “but I do think it’s important, actually, for those of us in uniform to be open minded and be widely read.” He got more specific: “I want to understand white rage, and I'm white, and I want to understand it. So what is it that caused thousands of people to assault this building and try to overturn the Constitution of the United States of America? What caused that? I want to find that out….” Our military, he said, comes from the American people, “so it is important that the leaders, now and in the future, do understand it. I've read Mao Zedong. I've read Karl Marx. I've read Lenin. That doesn't make me a communist. So what is wrong with understanding—having some situational understanding about the country for which we are here to defend?” Milley said.
“And,” he continued, “I personally find it offensive that we are accusing the United States military, our general officers, our commissioned, noncommissioned officers of being, quote, ‘woke’ or something else, because we're studying some theories that are out there." He went on to outline, in broad strokes, the historical power differential between Black and white Americans.
Meanwhile, the stories of Trump, embittered and still haranguing people with the Big Lie, indicate his star is falling. This morning, CNN’s Kate Bennett and Gabby Orr published a piece suggesting that Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, once the former president’s right-hand man, are distancing themselves from him—a sure sign that they see him as toxic.
It appears that people are turning against the extremists who seized power in the states early this year on a wave of pro-Trump anger. But many of the new laws that tilt elections in their favor are now on the books, and Republicans in Congress have no intention of giving them up.