Broken Republican Party goes all in on their most evil strategy: Performance cruelty

While conservatives love to oppress women and racial minorities, they have an even longer history in this nation of demonizing and dehumanizing their perceived enemies. This “us versus them” mentality in the past has been used to excuse the darkest chapters in American history, such as the genocidal campaigns against Native Americans, the Japanese concentration camps, and the systematic oppression of Black Americans. Yet the Republican Party continues to tap into hate to drive up fear against their new perceived enemies: brown immigrants, Muslims, and transgender people. Democrats who support their rights are labeled “evil” and accused of wanting to “destroy” America’s culture.  

Performance cruelty can be defined as a policy or political act that isn’t in any way productive, but designed to draw attention and headlines based on how much it harms a group of people. There is no shortage of examples in recent years, such as closing our borders to the oppressed, building ridiculous walls, legalizing the harassment of transgender teenagers, and banning Muslims from our country.

When Trump signed an executive order titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” he banned millions of Muslims fleeing violence in their home countries, as well as visits to family members and access to receiving medical treatment. There were much, much better ways of keeping terrorists out of the nation, but Trump wanted the headlines to convey to his base that he shared their hatred of the Muslim population.

Worse, Republicans in multiple state legislatures have been designing laws with the sole purpose of pleasing their evangelical constituents, who can be some of the cruelest people in our society. They have passed draconian anti-abortion laws that disregard any exception to include rape—even child rapeand not even when the life of the mother is at risk. Laws that seek to punish women are being drawn up, and in Nebraska, a mother has already been charged for helping her daughter get an abortion.

Other states are criminalizing the actions of any doctors involved, and still other legislatures are seeking to restrict travel to another state for getting the procedure. The fact that such a law would be a clear violation of the commerce clause and the 14th Amendment means little. A feature of these stunts is to gain attention and support without concern of whether it would hold up in court.

Although the vast majority and the media can condemn these stunts, it’s rare when that has an influence. One situation where Republican performance cruelty clearly did backfire was the veteran’s health care bill. Senate Republicans blocked a noncontroversial and much-needed health care bill for veterans suffering from Agent Orange and toxic burn pits. Why? Because they were mad at Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia for supporting a stimulus bill that included funds to help fight climate change. In retaliation, 25 Republicans voted to block the bill they had supported just two months earlier. They only caved after receiving tremendous public pressure to not play games with veterans’ lives.

Dismally, I don’t have to go to the national level to show how pervasive this strategy is. Here in Florida, and even at my local level, it has been raised to an art form. This is the state that required women, even young rape victims under 18, to publish the names of all their sexual partners in newspapers for four weeks if they wanted to give a baby up for adoption. You read that right, and of course it wasn’t effective. Yet the purpose of the “Scarlet Letter law” was entirely to shame women in order to please the religious right. I should point out that it was supported by Sen. Marco Rubio.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 22: Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) speaks to the media while flanked by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (L) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), after a meeting with President Donald Trump regarding Venezuela on January 22, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
We just keep electing horrible people like Ron DeSantis, Rick Scott, and Marco Rubio.

Our other senator, Rick Scott, clearly had something against vulnerable children. He made a point to massively slash our child welfare agency to the bone, and then gutted hospital quality standards for kids with heart defects because, you know, “political donation.”

Our state invented the Stand Your Ground law in 2005, which was completely unnecessary as there has never been an instance of someone who legitimately practiced self-defense who was ever prosecuted. It did, however, increase the murder rate by 11%. Each year, our state one-ups itself for the gun lobby. My own state senator, Jason Brodeur, sponsored the “Docs versus Glocks” bill that directly targeted doctors and psychiatrists: Any doctor who dared to ask a patient if they had a gun, no matter the circumstances, faced a five-year prison sentence. Of course it was illegal, but he kept getting elected.  

No one, however, is better at performance cruelty than DeSantis. He made a name for himself pushing a bill that allowed parents to sue school districts if they teach honest facts about historical events like slavery and civil rights under the guise of “critical race theory,” which isn’t taught in Florida classrooms. He also tried to lead the nation in book bans, especially books with LGBTQ content. Yet once he made a decision that he was Republican presidential material, he pursued laws that were needlessly cruel and targeted our most vulnerable citizens.

His infamous “Don’t Say Gay” law actually forbids teachers from providing a safe, inclusive classroom by banning them from any talk about LGBTQ issues or discussion of LGBTQ people. It not only undermines existing protections for these students, it further stigmatizes and isolates them. DeSantis pushed for the GOP legislature to approve this even knowing that LGBTQ Floridians are more than twice as likely to experience depression or anxiety compared to non-LGBTQ Floridians.

Medical professionals and the American Psychological Association Proponents said this bill would do irreparable harm, but DeSantis and the state GOP didn’t care. They pushed a disgusting narrative that public schools were filled with teachers who were trying to turn kindergartners into homosexuals, and that they were “grooming” them to become transgender. To be clear on that point, DeSantis’ QAnon-loving spokeswoman, Christina Pushaw, labeled anyone who opposed this awful bill as “groomers.”

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Other states followed suit. The past few months have seen an unprecedented onslaught across the nation of fearmongering, anti-LGBTQ bills that deny medical care, ban any talk of gender issues, forbid participation in sports, and deny medical care. The more cruel it is, the more it will be featured in right-wing media.

The Florida bill was needlessly cruel, and that was the entire point. It let bigoted adults feel like they were doing something to harm an oppressed minority group they really, really hate. The bill also had the added bonus of sticking it to public school teachers, whom Republicans have been accusing of pushing all sorts of indoctrination, from sexual identity to communism. (Although our nation as a whole is suffering from a massive teacher shortage, DeSantis is responsible for contributing to our state’s “overworked and underpaid educators’ weariness.”)

This was on the heels of the Stop WOKE Act that bans public institutions from discussions on racism, and prohibits private businesses from providing diversity training. The fact that this act was unconstitutional didn’t stop its passage. In fact, the judge that put it on hold compared DeSantis’ law to the Stranger Things “upside down,” saying his twisted version of the First Amendment bars the private sector from “burdening speech” but allows the state to “burden speech freely.”

The setback didn’t stop DeSantis, who recently pulled his most cruel stunt to date using Venezualan asylum-seekers as pawns for his stunt on immigration. One of his fans, Cory Mills, disturbingly won the nomination to represent my congressional district, CD-7. This district has been redrawn to make it more solidly Republican. It is currently held by Democrat Stephanie Murphy, who is retiring this year.

Mills had a unique platform: He bragged that his company sold the tear gas canisters that harmed Black Lives Matters protesters, referring to them as looters and saying he was “proud” they were used. His company also sold the rubber bullets used to suppress democracy protesters in Hong Kong, but he doesn’t brag about that as much. When Democratic Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri described her own experiences being gassed with his product at Black Lives Matter demonstrations, Mills threatened to tear gas her and the “liberal media.”

Trump gets a lot of blame for ruining the GOP, but the truth is that he came to power quickly because it was already ruined. The conservative base has been subjected to lies and fearmongering for decades, with Republican politicians trying to motivate their shrinking followers to get to the polls using hateful appeals against some of their fellow Americans. The Former Guy simply ratcheted up the rhetoric and made cruelty a feature of his policy, and other politicians have taken notice. This can’t be the new “normal,” or this will be the new beginning of a terrible era. Hopefully, our victories this midterm will be big enough to put this strategy forever to bed. If not, we will all be forced down a dark path that will become all too common—and will likely get even worse.

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