Opinion | How Tennessee Illustrates the Three Rules of MAGA

On Monday afternoon, a previously unknown 27-year-old Tennessee lawmaker named Justin Jones walked triumphantly up the steps of the Tennessee Capitol building and — surrounded by a crush of press and hundreds of supporters — took the oath of office to return to the Tennessee House of Representatives. The Tennessee legislature had expelled him from the chamber for his part in a protest that disrupted business on the House floor after the mass shooting at Covenant School in Nashville.

Jones was one of two expelled lawmakers. On Wednesday, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners returned his colleague Justin Pearson, also in his late 20s, back to the Tennessee House, thus ending Pearson’s days-long expulsion. Both young men now possess national profiles and are heavily favored to win re-election to their seats. Tennessee Republicans’ decision to throw them both out of the House backfired. It was punitive. It was performative. And it was not merely ineffective, it actively undermined the goals of the Republican House majority.

In other words, the moment represented a perfect illustration of how Trumpism works in the G.O.P. And by “Trumpism” I don’t mean personal dedication to Donald Trump, but rather to the ethos he’s cultivated within the party.

I’ve spent every year of the Trump era living in deep-red America. How thick is my red bubble? There’s a Times tool that allows you to enter your address and find the political composition of your neighborhood. The rural Tennessee neighborhood I lived in until 2018 was 74 percent Republican. The suburban Tennessee neighborhood where I live now is more than 80 percent Republican.

As a result, I’ve heard the Republican rationalizations for Trumpism more times than I can count — not just in the Trumpist think pieces or cable news arguments that we can all read or see, but also in conversation with friends, relatives and acquaintances for the eight long years since Trump announced his first presidential campaign.

While Trumpism is a complex phenomenon, there are three ideas or principles that are consistently present: First, that before Trump the G.O.P. was a political doormat, helplessly walked over by Democrats time and again. Second, that we live in a state of cultural emergency where the right has lost everywhere and must turn to politics to reverse this cultural momentum. And third, that in this state of emergency, all conservatives must rally together. There can be no enemies to the right.

Add these three ideas together, and you have a near-perfect formula for extremism and authoritarianism.

Let’s plug these principles back into my home state of Tennessee. What does it mean if a movement is convinced that its party has been weak and impotent? It means that “normal” politics is seen as a sign of weakness. In Tennessee, for example, in a more normal political moment, the Democratic lawmakers’ brief interruption of House business would have merited censure, or perhaps a suspension of committee assignments. But in the new world, “normal” is deemed weak. It’s imperative to be tough. The more punitive you are, the more you’ve signaled that this isn’t your dad’s G.O.P.

Many Democrats find the idea that Republicans were doormats before Trump to be utterly mystifying. National and state politics were extremely competitive before Trump. As Ballotpedia records, for example, before the 2016 elections, Republicans controlled 68 state legislative chambers, while Democrats controlled only 30. Moreover, at the national level, Republicans had performed exactly as well as you’d expect in a closely divided country. Congressional control flipped back and forth, and so did control over the White House.

Moreover, Republicans in power were hardly impotent. As I wrote in 2019, the G.O.P. was quite successful in passing economic and social legislation in red states (including hundreds of anti-abortion laws), and its presidents were no more and no less effective at passing federal laws than their Democratic counterparts.

The mistaken Republican belief that the party was ineffective before Trump is bad enough, but it’s made incalculably worse by the Trumpist right’s abandonment of limited government politics in favor of embracing an expansive view of state power that views right-wing politics as the last, best hope for a culture in otherwise irreversible decline.

In the Trumpist narrative, the G.O.P.’s previous weakness means that the so-called woke left essentially runs everything. It commands the heights of culture, of business and of education. It’s even making inroads into the military. Republicans who hamstring themselves with a limited government philosophy are on a fool’s errand. Political power must be wielded to bring the left in line.

Let’s take, for example, a “statement of principles” of national conservatism signed by a host of leading figures on the right. Here’s part of what it has to say about “God and Public Religion” (emphasis added):

The Bible should be read as the first among the sources of a shared Western civilization in schools and universities, and as the rightful inheritance of believers and nonbelievers alike. Where a Christian majority exists, public life should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision, which should be honored by the state and other institutions both public and private. At the same time, Jews and other religious minorities are to be protected in the observance of their own traditions, in the free governance of their communal institutions, and in all matters pertaining to the rearing and education of their children. Adult individuals should be protected from religious or ideological coercion in their private lives and in their homes.

This vision of religion and public life is antithetical to the First Amendment. A vision that grants Christianity a privileged position while relegating “Jews and other religious minorities” to lesser status and rendering religious freedom as little more than a protection for non-Christian conduct in people’s “private lives and homes” helps explain the right-wing attack on the culture of free speech.

In Tennessee, for example, the legislature passed an “anti-C. R. T. law” so broad that it can make it perilous to include even some of Martin Luther King Jr.’s work in a school curriculum, and make it difficult to teach both sides of the dispute over, say, race-based affirmative action. Tennessee also passed an anti-drag law that was so vague and overbroad that it was enjoined by a Trump-appointed federal judge.

Tennessee is not alone, of course; the explosion of so-called education gag orders in red-state legislatures represents an effort to change the culture by using raw political power to ban instruction in ideas and concepts that those legislatures dislike.

Florida has been an epicenter of right-wing censorship. The state has passed unconstitutional laws that attempt to regulate social media moderation and limit free expression on public university campuses and in private boardrooms. Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, is locked in an escalating political battle with Disney, which was triggered by Disney’s opposition to a state law that sharply limited instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in Florida classrooms.

There is a common thread linking all these legal attacks on free expression — the burning conviction that raw political power is the right’s prime weapon to combat the overwhelming authority of woke America.

Again, this is a sentiment that my Democratic friends find remarkable — especially when it comes from the state of Tennessee. Nashville might be more blue than most of the rest of the state, but it’s also one of the centers of conservative cultural power in the United States. The executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest protestant denomination in the United States, is based in Nashville. The country music and Christian music industries (along with much of Christian publishing) have a powerful local presence.

Indeed, given the cultural power of the evangelical church alone, it’s hard to justify the idea that conservative Americans are left only (or mainly) with politics as a lever for national change. Here in Tennessee the cultural power belongs to the right far more than to the left, and the idea that some form of woke hegemony is inevitable strikes the reasonable observer as bizarre, perhaps even paranoid.

And now let’s discuss the third principle: no enemies to your right. If your political opponents are so formidable that they allegedly neutered the “old” G.O.P. and swept to the commanding heights of cultural power, then resisting this mighty force requires unity and resolve. There can be no retreat. No compromise. Just total resistance. Dissenters aren’t just wrong, they’re “RINOs,” Republicans in name only. And RINOs are traitors to the cause.

This message doesn’t work everywhere, especially not in swing states, but Tennessee is extremely red. In 2020, Trump won the state by 23 points. In 2016, he won by 26. In 2012, Mitt Romney won by 20. The state is also extremely gerrymandered. Even though roughly 40 percent of Tennesseans vote Democratic in any given presidential election, only one of nine members of the state’s delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives is Democratic. The State House is 24 percent Democratic, and the State Senate has only six Democrats out of 33 senators.

Thus, the prime threat to any Republican politician comes almost exclusively from the right, a right that is convinced that it’s been a doormat and that normal politics simply aren’t adequate to the challenge from the left. Even the most reasonable Republicans are tempted to acquiesce to radical demands from the right lest they face a primary loss. Because then, they rationalize, the “real” right-wing radicals would be in charge.

The moment you understand these three principles, the Trumpist Republican Party becomes depressingly predictable. Tennessee is predictable. Ron DeSantis is predictable. The cultural dynamic of the right is relentlessly radicalizing, and so far not even a series of crushing political defeats have caused it to rethink its political commitments.

The “new” Republican Party, the one that’s allegedly a doormat no longer, lost the presidency, the House and the Senate in four short years between 2016 and 2020. (It narrowly regained control of the House in 2020.) The “new” Republican Party controls fewer state legislative chambers than it did before 2016, and it controls fewer governors’ mansions. It keeps losing winnable elections, it keeps passing unconstitutional laws, and — as we just witnessed in Tennessee — its overreach energizes the opposition.

There is hope, however. This week, the Tennessee governor, Bill Lee, proposed an “order of protection” law designed to strip weapons from individuals who indicate that they’re a danger to themselves or others. Two former governors, the Democrat Phil Bredesen and the Republican Bill Haslam, wrote a joint op-ed endorsing a similar concept. There is a Tennessee tradition of Republican statesmen — from Howard Baker to Bill Frist, Lamar Alexander, Bob Corker and Bill Haslam — who’ve often represented the best of the G.O.P.

That DNA still exists within the Tennessee Republican Party. It still exists within the national party. But it struggles to emerge in the atmosphere of rage and hysteria that dominates the grass roots. While that rage and hysteria persists, “punitive” and “performative” are the two words that best describe a movement and a party that has gone so dangerously astray.

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