Political movements and political parties, and all major religions, face the same choice, to seek converts or to punish heretics, to grow more powerful, with new converts, which might require accommodations for those new to the faith, until they settle in, or to grow more powerful by purging those of questionable faith, to assure purity in commitment to the cause by subtraction. Will it be that Big Tent – everyone is welcome and we’ll work out the details later? Or will it be the Exclusive Few and purity tests and possible public shaming for anyone else? Some will never compromise their principles. Some will never compromise anything. Some will never compromise their pride. Others, when questioned, smile – Okay, let’s talk.
That sort of thing divides conservatives from liberals. That sort of thing divided Martin Luther from the somewhat arrogant Catholic Church at the time. He nailed his theses to the door. It was time for a Big Tent – and that became Protestantism in all its variations. Guttenberg’s printing press helped too – Bibles for everyone, not just the exclusive few. But that was settled long ago. Now it’s the politics, with the same question – seek converts or punish heretics – choose one or the other.
Republicans have made their choice. They chose purity. They chose Trump. Slate’s William Saletan sees that:
This weekend, as Republicans gathered in Orlando, Florida, for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, the agenda wasn’t free markets or a strong foreign policy. Instead, their focus was on solidifying former President Donald Trump’s control of the party. What united the speakers, including Trump and the party’s top 2024 presidential prospects, was their contempt for public health measures and their embrace of lies about election fraud. To any Republican who dissents from this madness, the conference sent an unambiguous message: Get out.
So, forget the doctors and scientists, and ignore the dead bodies piling up in the corner.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis kicked off the event by denouncing “lockdown states” – those that restricted business activity during the pandemic – and boasting that he travels only to “free states.” Another speaker, COVID demagogue Alex Berenson, blamed lockdowns on Amazon, Facebook, and Google, which “profit from keeping you in your house.” A third speaker, conservative provocateur James O’Keefe, denounced Facebook for censoring lies about COVID vaccines. Others derided Dr. Anthony Fauci, the federal government’s chief medical officer.
Several members of Congress, including Rep. Jim Banks, the chair of the 159-member House Republican Study Committee, bragged onstage and in interviews about not wearing masks. Sen. Ted Cruz, addressing the audience on Friday, ridiculed the idea that people should have to cover their faces after standing up from meals at restaurants. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, whose state leads the nation in recent COVID deaths per capita, denounced mask mandates and noted with pride that South Dakota was the only state that had never ordered any businesses to close. “No governor should ever dictate to their people which activities are officially approved or not approved,” she declared.
That was the unambiguous message. This was a purity test. Someone got that message loud and clear:
Texas will end its coronavirus restrictions next week with an upcoming executive order, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) announced Tuesday during a press conference in Lubbock.
After Abbott signs the new order, which rescinds previous orders, all businesses can open to 100% capacity and the statewide mask mandate will be over, though large parts of the state will remain under mask local ordinances.
But those local ordinances might not survive this:
“It is now time to open Texas 100%,” Abbott said Tuesday. “For nearly a half a year, most businesses have been open either 75% or 50%, and during that time, too many Texans have been sidelined from employment opportunities.”
“Too many small business owners have struggled to pay their bills. This must end,” he added.
The governor said the restrictions are no longer needed now that the state is more prepared to test for and treat the virus and is vaccinating more of its residents.
That might not be true:
Texas reported more than 1,600 new cases and zero new deaths from the virus on Monday, according to the state’s coronavirus dashboard.
This isn’t going away, but neither are their governors:
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) also announced Tuesday that the state will lift mask mandates for all counties on Wednesday, saying its “hospitalizations have plummeted, and our case numbers have fallen dramatically as well,” according to an ABC affiliate.
Wait. Not so fast there:
Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Monday warned states against lifting public health restrictions because coronavirus cases and deaths “appear to be stalling” after a recent decline.
“With these new statistics, I’m really worried about reports that more states are rolling back the exact public health measures we have recommended to protect people from COVID-19,” Walensky said.
Data! There’s data! Politico adds detail to that:
“70,000 cases a day seemed good compared to where we were just a few months ago,” she said at a news briefing. “But we cannot be resigned to 70,000 cases a day, 2,000 daily deaths.”
“Please hear me clearly: At this level of cases, with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained,” she continued. “These variants are a very real threat to our people and our progress. Now is not the time to relax the critical safeguards that we know can stop the spread of Covid-19 in our communities, not when we are so close.”
In short, this is better than January, but still awful, and likely to get worse:
A Feb. 26 internal briefing document from the Federal Emergency Management Agency showed that four states, including Texas and Mississippi, were in the “red zone,” defined as having a positivity rate over 10 percent. The other two states were Oklahoma and New Hampshire, according to the briefing, which cited CDC data and was obtained and reviewed by POLITICO.
But that doesn’t matter:
A senior administration health official told POLITICO that the White House believed the Texas and Mississippi announcements – posted on Twitter within 30 minutes of each other – were a “coordinated effort” by Republican governors, and that it expected to see similar announcements in the coming days.
Clay Jenkins, the Democratic judge of Dallas County, said in a Zoom news conference after Abbott’s announcement that the governor did not consult with local officials before the announcement, adding that he believed Abbott was bowing to political pressure on the right to lift the orders before it made sense for the state.
“It doesn’t take much of a shift in [mask] compliance to set us back months and months, to set us back in herd immunity,” he said.
But the governor was trapped:
Abbott, who has served as governor of the nation’s second-largest state for the past six years, has long harbored national ambitions. But mask mandates and other coronavirus restrictions have become less popular among Republican base voters as cases have plummeted, and Abbott could end up competing with smaller-state governors who have championed a laissez-faire approach to the pandemic.
This past weekend at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Fla., the crowd of activists cheered Governors Ron DeSantis of Florida and Kristi Noem of South Dakota – two governors staking out possible 2024 presidential lanes – for the more limited restrictions they have implemented over the past year….
DeSantis, whose state hosted the conference, described Florida as “an oasis of freedom” compared to other states during the pandemic.
They were the true believers, part of the exclusive few on the inside, and he was the heretic. He had to fix that and he did. But there’s more. Biden said there will be vaccine for everyone quite soon. Philip Bump adds this:
It’s clearly not the case that Texas has achieved sufficient immunity to disregard these concerns. The state has done one of the worst jobs in the country of vaccinating its residents, though that was negatively affected by the recent winter storm. That’s the asterisk to the Biden announcement, of course: Vaccine ability doesn’t mean uniform ability to quickly distribute it.
Abbott is instead appealing to the ability of Texans to take necessary precautions on their own, an optimism that recent history suggests is not warranted. Abbott announced a stay-at-home order in late March, moving quickly to lift it once Donald Trump’s administration began advocating for broad reopenings. By summer, Texas had become an epicenter of new case spikes nationally. Abbott implemented a mask mandate on July 2, when the state was seeing about 6,300 new cases a day. Over the next few weeks, as existing infections became symptomatic, new case totals topped 10,000. By early September, though, they’d fallen again.
In early October, Abbott began scaling back restrictions on restaurants and bars. Nationally, a third wave of cases was just beginning, and Texas ended up seeing more than 23,000 new cases a day and, at the worst moment, more than 336 new deaths each day.
Abbott should know better:
Wilensky’s point was that the country (and states) shouldn’t settle for “better than January” as a benchmark, given how bad January was. Texas has other advantages that not all states share, like usually moderate weather in early spring facilitating outdoor activities. But particularly given how close the country is to being able to resume normal activity while containing the virus, it’s hard to understand why Abbott has decided to suddenly take his foot off the brake.
It also risks the thing we can least afford: providing an opportunity for the virus to spread widely enough that another, more dangerous variant might emerge. Perhaps even a variant that is resistant to the available vaccines. There’s a very small risk, in other words, that Texas isn’t only already celebrating a victory it hasn’t attained, but that it might also push the finish line even further away.
But at least Abbott won’t be a heretic now. Many will die, but at least Donald Trump won’t sneer at him and tell him to get the hell out of his Republican Party!
Others are making the same calculations on another issue. Aaron Blake explains here:
Two months ago, supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overturn the 2020 election. Ever since then, Trump’s allies have sought – in multiple ways and without real evidence – to call into question the idea that those rioters were truly inspired by Trump or acting on his behalf. They’ve suggested that the rioters were provocateurs or antifa, or that evidence of preplanning efforts precludes pointing the finger at Trump.
Those narratives suffered significant blows Tuesday, even as Republicans continued to try to muddy the waters and plant seeds of doubt.
FBI Director Christopher A. Wray testified repeatedly to the Senate Judiciary Committee that there was no evidence that antifa, anarchists or provocateurs who didn’t support Trump were involved in the Capitol siege.
“We have not, to date, seen any evidence of anarchist violent extremists or people subscribing to antifa in connection with the 6th,” Wray said at one point.
Asked at another point whether the people involved were fake Trump supporters, Wray said flatly, “We have not seen evidence of that at this stage.” And again: “We have not seen any evidence of that.”
They kept asking. Those were all antifa people pretending to be Trump people, right?
Nope. But it didn’t matter. They knew better, but they had to show that they weren’t heretics. They’re with Trump:
Republicans sought to refocus the hearing and question the idea that these were people inspired by Trump and his bogus claims of voter fraud.
The committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), began his opening statement by assuring the committee that the events of Jan. 6 were horrible. But he then spent most of his statement and round of questioning on the threat of antifa and extremist groups associated with the left.
Grassley didn’t go as far as Sen. Ron Johnson did last week, when the Wisconsin Republican used a similar hearing to float theories about Jan. 6 provocateurs based on a single, speculative account from a witness at a right-wing think tank. Grassley instead essentially set Jan. 6 aside and suggested that the FBI might be giving left-leaning extremists and anarchists comparatively short shrift by not equally investigating last summer’s protests against police violence.
That wasn’t the day’s topic, but of course this was for Trump’s approval.
Grassley said repeatedly that he agreed with comments from Chairman Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) about the gravity of Jan. 6, but he added that “a narrow view of these matters would be intellectually dishonest. We’re not serious about tackling domestic extremism if we tolerate mobs that attack some police officers, but not all police officers.”
He also used his comments to suggest that antifa is aligned with the Democratic Party – a suggestion that misunderstands what the group is truly about.
“Supporters of that group have been charged federally for violence, promoting riots and using Molotov cocktails – even after President Biden’s electoral victory,” Grassley said. “Can you believe this? Antifa rioters attacked the Oregon Democratic Party headquarters, and they did that on Inauguration Day. You’d think the results of the election ought to satisfy them.”
Wray sat politely and said nothing. This wasn’t for him. Grassley didn’t want to be told to get the hell out of the Republican Party. He was performing for Trump. And then there was this:
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) also got in on the act, more directly – albeit subtly – questioning the official account of Jan. 6 and even possible anarchist involvement in the siege.
“I’ve heard the expression that, here in Washington, whoever has the best narrative wins,” Cornyn said. “And so sometimes I think the narrative is created, and then [they] try to search for facts that might bolster that narrative.
“But as you said, the fact is these extremist groups are not monolithic. So that’s, I think, an important part of understanding the threat. I’ve heard them described – some of these folks described as white supremacists, domestic terrorists, insurrectionists, rioters, seditionists, anarchists. The list goes on and on.”
Ah, no one will ever know. Move on. Nothing to see here. Move on. Maybe that will satisfy Donald Trump, but the New York Times ran an investigative piece on how this started:
At 1:51 p.m. on Jan. 6, a right-wing radio host named Michael D. Brown wrote on Twitter that rioters had breached the United States Capitol – and immediately speculated about who was really to blame. “Antifa or BLM or other insurgents could be doing it disguised as Trump supporters,” Mr. Brown wrote, using shorthand for Black Lives Matter. “Come on, man, have you never heard of psyops?”
Only 13,000 people follow Mr. Brown on Twitter, but his tweet caught the attention of another conservative pundit: Todd Herman, who was guest-hosting Rush Limbaugh’s national radio program. Minutes later, he repeated Mr. Brown’s baseless claim to Mr. Limbaugh’s throngs of listeners: “It’s probably not Trump supporters who would do that. Antifa, BLM, that’s what they do. Right?”
What happened over the next 12 hours illustrated the speed and the scale of a right-wing disinformation machine primed to seize on a lie that served its political interests and quickly spread it as truth to a receptive audience. The weekslong fiction about a stolen election that President Donald J. Trump pushed to his millions of supporters had set the stage for a new and equally false iteration: that left-wing agitators were responsible for the attack on the Capitol.
In short, this was minor pure madness that was amazingly useful:
The rioters breaking into the citadel of American democracy that day were acolytes of Mr. Trump, intent on stopping Congress from certifying his electoral defeat. Subsequent arrests and investigations have found no evidence that people who identify with antifa, a loose collective of antifascist activists, were involved in the insurrection.
But even as Americans watched live images of rioters wearing MAGA hats and carrying Trump flags breach the Capitol – egged on only minutes earlier by a president who falsely denounced a rigged election and exhorted his followers to fight for justice – history was being rewritten in real time.
Within hours, a narrative built on rumors and partisan conjecture had reached the Twitter megaphones of pro-Trump politicians. By day’s end, Laura Ingraham and Sarah Palin had shared it with millions of Fox News viewers, and Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida had stood on the ransacked House floor and claimed that many rioters “were members of the violent terrorist group antifa.”
And now this could not be stopped:
Nearly two months after the attack, the claim that antifa was involved has been repeatedly debunked by federal authorities, but it has hardened into gospel among hardline Trump supporters, by voters and sanctified by elected officials in the party. More than half of Trump voters in a Suffolk University/USA Today poll said that the riot was “mostly an antifa-inspired attack.”
That had to happen:
A review of media activity in the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 6 riot reveals just how quickly the right-wing media machine, first online and then on radio and cable TV, advanced the fiction about antifa’s supposed involvement.
The conspiracy gained new momentum after The Washington Times, a right-wing newspaper, published an online article shortly before 2:30 p.m. claiming that a facial recognition firm had identified antifa activists in the crowd at the Capitol. The newspaper corrected the article less than 24 hours later, after its claims were proved false — but not before the story made an enormous impact. The article eventually amassed 360,000 likes and shares on Facebook, according to CrowdTangle, a tool owned by Facebook and used for analyzing social media.
From 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., the antifa falsehood was mentioned about 8,700 times across cable television, social media and online news outlets, according to Zignal Labs, a media insights company. “Remember, Antifa openly planned to dress as Trump supporters and cause chaos today,” said one tweet that collected 41,100 likes and shares.
And none of it mattered;
Hours after the attack, Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama, a Republican who had served as a warm-up speaker for Mr. Trump at the pre-riot rally, promoted the false antifa claims on national television.
“We did have some warning that there might be antifa elements masquerading as Trump supporters in advance of the attack on the Capitol,” Mr. Brooks told the Fox Business host Lou Dobbs. He amplified his baseless claim the next morning in a Twitter thread that was retweeted nearly 19,000 times. “Evidence, much public, surfacing that many Capitol assaulters were fascist ANTIFAs, not Trump supporters,” Mr. Brooks wrote, providing no evidence. “Time will reveal truth. Don’t rush to judgment.”
In an interview last week, Mr. Brooks admitted that he had not verified his information before airing it publicly. But he insisted that several members of Congress – whom he would not identify – had warned him about an antifa presence in Washington, prompting him to sleep in his congressional office for two nights preceding Jan. 6.
Mr. Brooks now says that the role of antifa and Black Lives Matter “appears to be relatively minimal compared to the roles of more militant elements of other groups.”
But he doesn’t say that too loudly. He’s doesn’t want to be a heretic, and that leaves this:
Jason Franzen, 46, a Trump voter who works in carpentry in Thorp, Wis., said he was convinced that the former president’s enemies planned and carried out the attack.
“I don’t want to point fingers, but my gut tells me that there were some higher-up Democrats who were instigating the whole thing,” said Mr. Franzen, who said he gets his news from Facebook and the right-wing cable network One America News. “My gut has been right a lot of times, so I’m just going to go with my gut.”
He’s in. He’s no heretic. So, how small can Donald Trump’s Republican Party shrink? Who knows? But it will be small. Then it will be forgotten.