We can think of what Donald Trump has done to the Republican Party over the last four years as a perverse sort of home invasion: He kicked in the door, forced his way in, tied up the occupants, grabbed the silver, and busted up the place. Did the victims summon assistance? Did they call 911? No, they invited the perp to stay on as their guest for the weekend! And a rather long weekend it has turned out to be.
Assessing the damage inflicted on the increasingly not-so-GOP will remain a work in progress for some time to come (that bull ain’t leaving the China shop on its own), but a couple of effects on Tennessee Republicans are abundantly clear.
One is the transformation of a once-respected practitioner of the art and science of genuine public service like Lamar Alexander into a serial enabler of bigotry, corruption, abuse of power, constitutional disdain, global humiliation, pandemic malpractice, science denialism, and all the rest. (A deeper dive on the exclamation-pointed one to come in a future column.)
The other is the conversion of semi-rational Republicans with legitimate resumes and moderate sensibilities into mouth-foaming creatures of the far right when they undertake a run for political office. We saw this two years ago with the failed gubernatorial bid of Randy Boyd, a successful businessman and former state economic development chief with uncrazy thoughts about education, technology, and health care. Desperate for Trumpian relevance, Boyd’s campaign turned into a festival of immigrant bashing, gun love, and even support for confederate monuments.
This year’s model is Bill Hagerty, who, like Boyd, is a self-made business type who did time in the public sector heading up economic development for the eminently not-deranged (if chronically invertebrate) Gov. Bill Haslam. Hagerty’s entry into the 2020 race to replace Lamar could have signaled that the seat (if it stays red; one can always hope) will remain in more or less sober, institutionalist hands. Ah, well, not so much.
Hagerty’s campaign has been unfailingly Trumpsucking since the get-go: “I believe in what President Trump is accomplishing,” reads the unintentionally comical headline on his campaign website bio page. But the events of recent days and weeks have truly showcased Hagerty’s plummet into the moral and political mud hole where he and his fellow Republicans now find themselves.
In Tulsa last month with his campaign flailing, a desperate Trump aimed his sights at a favorite target—the First Amendment—with this chestnut: “We ought to come up with legislation that if you burn the American flag you go to jail for one year.” Criminalizing free speech is just the sort of right-wing culture-war nonsense that you’d expect a reasonably levelheaded conservative to ignore, and to politely resist if asked. Ah, but not our Bill Hagerty, who last weekend parroted Trump’s intolerance in a tweet of his own: “Anyone who burns the American flag should go to jail for a year. Period.”
It should go without saying that flag burning is protected speech—a matter of law settled over three decades ago when the Supreme Court held that burning a flag during a protest at the 1984 Republican National Convention was an expressive act protected by the First Amendment. Justice William Brennan’s opinion in the case rings clearly through the decades: “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” Even the right’s beloved Antonin Scalia found it easy to sign onto this one.
This week Hagerty piled onto his First Amendment assault with tweets aping Trump’s grotesquely despotic turn at Mt. Rushmore. First this: “The angry mob does not love this country, and they seek to destroy the fabric that makes it great.” Then this: “When you see the left-wing angry mob tearing down statues, you know they are coming for your freedom next.” Hagarty also found time last weekend to tweet support for the abjectly whacked notion of putting Trump mug on Mount Rushmore. I don’t even know what to do with that.
So let’s see if I have this straight: In Hagertyworld, citizens who exercise constitutional rights to urge relocation of brazenly racist symbols from the public square hate America, want to destroy its fabric, and are coming for your freedom. And by the way if Bill doesn’t like how you say it he might just throw you in jail for a year.
I grant that sensible Republicans will inevitably tack a bit right to seek their party’s nomination in a state as ruby as Tennessee. But what the Boyds and Hagertys of the world are doing bears little resemblance to parlaying a respectable resume into a viable conservative political brand. In the time of Trump, they seem to believe, their only path is playing sycophant to an unhinged toddler’s descent into tyrannical madness. Hey, whatever works!