Commentary: Tennessee Republicans’ words cannot be taken at face value

February 25, 2021 4:00 am
Tennessee House of Representatives (Photo: John Partipilo)

Tennessee House of Representatives (Photo: John Partipilo)

If there’s one thing we’ve learned during the age of Trump, it’s that Republicans cannot be taken at face value on anything. 

So when GOP lawmakers in Tennessee claim they are pushing anti-transgender legislation to “protect” girls’ high school athletics, we need only to look at their political records, personal behavior and the predators in their ranks to know the bill sponsored by Maury County Republican Scott Cepicky and Hohenwald Republican Joey Hensley has nothing to do with supporting women and everything to do with bigotry and transphobia. 

When GOP lawmakers Rusty Crowe, Tim Hicks and Rebecca Alexander called the basketball team at East Tennessee State University unpatriotic because players took a knee during the national anthem to bring attention to racial injustice, and every Republican Senator signs a letter to university presidents in the state encouraging to crack down on these protests, we need only look at Tennessee Republican support for a president twice impeached for direct assaults on democracy and their resistance to removing a KKK bust in the state capitol to know they don’t know the first thing about patriotism, but do know quite a bit about racism. 

Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

It was Tennessee Republican legislators who supported the racist birther lawsuit questioning President Barack Obama’s citizenship, passed a resolution honoring the hateful, racist, homophobe Rush Limbaugh, and passed another allowing discrimination against gay adoptive parents. It’s Republican legislators who introduced a bill banning books that even address LGBTQ issues; who called for the repeated arrests of peaceful protestors outside the state capitol; and who seek to expand what are already some of the most egregious voter suppression laws in the country. What is more unpatriotic than restricting voting? 

When Tennessee Republicans criticize student athletes for taking a knee during the national anthem to bring attention to racial injustice. but resist removing a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest in the Tennessee Capitol, they show they don’t know about patriotism but do know about racism.

A few years ago, the publisher of my biography of Perry Wallace, “Strong Inside,”  presented every Tennessee legislator with a copy of the book, the story of the first Black basketball player in the SEC. I would ask Republicans in the state legislature to crack it open, and to read about a Tennessean worthy of respect, a man who through his own everyday brilliance, courage, and integrity exposed the hypocrisy of the white Southerners who condemned him. 

“These fans claimed to be good Americans, yet they were viciously attacking a fellow American’s right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ They also claimed to be good Christians, yet one couldn’t call their reactions to me acts of ‘Christian love.’ Finally, people like these believed they were racially ‘superior,’ yet their behavior wouldn’t have qualified as even minimally ‘civilized.’ So, they failed at all of their most fundamental claims about themselves, while I embodied quite well the first two — which after all are the only valid ones.”

Last March, just as everything was about to shut down for COVID-19, my publisher presented every legislator with a copy of my book “Games of Deception”, on the first U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team at the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany. The lesson of that book comes from Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize recipient Elie Wiesel, who spoke of the danger of staying out of the fray.  

“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” 

During the Trump era, we were repeatedly reminded that for the Republicans, “the cruelty is the point.” Our Republican legislators and their supporters have strayed so far from the cause of justice that they aren’t even the dangerous, neutral bystanders Wiesel warns of – they’re the active tormentors. 

I would ask Republicans in the state legislature to crack (“Strong Inside”) open, and to read about a Tennessean worthy of respect, a man who through his own everyday brilliance, courage, and integrity exposed the hypocrisy of the white Southerners who condemned him. 

Speaking even more directly to the ETSU basketball episode, there’s a scene in the book describing the Opening Ceremonies at the 1936 Games, where Nazi guards scanned the crowd, arresting anyone who didn’t thrust out their arm in a Hitler salute, where the wife of one of the American players was punched in the back by a German fan enraged the Americans didn’t dip the stars and stripes when marching past Hitler. Performative patriotism is for fascists; protesting for justice is patriotic. 

My new book coming out March 2, “Singled Out”, is one I’m certain the hate caucus won’t touch. It’s a biography of Glenn Burke, the first openly gay Major League Baseball player and inventor of the high five. Just the kind of story Sen. Frank Niceley and Rep. Bruce Griffey want to keep students from reading. Their anti-gay book bill, and the anti-transgender athlete bill, call to mind the same kind of hateful campaigns led by the religious right in the late 1970s, when Burke was breaking into the Majors. The hypocrisy of the people supporting those bills was called out by gay activists in a 1977 editorial that might as well have been aimed at Tennessee Republicans more than 40 years later. 

“We believe it is immoral to lie to children. We believe that it is immoral to teach them to hate people for whom they choose to love,” they wrote. “We think it is immoral to foster prejudice and discrimination by pretending to children that there are no real people who are gay….It took many of us a long time to realize that these stereotypes were lies, and that there were so many healthy, happy, productive, responsible human beings in this world who had refused to deny or repress their capacity to love members of their own sex. For some of us this realization had to wait until we were well into adulthood, and we suffered because we, too, believed the lies that we were sinful, criminal, sick.”

When Republican legislators turn up the fires of bigotry, they believe they’re gaining political power at the expense of the marginalized. But the irony is that their rot eventually betrays them, and they are outed as immoral and unpatriotic frauds. 

As Perry Wallace said, they fail at all the most fundamental claims about themselves. 


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Andrew Maraniss
Andrew Maraniss

Follow Andrew Maraniss on Twitter @trublu24 and read more about his books on sports, history and social justice at He will be discussing his new book, "Singled Out", in a Facebook Live discussion with author Jeff Pearlman hosted by Parnassus Books on March 2 at 6 pm CST.