Tuberville shows how we’ve lost our sense of how to argue

May 15, 2023 6:00 am
Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) (Photo by Andrew Harnik-Pool/Getty Images)

Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) (Photo by Andrew Harnik-Pool/Getty Images)

U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., and former Auburn University football coach, recently fumbled a simple question from Richard Banks of WBHM radio in Birmingham. 

Banks asked, You mentioned the Biden administration trying to prevent white nationalists from being in the military. Do you believe they should allow white nationalists in the military?”  Tuberville responded, “Well, they call them that. I call them Americans.” 

Tuberville’s staff tried some clean-up clarifications, but then the Alabama Senator bloviated to a group of reporters, “I look at a White nationalist as a, as a Trump Republican. That’s what we’re called all the time, a MAGA person…Well, I agree that we should not be characterizing Trump supporters as White nationalists.”

He awkwardly tried to downplay or redefine away a problem of white nationalists operating and recruiting on military bases, but the problem has been documented in several government and think tank reports. Further, Kathleen Belew’s chilling 2018 book Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, gives a good history of the matter.

When Tuberville says “they call them that,” the pronouns aren’t specified, but he doesn’t have to do so for his supporters.  The “they” is the other side, those “woke” libs who welcome all the societal changes his side fears. 

Tuberville’s specific answer, however, is more than mind-numbingly stupid.  It reflects a larger problem in American political discourse.  We have lost our basic understanding of how to argue.  Decades of Fox News and right wing talk radio have presented us with a world of two camps — the put-upon but noble right wingers, opposed by the evil encampment of left wingers.  In such a bizarre world, the radical right-wingers do not really argue matters on their merits.  Instead, the goal is to “own the libs,” and all tools to do so — including name calling, logical fallacies, disinformation and third-hand junk from online echo chambers — are fair game.  

One tool is whataboutism.  Forget trends, patterns, descriptive statistics, studies and empirical science.  Just throw out a hypocritical moment from the opposite camp. Insist that any Democrat in any argument has to answer for any embarrassing anecdote involving any Democrat no matter how old, false, badly remembered or tangentially related to the topic.

A desperate right-winger also can search about for any moment of personal hypocrisy.  Climate change isn’t real because you drive a gas-powered car or former Vice-President Al Gore, an early advocate of climate change science, has been known to fly on airplane.

When Tuberville says “they call them that,” the pronouns aren’t specified, but he doesn’t have to do so for his supporters.  The “they” is the other side, those “woke” libs who welcome all the societal changes his side fears.  Let’s remember another Alabama politician.  The late Gov. George Wallace ran for president in 1968 and 1972, often using the slogan “Send Them a Message.” The “them” was flexible — hippies, antiwar protesters, academics, intellectuals, city dwellers —  but those who remember Wallace standing in a doorway in an attempt to stop integration did not need a decoder ring to figure out who constituted a “them” for Wallace.

Thus, in the Wallace or Tuberville construction, white nationalists or white supremacists are okay because in a bipolar political worldview such people are on our team. The real problem is the “thems” of this world who try to use negative labels on us — you know, the real Americans.

The “anything to own the libs” philosophy can go beyond words to actions. Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell from Kentucky can block a hearing on a Barack Obama Supreme Court nomination and rush through one from Donald Trump without concern for precedent, honor, or consistency. Tuberville, for his part, is throwing a hissy fit over Pentagon policies that provide travel funds and other support for troops and dependents who seek abortions but are based in states that ban it.

Tuberville  has vented his pique by objecting to the routine practice of confirming dozens of military promotions.  U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has said these delays pose a clear risk to military readiness, but Tuberville is unmoved. The Senate may have to lumber through the laborious task of individually getting each promotion past the Tuberville blockade.

Oh, and don’t point out the McConnell duplicity was toward our country’s first African-American president or that Tuberville’s tantrum is in opposition to our first African-American Secretary of Defense. Twitter will explode in feigned outrage from all the practitioners of the Fox News worldview.  Of course, there is not a tinge of racism about it.  You just want to send them a message.

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