Cynical GOP strategists have for years exploited the votes of religious conservatives while disdaining their values. Turn on MSNBC at random and you are likely to see some former GOP poohbah trashing religious conservatives. Figures such as Nicole Wallace, Steve Schmidt, and Michael Steele made their careers in the GOP even as they harbored utter hatred for members of its base. Under George W. Bush, who won reelection in part on a promise to religious conservatives that he would fight gay marriage, the chair of the Republican National Committee for a time was Ken Mehlman, who later came out as an LGBTQ activist.
One can only laugh at Sean Hannity’s opportunistic shock at her “incendiary” tweets.
In the milieu of the upper echelons of the GOP, contempt for religious conservatives is common and spills out the moment one of them becomes relevant. Just look at the frenzied assault on Kathy Barnette in Pennsylvania. The same GOP strategists who gave us Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mitt Romney tell us that she is intolerable. A Republican Senate candidate in Pennsylvania, Barnette has surged in recent days not in spite of her religious conservatism but because of it. Unlike her more socially liberal counterparts in the primary, she did not respond to the news of Roe v. Wade’s apparent collapse in a flatfooted manner. She used the moment to tell her story as a child of rape and advocate for the defense of all unborn children, not just the ones conceived under favorable circumstances.
That she might win the primary has the country club Republicans (many of whom now pose as MAGA supporters) up in arms. For all their talk of “minority outreach,” they don’t want a politically incorrect black Christian woman representing them. They have pronounced her “unelectable,” not because she deviates from the platform of the party, but because she adheres to it more fervently than they do. They find her defense of a Judeo-Christian America embarrassing.
This fits a familiar pattern: socially liberal Republicans, who have a long record of losing races, declaring a religious conservative politically unviable and then trying to prove it by undercutting that candidate. This is what passes for “savvy” in the GOP. Never mind that the savaging of Barnette will only help the Democrats should she win the primary.
GOP “pragmatists” claim that only “winning” matters. But even that claim is bogus. They would rather lose with a moderate than win with a conservative, as the era of Romney and McCain attests. GOP strategists are willing to cut problematic candidates all kinds of slack, as long as they are not odious religious conservatives. Whatever flaws Barnette might have, they are certainly not unique to her. So why single her out? Were she more politically correct, those strategists would overlook any blemishes and back her to the hilt.
One can only laugh at Sean Hannity’s opportunistic shock at her “incendiary” tweets. His Thursday night segment smearing her was worthy of Rachel Maddow. Hannity, who considers “Caitlyn” Jenner a good Republican, huffed and puffed about Barnette as an unworthy one. The attack made no sense, as he simultaneously claimed that she is too woke and too retrograde to win. Which is it? Shouldn’t the alleged wokeness (for which no real evidence exists so far) help her in a “purple state,” according to Hannity’s analysis?
Even if you put the worst construction on her tweets critical of Islam and the LGBTQ movement, they are hardly disqualifying. All they show is that she holds the same views as the Founding Fathers and countless other conservative thinkers over the centuries. Is Hannity seriously arguing that critics of Islam and homosexual culture shouldn’t run for Republican office anymore? Is that now Republican orthodoxy? If so, the GOP is really no different than the Democrats, moving, albeit a little more slowly, toward the same goal: a de-Christianized America ruled by two socially liberal parties.
Even if one were to grant, for the sake of argument, all these sudden and disingenuous criticisms of Barnette, the party’s mean treatment of her is still telling and worth recalling the next time Ronna McDaniel and company make an urgent appeal to religious conservatives. The GOP bosses crave their votes, not values, and will destroy them if they exert any real influence over the party.
This con job, of course, goes back decades and rests on a depressing but probably accurate presumption: that religious conservatives have nowhere else to go. The Karl Roves know they can treat them like ugly stepchildren without worrying about them bolting, since the only crumbs available to them fall from the Republican table.
But how long can this last? The need for an authentically conservative third party will surely grow as the two parties increasingly mirror each other on the most fundamental moral and philosophical issues. Does it really matter who is at the wheel if both parties are heading at varying speeds over the cliff? At some point it will occur to religious conservatives that the purpose of politics is not simply to win but to win on principles that save the country.