Navigating Through a Fog of Denial
From the response to a Southwest pilot to parents clinging to "critical race theory," Democrats must forcefully distinguish truth from lies and provide a clear vision and evidence of a better America
A Southwest Airlines pilot—who an Associated Press reporter heard say “Let’s go, Brandon” over the in-flight loudspeaker (GOP code for “F*** you, Biden”)—chose to further inflame an already toxic political environment and exacerbate the sense of unease that most of us feel.
That lack of professionalism and judgement—that willingness to push his political views on the general public while representing a major airline—is a story. It’s a story of a pilot who failed to recognize a boundary between his public role to keep people safe and his private right to say what he thinks, especially at a time when violence on planes is escalating. It’s also the story of an airline’s failure to respond more forcefully when news of this broke.
That motivated this:
But what I want to share here is found in the replies to this tweet—and that’s about a Trump-supporting MAGA crowd that no longer believes in the boundaries that allow us to stand together in the public sphere without being bombarded by hateful ideas that heighten fear and the real threat of violence.
While this week started with this Southwest issue, it ended with an election night outcome in Virginia that in part illuminated this same phenomenon of too many Republicans ignoring reality and clinging to a false narrative when it matches with their ideological impulse. But we’ll get to that later on.
As you might imagine, most of the replies from this crowd cleverly repeated “Let’s go Brandon” or retorted with “that must have hurt,” “poor baby,” “can’t take a joke?” or other pale ad hominem attacks. Others sought to immunize the pilot with the First Amendment (no, a private company can restrict employee speech) or, more ominously, reminding that we have a Second Amendment when needed. Still others sought to lift the pilot by insisting he should get a raise or praising the correctness of his political position.
None of that is surprising.
But it’s the reflexive justification by way of perceived slights against Trump—the eye-for-an-eye defense, on behalf of a pilot who put the safety of his passengers at risk—that leads me to doubt the prospects of overcoming the grievance-filled mindset fueling Republicans anytime soon. Whatever you think of Kathy Griffin’s tasteless image of a beheaded Trump or the appropriateness of Robert DeNiro’s “F*** Trump,” neither was in charge of an airplane when they spoke out.
Which brings me to Virginia, the phantom danger of “critical race theory” (CRT), and Tuesday’s election night. Blaming Terry McAuliffe’s loss on a single issue surely misses the complicated set of issues that sunk him and propelled Glenn Youngkin.
But it’s hard to argue that the hostility toward the idea that schools would focus on slavery and race, racism and the responsibility of white Americans didn’t motivate a percentage of angry Republicans. Youngkin’s stump speech included the promise to “ban critical race theory on Day One,” an oft-repeated bit on Fox News, and the Murdoch network’s exit polling found that a quarter of Virginia voters considered CRT “the single most important factor” deciding their vote. (Education was the second most important issue after the economy, according to CNN exit polling.)
And even while critical race theory is not part of the Virginia curriculum, do you think Youngkin wasn’t blowing the dog whistle when he sponsored the ad from an aggrieved mother complaining that her poor high school senior had nightmares from reading Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-prize-winning novel Beloved which confronts the horrors of slavery? Were Morrison a white author, would the Youngkin campaign have introduced the ad in the final week before the election?
I don’t doubt that there are plenty of parents who have reasonably worried about their children’s learning during the pandemic—and that can include the sense that they don’t really understand or support the school curriculum. Parents do have the right to question what schools teach. But public education is in danger when parents are determined to deny the truths of American history—including the good, the bad and the ugly—and vote in officials promising to assist this denial.
Democrats have their work cut out for them between now and next year’s mid-terms. That includes much more incisive messaging, including on what the party does for families and working people; the McAuliffe campaign provided evidence that just attacking Trump is not enough. And it’s hard to overstate how much the failure to pass the infrastructure and Build Back Better social/climate bills before Tuesday gave the candidate less concrete material to make a case for Democrats and good governance.
I also believe that Democrats need real evidence that their elected officials, including President Biden, are doing everything they can to hold Trump and the other insurrectionists accountable for their crimes. The failure to do so will dampen next year’s turnout, especially if they fail to pass voting rights legislation.
But the hyper-focus by the media on Virginia really did miss a strong counter-narrative, revealed in New Jersey governor Phil Murphy’s win and the success of Democrats in major local elections around the country.
It’s not just New York (second time electing a Black mayor after David Dinkins) and Boston (where 37-year-old Wu is the first woman and first person of color to become mayor). Pittsburgh elected its first Black mayor in Ed Gainey and Cincinnati voted in its first Asian-American mayor, Aftab Pureval, the 39-year-old son of refugee parents from New Delhi. Before embracing the idea that there’s a conservative backlash, made worse by too-low Biden approval ratings, let’s take a hard look at the progressive, forward-looking strain that shone through this week.
I leave you with this charming clip from Michelle Wu, an Illinois native embraced by the city of Boston.
If you’ve been a regular reader of these dispatches, you know that I will keep hitting hard the challenges our democracy is facing. But let’s never underestimate the importance of talented, compelling candidates—people who make you feel that better days really are ahead—when it’s time to fill out the ballot.
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