Keith Johnstone: What it takes to be a successful woman in the Trump GOP

Monday, March 23, 2020 - 5:17pm

Oct. 5, 2018. The Senate chamber held its collective breath as Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, rose from the desk once occupied by civil and women’s rights activist Sen. John Sherman Cooper, R-Ky., to waste nearly an hour of time and announce that she would vote to elevate accused sexual assailant and calendar enthusiast Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. During her winding speech, Collins addressed everything from her reservations about the judge to the reality of the #MeToo movement. Collins was flanked by two fellow GOP senators: Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss. 

The former is supposedly pro-abortion rights, yet she voted to permanently ban federal funding for abortions, including Medicaid. So, for Capito, it’s morally permissible to have an abortion ... as long as you’re not poor. The latter made a truly inexplicable joke about lynching during her 2018 Senate campaign against a Black man. When asked if she regretted the comment, Hyde-Smith said she was sorry that people were offended. This trio elevated the first explicitly pro-beer Supreme Court justice, which allowed Republicans — especially the 6’3” Cheeto topped with a Pringle in the White House — to use Kavanaugh to galvanize the base in the 2018 midterms.

Enter Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn. As a politics nerd, I first saw Blackburn when she was just a climate-change-denying representative who debated Bill Nye — yes, that Bill Nye — about global warming on NBC’s Meet the Press. As someone who easily experiences secondhand embarrassment, watching the vice chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee get ripped to shreds on national television made me experience several levels of discomfort. Highlights of the debate include Blackburn calling climate change an “unproven hypothesis” and claiming that the Earth had cooled over the last 13 years. The constant lies and disinformation made her a darling of the right-wing. 

This energy also fueled her 2018 Senate campaign against Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen. Conventionally, Bredesen — being a former governor, centrist and generally boring guy — would have been competitive in this race. But, on the back of the Kavanaugh-induced conservative rage, Blackburn wiped the floor with Bredesen, winning by 10.8 percent despite being outspent by $3 million. Since she has been in office, Blackburn has continued to support the far-right and the interests of the president, blocking three different election security measures in a move that made #MoscowMartha trend on Twitter. She has also baselessly attacked Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman for being “unpatriotic.”  

The midterm elections also brought Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., to national prominence through her loss to the most interesting woman in the world, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. Now, while I would love to spend the rest of this article talking about Sinema’s illustrious side hustle as a triathlete, I cannot. Suffice it to say, she is amazing, which fueled her 2.34 percent win to take over the seat previously held by Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. However, after the election, Gov. Doug Ducey pulled a switcheroo on the people of the Grand Canyon state and appointed McSally, who had just lost statewide, to sit in the other Senate seat vacated by the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. In McSally’s time in the Senate, she has taken on the mantle of a “warrior,” repeatedly berating journalists, blaming Democrats for the coronavirus and belittling sexual assault survivors, despite being one herself. Now, don’t get me wrong, I believe McSally sharing her story is incredibly brave and commendable, but stealing a Senate seat and using that national perch to degrade our country and make lasting structural damage to our institutions is completely unacceptable. However, McSally is not the only person who cheated and lied in order to gain power.

Remember how I said earlier that there was a 6’3” Cheeto topped with a Pringle who was in the White House? Well now, sadly, we have to talk about him. Specifically, we have to talk about his role in shaping all of the aforementioned women’s political careers. Prior to the Trump era, Collins was moderate, pro-abortion rights and consistently spoke in defense of moral leadership. Capito was a moderate with a strong women’s rights agenda. McSally was a Paul Ryan critic. The Trump effect has been pronounced for all of these women, especially those who have received promotions in the Trump era: Blackburn and McSally. Their political legacies are so intertwined with Trump that they must echo not only his policy preferences but also his toxic rhetoric and lies. See, since the Republican Party is increasingly male-dominated in both representatives and constituents, the women who remain have become “Trumpified.” Unlike the old white guys who are inherently assumed to be on their side, GOP women have to prove themselves to a sexist base. This extra level of scrutiny and purity testing makes female senators from moderate Maine to ruby-red Mississippi reconsider political positions that they previously held, which in turn gives the president an increased hand in shaping the Congressional GOP.

While Republicans have pursued this strategy, Democrats have taken a different approach by allowing their young female representatives to span the ideological spectrum, from Bloomberg-endorser Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Ga., to Bernie Bro and democratic socialist Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. This diversity inside the Democratic caucus has allowed for a robust policy debate surrounding issues like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, while the Republicans’ united front has not yielded much except a ballooning deficit and a corporate tax cut. The Democrats have been allowed to build such a broad coalition by not having a Trump-like figure to dominate the scene. Instead, the national party has allowed for debate and discussion around policies rather than insisting on political allegiance.

Now, I’m not saying Republican women should want Trump to lose in 2020 — especially because that would change many of their political fortunes — but it would ultimately be better for democracy and the GOP. A debate over Trumpism among Republicans and, more importantly, a reckoning for the behaviors of this era might just usher in a kinder, gentler, more compassionate conservative party. Even though I still won’t vote for them, it’s a movement I can support.

Keith Johnstone can be reached at keithja@umich.edu.