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GOP’s State of the Union Immigration Response: Xenophobic Dog-Whistling with White Nationalism Just Offstage

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Last night, Republicans showed their midterm strategy, a rowdy and offensive message for the base, and a choreographed set of racial dog-whistles for the general public. While the House Members who roll with white nationalists, militias, and the insurrectionist crowd looked to cause a scene during the President’s speech (at one point leading a “build the wall” chant), Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds delivered the official Republican response calmly asserting xenophobic misinformation as fact. The two different tactics are meant for two different audiences but with the same goal in mind – advancing a radical nativist politics. 

While Reynolds only devoted a couple of lines to immigration politics, the dog-whistles she employed are a cornerstone of her party’s midterm message, albeit in its most polished general election format. In addition, Reynolds is also the Vice-Chair of the Republican Governors Association (RGA), which is helping shape Republicans’ immigration message across the country. Thus it is worth looking at what she said last night and how the RGA is approaching the midterms. 

The key to a successful dog-whistle is to code or obscure the racist idea to provide the user and the audience the plausible deniability that racist ideas are the active ingredient in the message. Reynolds showed off her skill here in last night’s speech. While not explicitly advancing the false, racist trope that immigrants bring disease, she asserted  the “Biden administration requires vaccines for Americans who want to go to work or protect this country but not for migrants who illegally cross the border.” 

Reynolds also claimed Biden has refused “to stop the staggering influx of deadly drugs coming into our neighborhoods.” It should be remembered that most House and Senate Republicans voted against the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which included “$430 million to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for the construction and modernization of land ports of entry and equipment and fixtures for operations,” according to the National Immigration Forum. Ports of entry are where almost all of the drug seizures – especially of Fentanyl – take place. Almost none of the Fentanyl or other drugs that enter the U.S. are on the bodies of asylum seekers or others entering the country between ports of entry. When Republicans suggest otherwise, it displays a striking ignorance of the sophistication of the illicit drug trade and reveals they are only trying to score political points. As the Washington Post reported, new screening technology – paid for by the kind of bill most Republicans opposed – is showing results in terms of Fentanyl seizures by analyzing the contents of trucks. However, only 5% of trucks entering the U.S. are being screened with the new scanner technology. President Biden’s speech put forward real solutions on this front but typical of the GOP they neglect solutions for the sake of cheap and deadly political gain.  

Reynolds also boasted, “With Texas and Arizona leading the way, I along with Republican Governors from several states have sent resources to the border.”  She engaged in this ridiculous political stunt by using Iowa tax dollars to send state troopers to the border with Mexico. Turning their political rhetoric into military action both serves to dangerously legitimize the political violence and cause real harm to those caught up in the Governors’ political machinations. Beyond the wasted tax dollars, the scheme developed by Republican Governors to politicize the border by sending their own forces has been heavily criticized. Reynolds noted that Texas Governor Greg Abbott led the way. In fact, his use of the Texas National Guard was described as a “disaster.” Another detailed report from December by Davis Winkie of the Army Times titled “Death, drugs and a disbanded unit: How the Guard’s Mexico border mission fell apart” captured much of the practical problems of this kind of political stunt. 

The RGA has repeatedly praised the Governors’ dangerous political theater at the border. And despite its overall failure, the RGA ran an ad attacking New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham for not playing along with this dangerous and unnecessary political stunt.

Throughout the last year, the RGA has made xenophobic misinformation a cornerstone of their midterm strategy. And missing from all of their anti-immigrant rhetoric is any solution beyond stunts. Worse, their increasing radicalization on the issue as they chase the Trump base has seen them adopt racist conspiracy theories and go silent on the white nationalism bubbling up throughout the party. 

In early February, the RGA broke with its own history and ran a TV ad backing a candidate in a party primary for the first time. They spent half a million dollars on the spot in support of Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, who is facing a challenge from former U.S. Senator David Perdue. The ad, among other attacks, warns that President Joe Biden has allowed “an invasion on the southern border.” More than mere hyperbole, the “invasion” rhetoric echoes an absurd and dangerous conspiracy theory that asserts there is a coordinated effort of non-white migrants currently invading the southern border that will replace white America. Popularized by white nationalists, this racist conspiracy theory has inspired deadly attacks from Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 2018, to El Paso, Texas in 2019, to the United States Capital in 2021. The RGA knows the danger of this language, but like many other Republican campaigns this year, they have intentionally employed it for their cynical political purposes.

The RGA leadership is also chillingly silent on the white nationalism of elected Republicans. Co-Chair of the RGA, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, recently refused to condemn Arizona State Senator Wendy Rogers’ white nationalist activities. Notably, an independent expenditure Duecy controls spent half a million dollars to help Rogers get elected in 2020. Ducey did not have a bad word for Rogers but instead asserted that a white nationalist is “better” than a Democrat. The title of EJ Montini’s latest column for AZ Central draws the important connection “A straight line connects Gov. Doug Ducey to Wendy Rogers to a Holocaust-denying racist.”  While Ducey defended Rogers, the GOP-controlled Arizona State Senate voted to censure Rogers for some of her incendiary comments. As the AZMirror writes, “The censure was for comments calling for people she perceived as enemies to be hanged from gallows, and for social media postings Rogers made threatening to “personally destroy” fellow Republicans who sought to punish her. The censure resolution was silent on her embrace of white nationalists and a string of antisemitic and racist things she had posted online in recent days.”

The RGA has also been silent on Idaho Lt. Governor Janice McGeachin’s white nationalist connections as she pursues her bid to unseat Republican Governor Brad Little. Last weekend, McGeachin delivered a taped address to the white nationalist AFPAC II conference.  “The fact that McGeachin affirmatively sought out that company is a damning indictment of her embrace of white nationalism,” Eric Ward, executive director of the Western States Center, told The Daily Beast. Nor was last weekend the first time McGeachin was caught palling around with white nationalists.

Reynolds’ speech may have been an audition tape for an audience of one, but the dangerous xenophobia and the silence to the growing white nationalism in the party are likely just as much a part of the performance. Whether or not the speech moves her up the political ladder, Reynolds and the RGA are helping to move the party down a dark path out of step with the majority. A path that lies outside of factual reality, flirts with political violence, and is a threat to the fragile promise of a multi-racial democracy.