These are, by any fair estimation, divided times in our country. Especially since the onset of the pandemic, the level of venom and bitterness that’s gripped millions of Americans is a sometimes-frightening phenomenon to behold.
From attention-grabbing politicians and loud-mouthed TV and radio talking heads, right on down to the Jan. 6 insurrectionists and mask-mandate defying and gun-toting vigilante activists, there’s been no shortage of people willing to publicly espouse a message of hostile and violent confrontation.
Of course, this is hardly the first time this has happened. The nation’s history is replete with periods of harsh division.
What does seem different this time, however, is the mostly one-sided nature of the venom.
Yes, the summer of 2020 was witness to a host of brief and passionate street protests (some of them regrettably destructive) in the aftermath of the law enforcement murder of George Floyd and countless other people of color. But this isn’t a reprise of the 1960s. When it comes to targeting other people in a sustained way with hatred, derision, invective and even violence, as well as evincing a willingness to toss aside basic norms of the social compact, the political right of 2021 is clearly in a new league of its own.
And, as we’ve repeatedly seen in North Carolina, this is especially true when it comes to elected officials.
Simply put, there is no prominent voice on the left in our state, or indeed the nation, who comes even close to matching the hateful and dangerous stances and rhetoric of people like Rep. Madison Cawthorn, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, State Rep. Larry Pittman, or the other 15 delusional North Carolina lawmakers who recently signed a letter seeking, yet again, to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
Robinson, who’s made homophobic and antisemitic slurs his stock-in-trade, recently likened LGBTQ people to animal waste. This from a man who sits on the State Board of Education that is responsible for providing sound basic education to all students, including the thousands who are LGBTQ.
Cawthorn followed up on his previous threats of overt political violence by publicly offering teenaged vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse a congressional internship.
Pittman has publicly compared Abraham Lincoln to Adolf Hitler.
And the letter they all signed makes the preposterous claim that the House of Representatives is somehow capable of re-installing Donald Trump as president.
When pressed, supposedly responsible conservative voices will occasionally offer a tepid critique of these characters. Conservative commentator John Hood recently and accurately labeled Cawthorn as “a callow and appallingly ignorant young man who regularly embarrasses conservatives and Republicans,” but he spent the rest of the column largely absolving Cawthorn of responsibility for his actions and, effectively, excusing other N.C. Republican leaders who’ve been too craven to call Cawthorn out.
More often, however, such voices will ignore or dismiss these extremists as harmless and/or attempt to characterize them — quite outrageously and inaccurately — as the mere conservative equivalents of progressive politicians like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.).
The truth is that Ocasio-Cortez and Omar are deeply informed and dedicated elected officials who have done little more than champion serious policies modeled to a large extent on past successful actions of the U.S. government like the New Deal. Neither has ever threatened violence, engaged in hate speech or championed overturning our constitutional order.
Indeed, when one digs below the surface, the real sin of which both appear to be guilty in the eyes of the political right is that of being strong women of color and, in Omar’s case, a minority religious faith.
Of course, the leaders with the real power and influence to effectively combat this kind of trash — at least in North Carolina — are the state’s supposedly serious Republican elected officials. While Hood’s column is a small but welcome first step, it’s past time for leaders like Sens. Thom Tillis and Richard Burr, state Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore (and national leaders like Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy) to put these characters in their place.
Unfortunately, to date, there’s been nothing but the sound of chirping crickets from a group of veteran politicians — all of whom certainly know better, but who also lack the courage to confront the extreme right or endanger the dollars that roll in from hate-based fundraising.
Now, at long last, is the time for them to end this cynical and dangerous inaction.
Rob Schofield is the director of NC Policy Watch.