The day before a white supremacist entered a Walmart in El Paso and killed 22 people, explaining that he did so because he feared nonwhite immigrants were supplanting white citizens in Texas, Governor Greg Abbott sent a fund-raising letter to his supporters expressing a disturbingly similar sentiment. “If we’re going to DEFEND Texas, we’ll need to take matters into our own hands,” the letter said. “Unless you and I want liberals to succeed in their plan to transform Texas—and our entire country—through illegal immigration.”
The timing was, to put it mildly, an uncomfortable bit of business for the governor. It’s not that people thought Abbott was responsible for the shooting. But the symmetry made plain that the existential fear over changing demographics that lurks in some form in many Texans and occasionally leads to violence was primarily a way to get people’s money and votes. This was playing with fire. But Abbott’s complaint is far from unusual. It’s been used in GOP messaging hundreds of times. It’s so commonplace among Texas politicians as to be banal.
The usual way Abbott deals with bad press is to clam up and wait for things to blow over. But in this case, he couldn’t quite get away. The Texas Democratic Party put out a handy, if incomplete, list of fifteen media outlets, from an Austin CBS station to the British outlet The Guardian, that had sought comment from Abbott and been rebuffed. Then, on Thursday, the governor finally piped up. Kind of. Before a meeting of the Texas Safety Commission, a roundtable policy discussion group he convened in the shooting’s aftermath, a reporter shouted a question about the letter at him. This was his answer:
“I did have the opportunity to visit with the El Paso delegation and help them understand, uh, that, uh,” he said, trailing off. “Mistakes were made, and a course correction has been made, and that, I emphasize the importance of making sure that rhetoric will not be used in a dangerous way and we will be sure that we work collaboratively in unification.”
@GovAbbott concedes “mistakes were made” in writing letter to fundraisers warning of potential harm posed by undocumented migrants. Thanks @aaronmontes91 #ElPasoShooting #ElPasoFirme pic.twitter.com/gX0oBR7LR8— Alfredo Corchado (@ajcorchado) August 29, 2019
An uncharitable person, like me, might be inclined to say that he hadn’t heard that much passive-voice since their freshman-year English composition class. A cynic, also like me, might also point out that just a week ago the governor took to his personal Twitter account to complain that “five liberals on the Supreme Court ruled that Texas had to provide and fund public education for illegal immigrants,” taking the time to personally reply to a Twitter user claiming to be a teacher bemoaning “illegals” in her classroom whose handle is “@AJ91574287” and whose icon, at the time, was a knight of the Crusades holding a Donald Trump flag. Crusader knight AJ thus got a quicker response to a request for comment from the guv than any Texas journalist has gotten in about five years.
But Abbott’s non-apology apology is better than nothing. It would be wonderful if, indeed, a course correction has been made. There’s a lot Abbott can do, if he so chooses. It remains to be seen, though, what is meant by his statements. (How’s that for the passive voice?)
Many Americans have become familiar in recent months with the theory of “The Great Replacement”—the idea, common in white supremacist circles and the worst parts of the internet, that a sustained campaign is underway, orchestrated possibly by Jews, to import brown people to the United States in order to drown out the white majority. When the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, were marching and chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” that’s what they meant.
The Great Replacement, as a concept, is something orchestrated and engineered by powerful, dark forces, who have an end goal in mind—the destruction of the United States. That makes it theoretically distinct in some ways from the more generalized fear over demographic change widespread among conservatives and others. You can believe that illegal immigration is a problem that should be stopped, or you can think that it’s being deliberately orchestrated by George Soros to crush you, personally, and those two things require very different responses.
The problem is that there’s no bright line between the two; they bleed into each other. One state official who rode his jet ski at maximum speed in the general direction of Deliberately Orchestrated is Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick. Patrick has been passionately anti-illegal immigration his entire career. But these days he emphasizes that the influx of immigrants is not just something that happens, but is rather being inflicted on America, as he has made clear on his many, many recent Fox News appearances.
So the first thing the governor can do is to stop intimating that demographic change is a conspiracy. That doesn’t mean he has to lay off his secure-the-border persona. It just requires that he makes a special effort not to parrot white nationalist propaganda.
There’s something else the governor could do. Abbott could actually work to counteract white supremacy and dangerous anti-immigrant rhetoric. He could make a point of emphasizing that undocumented immigrants and refugees are human beings. He can keep thinking that immigration enforcement is important, and even that they should be deported or denied entry. But while they’re here, for many Texans, they’re relatives, fellow congregants, friends, neighbors, customers, and employees. They’re not worth less because they lack legal papers, or are afraid to go home to their country.
The governor, in other words, could make an affirmative effort to tamp down the furnace that this subject has become. That would be politically difficult, even risky, for him. I somehow doubt the Texas Safety Commission will produce it as a recommendation. But, you know, a boy can dream!