In the first few tumultuous days after George Floyd’s death at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department, statewide elected officials in Texas were quiet and circumspect—at least, relative to how they sometimes get. Governor Greg Abbott, flanked by the Democratic mayor of Dallas and the Republican mayor of Fort Worth, condemned Floyd’s murder as a “horrific act of police brutality.” But then elements of the GOP base started to chime in.
Keith Nielsen, chairman-elect of the Harris County Republican Party, posted a quotation on his Facebook page from Martin Luther King Jr.—over a background with a big banana. (Bananas, a food associated with monkeys, are a staple of racist imagery and harassment around the world.) Sue Piner, chair of the Comal County GOP, shared a post on her Facebook page with a picture of liberal billionaire George Soros, who is often the target of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, with a fabricated quotation attributed to him that read, “I pay white cops to murder black people. And then I pay black people to riot because race wars keep the sheep in line.”
Then, Nueces County GOP chairman Jim Kaelin shared a post on Facebook that speculated that the murder of Floyd had been staged to hurt President Donald Trump. (Touchingly, most of the “evidence” for the claim revolves around his disbelief that any police officer could be so cruel.) “This appears to have all the hallmarks of George Soros,” Kaelin wrote.
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Cynthia Brehm, the Bexar County GOP chair, wrote on her Facebook page that Floyd’s killing was a hoax, arguing that the “rising approval rating of President Trump in the black community” was one reason that “an event like this was unfortunately predictable” and wondering if the officer who murdered him had experienced an “MK Ultra activation.” (Last month, Brehm spoke at a rally against restrictions on businesses and public gatherings during the pandemic at which she urged her audience to take off their masks and hug, saying the virus, too, was a Democratic hoax.) By the end of last week, the Texas Tribune reported that the total number of county GOP chairs who had shared racist or anti-Semitic memes in the wake of Floyd’s killing amounted to a full dozen.
What does this all add up to? Well, for one, a demonstration that if Mark Zuckerberg had instituted a maximum age limit on his demonic website early on, the country would be a different place. In truth, these kinds of sentiments are not uncommon among conservative activists in Texas. Far from it: they’re a dime a dozen, and they have been for years.
The thing that’s different this time is that the posts have garnered a fair bit of publicity, and perhaps as a result, prominent Texas Republicans have rounded on the county chairs, trying to smother this crisis in its bed. Governor Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, land commissioner George P. Bush, and nearly every member of the state House Republican caucus has called for all or some of them to resign.
Whether you like the Republican Party of Texas or not, it’s going to be around and holding power for a long time to come. Its mid-level functionaries should be discouraged from engaging in racist and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Admittedly the bar is low here, but Abbott and Patrick and Bush are to be commended for trying to push these guys out. The problem is, targeting a handful of county chairs is the equivalent of taking a weed whacker to a mesquite-choked pasture.
Many leaders seem to be in denial over this. “Nielsen has no place in our party. Not now. Not ever,” said Houston-area congressman Dan Crenshaw. “These comments are disgusting and have no place in the Republican Party,” said John Wittman, Abbott’s spokesperson. “There is no room for racism or hatred in our party,” said Patrick. Why do bigots keep showing up in my political party? they ask, recalling the question raised by a canonical, and vulgar, Onion piece.
But these are aspirational sentiments by our leaders, in the same way that “racism is un-American” is an aspirational sentiment. Racism is very American, of course, though we’d like it not to be. Similarly, there’s no reason to doubt that many Republicans would like the party to be free of figures like Brehm. But at the moment, Nielsen does have a place in the party—which means that, unfortunately, comments like these do have a place in the party. Quite prominent ones! Bush, whose mother is Mexican American, struck a different tone than the rest. “I have said it before and I will say it again now: the GOP must not tolerate racism,” he said. The admission that this has been a problem, is a problem, and will be a problem in the future strikes closer to the truth.
Agriculture commissioner Sid Miller, a peer of Abbott’s and Patrick’s, posted on his Facebook page—God, can we shut that site down already?—that Soros was paying protesters to incite a “race war.” And some of those calling for the chairs to step down have said pretty similar things themselves. Abbott, in particular, fund-raised off of the specter of Soros for ages. Days before the shooting at an El Paso Walmart last year, in which a white supremacist targeted Hispanic shoppers citing his fear that they were supplanting white Americans, Abbott sent out a fund-raising letter calling on his supporters to fight the intentional replacement of natural-born Americans by illegal immigrants, and the destruction of Texas, orchestrated by a shadowy Democratic cabal. (Abbott did not, of course, call for Hispanics to be shot. But when what ought to be a reasoned debate about immigration gets framed as an existential threat, that’s playing with fire.)
If Bush and Abbott and Patrick are sincere in their desire to start pushing out the racists and anti-Semites and conspiracy theorists in the GOP, they ought be warned that they might be left with a significantly smaller party. The fringe is everywhere, and it’s only grown in the years that Abbott and Patrick have been in power. When prominent GOP activist Ray Myers told Texans he was “a white nationalist and proud of it” in 2018, there was a backlash from some Republicans, like the head of the Dallas GOP, but the loudest statement on the matter was a defense of Myers from state senator Bob Hall of Rockwall.
Consider, too, a small slice of the party’s recent history: the fight at the state Republican convention in 2014 over the “Texas Solution,” a platform plank adopted in 2012 calling for the establishment of a guest worker program as a way forward on immigration reform. After an extremely heated campaign by both sides that lasted for months, the Texas Solution was deleted from the platform. Seldom remembered now, it was a symbolically important milestone in the party’s drift rightward, and its deletion was authored by the party’s most die-hard grassroots conservative activists, its foundation.
Where are those guys now?
Perhaps the most important backer of the Texas Solution was Steve Hotze, a Houston mega-donor and hormone merchant. Hotze remains an important figure in Texas politics and a major backer of conservative causes and candidates. To be clear, he was on the “moderate” side of the Texas Solution fight. Here’s a representative sample of what’s on his Facebook page these days.
On the less-moderate side were some, let’s say, colorful characters. One of them, Sara Legvold, sat on the party’s platform drafting committee. She was an admirer of European fascist parties. She railed against “crimmigrants.” She called Muslims “vermin” and “threats,” and accused them of selling vials of blood from Christian children for $100,000 a pop. She praised Russian president Vladimir Putin for cracking down on the Rothschild banking family. She posted links from Stormfront, the online forum run by neo-Nazis. She’s still a prominent voice in some GOP disputes, as when she joined an effort to oust a vice chairman of Tarrant County GOP because he was Muslim.
She played a prominent role at the convention that anointed Abbott and Patrick. So did the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party, which had a booth at the convention, and which also worked against the Texas Solution. The NETTP was one of the most powerful tea party groups, and is perhaps the only one left, although it’s been renamed the “True Texas Project.” Republican officials across the state sought its support, and eventually money from the NETTP PAC. In recent years, the group’s leadership has become more and more open in advocating for white nationalism. After the El Paso massacre, the head of the group’s PAC, Fred McCarty, posted that “you’re not going to demographically replace a once proud, strong people without getting blow-back.”
Working as a “co-hostess” at the NETTP’s booth during the 2014 convention, meeting and greeting elected officials, was a frequent poster on Stormfront, the forum for neo-Nazis and white supremacists, who went by the handle LoneStar Lady. (At least, that’s according to LoneStar Lady’s posts, which are filled with other identifying personal information.) She kept her fellow fascists up to date on the Texas Solution fight. In between vicious posts attacking Jews and brown folks, she boasted that she knows “most of our state officials. I can send an email and get a response,” because she had “met [them] and their chiefs of staff.”
Invariably, the defense offered by Republicans is that these are insignificant, fringe figures. The problem is that there’s quite a lot of them, and they frequently rise to positions of power and influence in the party. Which is all to say that the issue of the dozen county chairs is the tip of a deep, white iceberg. Ask LoneStar Lady—as soon as she’s done wrapping up her take on a thread about “Willie Nelson and the Jews.”
Are Republican statewide officials truly committed to throwing these people out? Let’s hope so. But the difficulty of the task is demonstrated best by Bush. He was perhaps loudest about the need to call out the people sharing racist and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about the protests. Then on Tuesday, President Donald Trump shared his own conspiracy theory, about 75-year-old Martin Gugino in Buffalo, New York, In a widely circulated video, Buffalo police shoved Gugino backwards, which caused him to fall and hit his head so hard that blood started to pour out of his ear.
Trump tweeted that the man was perhaps trying to make his head bleed. “He fell harder than was pushed,” the president said, adding that perhaps the man was trying to “black out” police communications with his cellphone. On the same day, George P. Bush endorsed Trump for reelection.