The GOP Doesn't Love Children, It Loves Power
As the American South goes into a Delta-variant meltdown, we have a preview of how many kids Republicans are willing to kill to hang onto Trump's voters
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Many Republican governors are still prohibiting mask and vaccine mandates in schools and universities, even as hospital beds in their states are filling to capacity with predominantly young and unvaccinated people. Almost 94,000 cases last week were minor children: in New Orleans, a baby is on a ventilator, and in Mobile, Alabama, six kids are intubated. It is just surreal.
And it’s totally predictable because the thing that could help stop transmission—mandatory vaccination and masking—is banned in nearly every Republican-led state.
As I have watched this needless tragedy unfold, an exchange in season 4 of The Handmaid’s Tale (adapted from Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same name) comes to mind. The scene is this: Commander Lawrence, an emotionless economist who used his academic expertise to create a theocratic dictatorship that enslaves women to serve as domestic and reproductive labor, confronts our hero (and his handmaid), June, about her resistance activities. June’s recklessness, Lawrence warns, could cause the regime to punish her daughter Hannah, given to another family after the pair was captured trying to escape to Canada.
“But Gilead would never hurt a child,” June blurts out. “Gilead loves children!”
“Gilead doesn’t love children,” Lawrence deadpans. “Gilead loves power.”
This is how I am thinking about the whole Republican party, but specifically, Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Both 2024 presidential aspirants, each governor claims to love children. And yet, last week, their states accounted for a third of all Covid-19 cases in the United States. Like every other low-vaccine state, a rising number of these sick people are children, and these governors refuse to help them.
The GOP, of course, has a long history of claiming they are protecting children—from Godlessness, socialism, sexual deviants—while at the same time endeavoring to strip money from institutions and programs, like schools, health care, and food stamps, that actually serve children. There is a logic behind it too. “Child Tax Credits Feed Debt And Dependency,” warned a Hoover Institution headline in April 2021. As its author, David R. Henderson wrote,
A child allowance would also create dependency on government. The obvious dependency is of parents. But the other, more insidious longer-term dependency is on the part of children and the related bad lesson they might well learn from the child allowance. The more curious ones will ask, “Mommy, where does that check come from?” And Mommy will answer “the government, dear.” So tens of millions of children will grow up thinking that the government owes them something just for being children.
Imagine. Identity politics, begone!
Fiscal conservative Michael A. Peterson also views social spending as cruel to children. “In fundamental terms,” he wrote in an article for the George W. Bush, Institute, this “fiscal irresponsibility represents an intergenerational injustice and a moral failure. Piling on trillions in red ink is making a choice to benefit ourselves today, at the expense of our own children and grandchildren.”
Furthermore, thanks to QAnon and the many cynical Republican politicians that have tacitly or openly promoted it, 15% of American voters and 23% of registered Republicans now believe that “the government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation.” Which would also be cruel to children—if it were true.
Put these things together, and 2021 has seen yet another moral panic about the welfare of children that has shaped a full-scale culture war. But the problem with culture wars is that, because they don’t represent real problems, they don’t have real solutions either.
And this is what has happened in Florida and Texas: DeSantis and Abbott have painted themselves into a corner now. As the Delta variant burns through the unvaccinated and the young, because the governors of those states are wearing Trump’s culture war—hatred for masks and vaccines—like a ball and chain, they must still behave as though it is better for children to take their chances with a deadly vaccine than to have their freedom restricted by the government and remain healthy.
It’s almost as if Republicans have forgotten how to make policies that respond to real people’s needs. So instead, they have promoted a cascade of legislation at the state level in 2021 that is supposedly intended to protect vulnerable children from evil socialists, brainwashing teachers, and dastardly doctors.
First, there is legislation that bans the teaching of America’s racial history in twenty-eight states, claiming that it is traumatic and divisive for children to learn that the United States did bad things. Second, twenty state legislatures have passed, or have pending, bills that purport to protect children from other children by mandating that young transgender athletes compete on teams that reflect their birth sex. Ron DeSantis has championed four of these anti-trans bills in Florida alone.
Both DeSantis and Abbott have been busy building little Gileads. They hope that by “uncovering” dangers to children, attaching these dangers to the Democratic party, and then outlawing them at the state level, they will appeal to Donald Trump’s base of evangelical Christians, conspiracy theorists, and angry white people.
This is now the standard operating procedure if you want a career in the GOP. At the 2020 Republican National Convention, the Attorney General of Utah (an actual lawyer and has access to federal crime statistics) declared that Donald Trump was a “warrior against child trafficking.” Trump himself claimed that his administration had “done more to combat human trafficking than any other in modern history.” And even though child trafficking prosecutions actually fell between 2017 and 2020 and the Trump administration cut funding for trafficking victims, 29% of GOP voters affirmed in a February poll that “Donald Trump has been secretly fighting a group of child sex traffickers that include prominent Democrats and Hollywood elites.”
Florida and Texas are also among the 15 states that have restricted medical support for transgender children, on the theory that no child who isn’t under the influence of a socialist or a money-grubbing doctor would actually be transgender. Just yesterday, as his hospitals were filling with children infected with the Delta variant and his administration was fighting local mask mandates that might actually protect kids from disease and death, Governor Abbot declared that gender transition is “a form of child abuse.” He demanded that Child Protective Services do something about it.
It did. Jaime Masters, the commissioner of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, issued a ruling that not only makes it illegal for parents to consent to a gender transition but also “added that anyone who believes a child has undergone gender-transition surgery must report it to the DFPS and that all allegations involving the procedure on minors will be taken seriously and investigated.” (Note: nobody does gender-affirming surgery before a child is 18.)
Meanwhile, a real medical problem is unfolding: hospitals in Texas and Florida are overflowing with Covid patients. They are younger and sicker than at any point in the pandemic, and schools are opening as you read this article. Yet, both governors refuse to institute the only public health measures that could stop this crisis: masking and mandatory vaccination.
Why? Because both men are committed to a paradox. Freedom from government, no matter how foolish, has become an unshakeable principle in the GOP. Yet, at the same time, both governors and their allies in the state legislature have seized control of key aspects of healthcare and education and imposed their own views on millions of people who are now in great danger. For example, DeSantis mostly touts “parents rights” to send their children to school unvaccinated and unmasked; in July, when he signed the law banning local governments from mandating masks, he declared that it was to “protect the freedoms and rights of students and parents.”
But there is also an opportunity to slip in a moral lesson. Earlier this month, Greg Abbott (who believes in freedom so much that he is currently trying to arrest Democratic legislators and bring them back to Austin in chains to lose a vote) sought to ban mask mandates to cultivate “personal responsibility” among Texans—and protect children from government. So while Abbott opined that more parents might choose to vaccinate their children in the coming days, "Kids,” he emphasized, “will not be forced by government or by schools to wear a mask in school.”
It is impossible to know whether either of these demagogues will even be in the running for the Republican nomination in 2024 and whether they will tout their “child protection” records as a qualification. But it’s certainly a way to stay in the news.
Republicans don’t care about the welfare of children; they care about power. This is what the GOP has learned from Trump, and it’s killing people at an even faster rate than before. This is why anyone who runs against DeSantis, Abbott, or any Republican governor who touts themselves as an ally for children in the primary season or the general election should have one, and only one, campaign ad.
And it should feature a kid—on a ventilator.
Mary Trump in The New Republic on why her uncle Donald is beloved by his followers: “It’s impossible to understand the appeal Donald has for his followers if we try to do so from the perspective of people who value honor, decency, empathy, and kindness in their leaders. It isn’t that they see things in Donald that aren’t there. They identify with what is—the brazenness of his lies, his ability to commit crimes with impunity, his bottomless sense of grievance, his monumental insecurity, his bullying, and, perhaps most intriguing, the fact that he is an inveterate failure who keeps being allowed to succeed.” (August 12, 2021)
At The Nation, Steve Phillips’ says Nina Turner’s loss in an Ohio Congressional race she could have won is a wake-up call for the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party. One lesson is not to use a social movement to collect money to spend in highly conventional ways: “Looking through Turner’s spending reports, it’s clear that the people who ran her campaign defaulted to the typical playbook of putting far more money into television and digital ads than into the nitty-gritty work of getting people to cast ballots.” (August 12, 2021)
Former star running back Herschel Walker, who is contemplating a Trump-backed campaign against Senator Raphael Warnock (D-GA) in 2022, has many problems: a rocky personal history, gossip about erratic and dangerous incidents, and admitted mental illness. But apparently, he has other more serious problems. According to Terrell Jermaine Starr at The Root, although Walker and his wife Julie Blanchard live in Texas, where they received a homestead tax exemption which designates Texas as their home state, Blanchard, who has a Georgia driver’s license and owns property in that state, voted in Georgia in 2020. “Blanchard used her Atlanta address to return an absentee ballot that she mailed from their Texas residence in October,” Starr writes. So either Blanchard is guilty of voter fraud or tax fraud: choose one! (August 11, 2021)