Point Austin: The Whiplash Generation
On trying to maintain humane sanity in a dangerously insane era
Undoubtedly like many Chronicle readers, these days I can't seem to shake a feeling of political whiplash. I'll be trying to remain focused on daily life, daily tasks – work, home, chores, friends, family – only to be distracted hourly by the looming disaster burgeoning from D.C., with ominous echoes from the Capitol and the Governor's Mansion. I'll find myself stoically considering some difficult local issue – City Council pondering the strained EMS budget, or the endless conflicts over the land use code – when the latest Trump regime outrage hits the web ... and pressing Austin matters get lost, even seem to become trivial, in a fog of anger.
On Tuesday it was the craven Senate Republican confirmation as Secretary of Education of Betsy DeVos, whose entire educational credentials are itemized in her millions of dollars donated to GOP candidates, and in her conflicted investments in anti-public education companies. That folly was quickly followed by the debate over the confirmation of Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general, during which Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his GOP colleagues voted to silence Sen. Elizabeth Warren (and to exclude her from further debate) because she "persisted" in reading a 1986 letter about Sessions by Coretta Scott King that they didn't want to hear. (Sessions' nomination was confirmed on Wednesday evening.)
King's letter concerned Sessions' then-nomination to a federal judgeship, and she wrote in part: "Anyone who has used the power of his office as United States Attorney to intimidate and chill the free exercise of the ballot by citizens should not be elevated to our courts. Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters. For this reprehensible conduct, he should not be rewarded with a federal judgeship."
McConnell would later explain silencing Warren with a tautology: "She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted."
Where have Austinites heard that before? McConnell's lipless sneer took me back to the 2013 state Senate filibuster by Wendy Davis, who spoke for 11 hours until transparently arbitrary applications of parliamentary rules forced her to stop. That was followed by the iconic moment when Sen. Leticia Van de Putte attempted to be recognized by the chair: "At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over her male colleagues?"
It's hardly an accident, and certainly worth noting, that King, Warren, Davis, and Van de Putte all have in common not only progressive politics, but gender. On Wednesday morning, male senators were allowed to read the King letter (there are more of them around, and the instant nationwide backlash had unnerved at least some Republicans). These details might seem coincidental, until one recalls that Davis was opposing yet another GOP-sponsored law to restrict the reproductive rights of women, rights that have been reflexively dismissed and threatened by Trump – and that Sessions can be counted upon to undermine rather than defend at the Department of Justice.
So it is that what happens in Washington comes home to Austin, where it is reinforced by the GOP-dominated Legislature. Sessions' DOJ can also be counted upon to ignore the racial gerrymandering and voter suppression now in common practice in Texas, the South, and increasingly nationwide. Without it, neither so-called President Trump's Electoral College victory nor many precarious Republican state "majorities" would be possible. By gutting the Voting Rights Act to end preclearance of procedural changes that would discriminate against minorities, the Supreme Court made it easier for Texas and other states to do exactly that. And going forward, the Sessions Department of Justice, in any case, will be entirely disinclined to review any such practices.
The Struggle Continues
In this new national context, we'll all be repeatedly subject to political whiplash. Both the practice of political action and the tone of political discourse has been fundamentally altered by Donald Trump and his sycophants. To cite just one example, not only has Gov. Greg Abbott felt free to misrepresent federal immigration law in order to falsely accuse Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez of violating it, like his feckless mentor he's been liberated to tweet authoritarian threats: "Texas will hammer Travis County." (Abbott has occasionally been described as a potentially rational alternative to the shameless pandering of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, but with Patrick nipping at his heels, Abbott will feel increasingly pressured to out-Trump him.)
On women's rights, immigration, voting rights, environmental protection and climate change, financial regulation, racial inequality, militarism – over the next few years, in all those contexts, we can expect the continuing experience of being yanked out of our personal routines into political shock and dismay. We will also be presented with a recurring choice, of either submissive quietism or adamant resistance. We could all do worse than follow Elizabeth Warren's example: "She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted."