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  • Writer's pictureJosh Lewis

It's My Party and I'll Cry if I Want To

You would cry too if it happened to you

Anne Applebaum begins and ends her book Twilight of Democracy by describing two parties she and her husband had thrown. As members of the elite class in both Europe and North America, the couple’s guest lists could double as a who’s who in the upper echelons of the political center-Right.

The first gathering was a New Year’s party in 1999 and the second came twenty years later in August of 2019. Yet in that two-decade timespan so much had transpired in global politics that the collective moods and invitees at both parties seem fitting they took place in different centuries. For in that twenty-year span old friendships had been torn asunder and ideological differences had become so pronounced that many of the attendees considered one another enemies, let alone someone they could engage in civil conversation.

This phenomenon is hardly isolated to Anne Applebaum’s transitioning friendships, nor is she the only one to make such observations. The political realignment—particularly on the Right—has taken a toll on professional partners, friendships, whole communities, and even families. Here in the United States the rise of the alt-Right, nationalism, populism, and Trumpism has rendered the Republican party virtually unrecognizable from the party of Lincoln, Reagan, or even the Rush Limbaugh of the 90s. And while Anne Applebaum bemoans the shattered friendships from her dinner parties of yesteryear, I feel a similar alienation to my political party.

Saving Elephants is not a project in self-indulgent airing of grievances but, from time to time, I think it can be helpful to take stock of the damage done in the wake of the political advents over the past several years at a local level because it can be difficult to appreciate the true scope of the problem if we miss the trees for the forest, to invert an old metaphor. While the GOP’s descent into madness began to take shape years before Trump’s descent down the escalator, it has been punctuated by ever-increasing instances of insanity that culminated into the January 6 insurrection on the Capitol. And there appear to be no signs of stopping on its journey towards electoral oblivion.

Earlier this week, Oklahomans witnessed yet another example of political maleficence as former State Representative John Bennett was elected chair of the Oklahoma Republican Party. Bennett has quite a reputation for anti-Islamic rhetoric, claiming the Islamic faith “is a cancer in our nation that needs to be cut out”. He’s required Muslims to answer several written questions—such as “Do you beat your wife?”—prior to meeting with him. An Oklahoma Imam claims, “John Bennett looked me in the eye and told me that he was going to demolish my mosque and every mosque in town.”

Yet Bennett’s vindictive language has not been limited to the Islamic community. During the bruising state budget battles of former Governor Mary Fallin’s second term (in which many state agencies saw their budgets cut multiple times year after year), Bennett took great umbrage at those agencies who dared to suggest further cuts would have an impact on their ability to perform the same level of services. He complained that these state agencies were engaging in “terrorism” and “extortion”.

“We should not be negotiating with terrorists, period.” Bennett continued. He went on to ask when the last time a performance audit had been done on any agency and noted that two agencies had recently been caught misappropriating funds. His conclusion? “All these agencies are doing it; they just haven’t been caught yet.”

As an auditor with over a decade’s experience in the State Auditor’s Office—an Oklahoma state agency, no less—I feel particularly qualified in saying Bennett’s rhetoric on state budgets are about as informed as Matt Gaetz on…well, pick your subject matter. It is true that some state agencies were misappropriating funds, but the assertion that they’re all doing it, or that none of them had been audited, or that they all represent some endless reservoir of resources from which the legislators could continuously cut funding with no real consequences is so stupendously silly it doesn’t warrant a good-faith response.

I feel compelled to offer a brief aside on the matter of state agency budgets as I recognize my position with the state produces a certain amount of bias on my part. Reasonable people can disagree on budgetary questions. But during the budget battles of this era Bennett and some of his colleagues were engaged in dishonest rhetoric that claimed taxes didn’t need to be increased to cover the state’s budget deficits and that—somehow—state agencies could continue performing at the same level with significantly fewer resources. This well-worn sleight of hand is a favored tactic of legislators who prefer bumper-sticker philosophy rather than doing the actual work of legislating. By pointing to isolated cases of mishandled funds they ignore the far larger issue of hundreds of millions in budget shortfalls. If they were serious about reducing the size of government, they could have identified functions of government that could be reduced or eliminated. Instead, they peddled the lie that all that was necessary was for greedy, corrupt, and fraudulent state agencies to just get the same job done with fewer resources.

It is true that the politics of state and local parties are more fraught with unpredictable waves of extremism than is typical for those elected to public office. After all, the Chair of the Oklahoma Republican Party is elected by the small minority of registered Republicans who take the time to travel to the state’s convention. While some of Oklahoma’s finest civic-minded citizens participate, so too do those whose social life primarily consists of trying to save the world from their local party precinct.

Around the time I began to involve myself more in the local Republican party, the office of Chair of the Oklahoma Republican Party was held by Gary Jones who went on to become my former boss when he was elected State Auditor. Jones was succeeded by Matt Pinnell, Oklahoma’s current Lieutenant Governor who, at the time he served as Chair at the age of 29, was the youngest party chair in the country.

While I don’t share all of Jones or Pinnell’s views, they have my respect. Both of these men have an impressive résumé of service with the party both before and after serving as chair. At the time of their tenures, the GOP was filled with aspiring young leaders like Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio (before he went all “Common Good Capitalist”). Today it’s permeated with the likes of Bennett, Gaetz, and various other Trump-wannabes.

In my brief stint as Treasurer of the Tulsa Republican Party I became acquainted with fellow Republicans who selflessly devoted their time, talents, and treasurers to the betterment of the community. We had our disagreements, but most of us welcomed good faith debates over our differences and felt we were better off for them. Sure, there were kooks among us, but you never got the impression the inmates were running the asylum.

But that seems like a lifetime ago now. One of those members judged my activities on Twitter to be insufficiently Trumpy and contacted my employer in hopes of getting me reprimand or fired. A party that once welcomed vigorous debate can no longer tolerate the smallest signs of disloyalty to the man who spent much of the 2016 election and his presidency bad mouthing his fellow Republicans. Men like Bennett are less the outsiders they once were and are quickly becoming the new face of the GOP. It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to. You would cry too if it happened to you.

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