The other day, in one of his many appearances on right-wing and MAGA-oriented podcasts, the Republican congressional candidate Joe Kent brought up an unexpected subject: light rail.
Kent was explaining to Bannon the dynamic in his race for the 3rd Congressional seat of southwest Washington, in which he keeps getting called an “extremist” by Democrats and others. But, he said, what’s really extreme is the idea of putting light rail on an I-5 bridge connecting Vancouver with Portland.
“That would be an antifa superhighway into our district,” Kent said as Bannon nodded along. “It would be a superhighway for crime.”
I’m highlighting this because of how unhinged it is — mass transit is bad because it’s an antifa vector? But also how remarkable it is to have a major party congressional candidate making such blunt cultural appeals, targeted to his own base, only two weeks or so out from a general election.
I’ve noted this before: That political candidates used to come out of primary elections and then pivot toward the broader middle. Sometimes this involved just a shift to a softer tone; other times candidates might pick a local issue that isn’t at the top of the campaign list — something like light rail — and use it to throw a bone to more moderate voters.
But there is no pivot anymore, especially on the right.
Out, for good maybe, is the kind of scripted, coalition-building tones typified by politicians like Barack Obama. In is riffing whatever’s on your primal mind, no-holds barred — even if that’s antifa mobilizing on a train. It may work even in a purple-ish district like the one surrounding Vancouver, where Donald Trump bested Joe Biden by only 4% in 2020.
“If someone like that can win in a district like this, it sends a message that there is no limit, right?” the New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg said about Kent and the 3rd Congressional District last month. “There is no kind of limiting principle on how far Republicans can go. [But] if somebody like that loses in a district like this, it says to the Republican Party that kind of this extreme Trumpism is a — is an electoral dead end in a lot of the country.”
Kent right now is favored to win.
I’ve wondered this about the language being used as well by GOP U.S. Senate candidate Tiffany Smiley. She is giving Democratic incumbent Sen. Patty Murray a strong challenge not with traditional cross-party or independent appeals, but with partisan red meat.
For example, her ad in heavy rotation calls it “insane” that Joe Biden and Democrats have moved to forgive a portion of college student debts, supposedly by hiring too many IRS agents to collect the money.
“It’s division wrapped in intimidation, and I will stop them,” Smiley says.
Canceling some student debts may be financially unwise, or unfair to some who have already paid off their loans. But intimidation? Smiley’s ad is channeling to a Fox News universe where Biden is somehow an iron-fisted tyrant (when he’s not a doddering old fool). It feels like an ad made for a GOP primary.
We’ll have to see if this stuff works on a broader general election audience. At the same time, the Democrats’ approach is to play it safe and bland.
Maybe that’s because the progressive or democratic socialist wing of the party, so ascendant a few years ago, has been more or less silenced. This is in part because, unlike with MAGA challengers who have won some primaries on the right, all the democratic socialist challengers in Washington lost.
Democrats are on the defensive. Example: The one socialist-adjacent representative around here, Seattle U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, just had her head lopped off for suggesting, in a letter, that the U.S. ought to keep supporting Ukraine but also seek to negotiate an end to Russia’s war with that country.
Her request seemed kind of mild to me, even anodyne. Yes it’s unsavory to contemplate diplomacy with a country that’s committing war crimes. But in the complex real world, it’s also a necessity. For two nuclear powers, it’s realpolitik — it would be alarming if there weren’t diplomatic back channels open to Russia already.
Anyway the incident shows the asymmetry of the languages of two parties. Because Jayapal’s anti-war view was instantly shushed.
There was one person on the local scene who backed Jayapal, though. It will be cold comfort to her. It was none other than … Joe Kent.
“Kudos to Jayapal and the progressives for this bold move,” said Kent, who, as a vet of the Iraq War, is now even more anti-war than he is anti-rail. On war he meets up with the far left on the back side.
I think what’s happening here is Donald Trump smashed the political speech rules — for Republicans. It’s anything goes with them. It’s not only that the old rules no longer apply, but breaking the rules is the new rule. Even if what comes out is false — or is nuts like antifa on the train — the point is to create a contrast with the scripted, controlled messaging of old.
Will that work? Republicans are rising right now. But Trump never got to 50% of the vote. In this state, you need to appeal to a messy majority to win a general election. So we’ll see.
But if it does in any major way, it’s going to alter the way politicians talk to us for years to come.
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