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Katie Britt and the folly of fake fearmongering

Some GOP lawmakers are closely following the Trump political playbook

Alabama Republican Sen. Katie Britt has been criticized and praised for her delivery of the Republican response to the State of the Union.
Alabama Republican Sen. Katie Britt has been criticized and praised for her delivery of the Republican response to the State of the Union. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

If someone had told Katie Britt on election night 2022 that she would someday be portrayed by megastar Scarlett Johansson, the newly elected Alabama Republican senator undoubtedly would have been thrilled.

What Britt, of course, would not have known is that the actress would be appearing on “Saturday Night Live,” mocking Britt’s delivery of the GOP response to Joe Biden’s State of the Union address.

In her everything-including-the-kitchen-sink takedown of Britt, Johansson zeroed in on the senator’s tone and her homey choice of the venue for the speech. (The adviser who convinced Britt to speak from her kitchen probably will not be highlighting that achievement on his or her résumé).

While Johansson glossed over most of the content of the speech, she did highlight the deception at the heart of Britt’s sink-side address. As Johansson declared in her perfect-pitch parody, “Like any mom, I’m going to do a pivot out of nowhere into a shockingly violent story about sex trafficking. And, rest assured, every detail about it is real. Except the year where it took place and who was president when it happened.”

In her speech, Britt strongly implied that, as a direct result of Biden’s border policies, the woman in question had been forced into prostitution as a 12-year-old by drug cartels as she tried to reach the United States.

But as journalist Jonathan Katz quickly pointed out, after doing a series of basic Google searches, the horrendous events that scarred the woman’s life had taken place in Mexico City while George W. Bush was president. The story had absolutely nothing to do with the border, either then or now.

Let’s be honest: Politicians in both parties frequently embellish anecdotes in their speeches for dramatic effect. In 1987, a presidential candidate named Joe Biden was driven from the Democratic race in large part because he stole the life story of British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock to add emotional heft to his closing statement in a debate.

What is telling, though, is that Britt refuses to apologize.

It would have been so easy for the senator to say, “I am so concerned about sexual trafficking at the border. But my big mistake was failing to make clear that the story that so moved me when I heard it last year on a trip to Texas had nothing to do with the president’s current policies. I am sorry that I deceived anyone.”

Instead Britt, clearly auditioning to be Donald Trump’s running mate, refused to concede anything. In a Sunday appearance on Fox News, the senator embarked on a ludicrous semantic exercise, arguing that because she referred to the victim as a “woman” instead of a “girl,” it should have been obvious to everyone that the events in question had occurred years ago.

Even worse, Britt had the temerity to portray herself as the martyr in this tale. She defiantly told Fox News, “To me, it is disgusting to try to silence the voice of telling the story of what it is like to be sex-trafficked when we know that that is one of the things that the drug cartels are profiting most off of.”

Britt’s blunders illustrate the central role that dramatic stories play in determined GOP efforts to make immigration the central issue in the 2024 presidential and congressional campaigns.

Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has a toddler’s sense of decorum, heckled Biden during the State of the Union by screaming about Laken Riley, a Georgia nursing student whose accused killer is a Venezuelan who entered the country illegally.

The murder of Riley and true tales of sexual trafficking at the border are emotionally wrenching. But as Republicans brandish anecdotes like sledgehammers, they fail to provide evidence, beyond assertion, that these are typical events rather than isolated examples.

Immigration is ripe for demagoguing because most Americans have no firsthand knowledge of what is actually occurring at the border. How is a voter in a swing state like Wisconsin or Pennsylvania supposed to assess conditions at the border?

Conclusions about supposedly open borders too often are based on overhearing a few Spanish speakers at a bus stop or noting the changing demographics of a neighborhood. Granted, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s cynical policy of busing asylum-seekers to liberal Northern cities like New York and Chicago has been both cruel and politically effective.

Long before Trump, Republicans effectively exploited the politics of fear. In the 1988 presidential campaign, George H.W. Bush portrayed Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis as soft on crime because Willie Horton, a Black prisoner, had raped a woman and stabbed her boyfriend while released on a furlough program. The airwaves were filled with TV ads supporting Bush that featured a frightening picture of Horton.

No presidential candidate in either party has ever trafficked in fear the way Trump does. Never forget that he began his first (and successful) presidential race in 2015 by claiming that Mexicans crossing the border are “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

To a large degree, Greene, who defiantly violated House rules by wearing a MAGA hat during the State of the Union, and Britt are dutifully copying the Trump playbook.

Maybe the Democrats can get across the message, successfully used by victorious Rep. Tom Suozzi in last month’s special election on Long Island, that congressional Republicans torpedoed a strong immigration bill at Trump’s command because the ex-president wanted to keep the issue alive.

But if the Republicans insist on trafficking in anecdotes and fear, they must do a better job than the rightfully ridiculed Britt in getting their facts straight.

Walter Shapiro is a staff writer for The New Republic and a lecturer in political science at Yale. He is a veteran of USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post.

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