Politics / March 11, 2024

Senator Katie Britt: A Star Is Not Born

The Alabaman’s disastrous debut was so weird even Scarlett Johansson—who’s played everything from a man-eating alien to Black Widow to Maggie the Cat—couldn’t do it justice.

Jeet Heer
Alabama senator Katie Britt in a kitchen
Alabama Senator Katie Britt responds to President Biden’s State of the Union address. (NBC News)

Scarlett Johansson is a formidable actor, her versatile talents sparkling in such varied films Marriage Story (2019) and Asteroid City (2023), but she met her match when given the impossible task of mimicking Alabama Senator Katie Britt for Saturday Night Live’s cold open. Britt delivered the Republican response to Joe Biden’s State of the Union address, where the senator derided the president’s speech as “the performance of a permanent politician.” Britt’s own performance was something else altogether, not as in Biden’s case the professionalism of the experienced (if creaky) pol but a weird mixture of bug-eyed zealotry, outright bigoted lies, and aw-shucks-I’m-just-a-mom faux-folksiness. In that mode, she deployed one of the great expressions of Southern condescension toward Biden: “Bless his heart.”

Britt was cast in the role of an emerging Republican star whose youth, energy, and gender would stand in contrast to Biden’s alleged decrepitude as an old man. But bizarre intonations and unnerving tonal shifts made Britt into an instant punch line, a natural target for a Saturday Night Live skit. This was the quickest transformation of a budding political celebrity into a laughingstock since Tiny Fey did her deadly accurate Sarah Palin parody on SNL in 2008—a lethal blow to Palin’s political reputation that the vice presidential hopeful never recovered from.

But as the Republican Party continues to descend into crankery in the Trump era, parody has become harder if not virtually impossible. Palin gave way to increasingly outlandish successors who challenged the power of satire: Donald Trump, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz, among many others. Johansson is surely as good an actress as Fey, but couldn’t quite capture Britt’s unsettling mixture of chirpy retro-patriotism and nihilistic dystopian foreboding.

It’s instructive to compare Johansson’s pale parody with the disconcerting strangeness of the real Britt speech. Ironically, Johansson’s skit makes Britt comes across as a more conventional and mainstream figure than she did in the actual State of the Union response. Johansson’s Britt has a few odd mannerisms but doesn’t seem dangerously unmoored from reality.

One of the most lurid moments in the real speech was when Britt talked about a victim of sexual trafficking she met in the context of denouncing Biden’s allegedly lax immigration policy:

When I first took office, I did something different. I traveled to the Del Rio sector of Texas, where I spoke to a woman who shared her story with me. She had been sex trafficked by the cartels starting at age 12. She told me not just that she was raped every day, but how many times a day she was raped.

The cartels put her on a mattress in a shoebox of a room, and they sent men through that door, over and over again, for hours and hours on end.

We wouldn’t be OK with this happening in a third-world country. This is the United States of America, and it’s past time we start acting like it.

Independent journalist Jonathan Katz researched Britt’s story and found it was a wild misrepresentation, amounting to a lie. In a TikTok video, Katz revealed that Britt has on previous occasions told the same story about activist Karla Jacinto. But Jacinto’s story about being sex trafficked took place from 2004 to 2008 in Mexico. In other words, it has nothing to do with the border—or Joe Biden’s policies. Katz rightly concludes that it looks like Britt “lied about something horrific.” Katz noted that Britt was “trying to create an association in people’s minds between Joe Biden, the border, Mexicans…people of Latin descent…and sexual violence.” Subsequently, The Washington Post investigated the story and also concluded that Britt had created a “false linkage of a sex-trafficking case to Joe Biden.” On Sunday, Jacinto appeared on CNN and criticized Britt’s appropriation and falsehood. Jacinto said, “Someone using my story and distorting it for political purposes is not fair at all.”

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It’s fitting that Britt was demolished in a TikTok video, since she also has bizarre fantasies about the social media site. In the speech she said,

Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party is undercutting America’s workers. China is buying up our farmland, spying on our military installations, and spreading propaganda through the likes of TikTok.

The CCP knows that if it conquers the minds of our next generation, it conquers America.

This is pure crackpottery, although unfortunately of an all-too-common type, since there is a bipartisan consensus to build up China as a new cold-war foil, claiming that it is destroying the American economy and brainwashing the country’s youth.

It’s a mistake to think of mainstream American politics and right-wing extremism as polar opposites. In reality, there are often fluid borders between respectable centrist opinion and frothing conspiracy theories.

Britt herself is an excellent example. Much of her off-putting affect comes from trying to meld together two disparate styles: the staid and steady strange of business-friendly Republicans and the hysteria of the now-dominant MAGA mode pioneered by Trump. Britt’s background is eminently mainstream GOP: She started off as a protégé of Alabama stalwart Richard Shelby, a onetime Democrat who served in the House and Senate for 44 years, from 1979 to 2023 (when Britt took his Senate seat).

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As a profile in The Atlantic notes, “Britt’s real distinction, however, has been her ability to move with startling ease among the various factions of her party, maintaining good standing among the chamber-of-commerce types responsible for her political rise while steadily earning the trust of her more overtly MAGA colleagues and voters back home.”

This balancing act seems to have served Britt well in Alabama, but when she tried to transfer it to the national stage, the inherent contradictions became all too clear. She was unable to find a stylistic mode that allowed her to be both an old-fashioned Republican (concerned with limited government and funding the Ukraine war) and an apostle of Trumpism. There’s speculation that her performance was designed for one person in particular: Trump, to win his nod as vice presidential nominee.

On Truth Social, Trump enthused, “Katie Britt was a GREAT contrast to an Angry, and obviously very Disturbed, ‘President.’ She was compassionate and caring, especially concerning Women and Women’s Issues. Her conversation on Migrant Crime was powerful and insightful. Great job Katie!” But in pleasing Trump, Britt let down many other Republicans (who privately acknowledged that the speech was an epic failure). One disappointed viewer was Richard Shelby, who damned her with faint praise, telling The Atlantic, “Well, I think this: You know, she’s young, she’s dynamic. You never know where you’ll go, but she’s on a fast track, and…I thought she did well last night. You’ve gotta remember, that’s a lot of pressure; that is a lot of pressure to follow a State of the Union.” Her mentor’s guarded and tepid words are perhaps the most devastating review of all, showing that Britt’s opening night was a flop.

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Jeet Heer

Jeet Heer is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation and host of the weekly Nation podcast, The Time of Monsters. He also pens the monthly column “Morbid Symptoms.” The author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (2013) and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles (2014), Heer has written for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The American Prospect, The GuardianThe New Republic, and The Boston Globe.

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