In response to reports of the racist mass shooting in Buffalo that left 10 dead and three injured, New York Representative Elise Stefanik issued a pro forma statement saying she was “very saddened to hear the tragic news.”
Even more than most political prattling, Stefanik’s remarks gave off the rank odor of bad faith. The alleged shooter wrote a manifesto justifying his slaughter because of his fear of a “great replacement” of white people due to mass immigration by the undocumented. Stefanik herself has flirted with this rhetoric. In an ad released last September, Stefanik warned that Democrats were going to use a path to citizenship for the undocumented to create a “permanent election insurrection.” The Washington Post noted that “the language in the ads echoes that of far-right commentators, including Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, who have advanced a ‘replacement theory’ that says liberals are seeking to replace White citizens with non-White immigrants who are inclined to support the Democratic Party.”
Stefanik is an important bellwether showing where the Republican Party is heading. She is, along with Ohio senatorial candidate J.D. Vance, a prime example of opportunistic extremism.
A religion is strong when it can compel deference and obedience not just from true believers but also from skeptics. Contemporary Trumpism (which now includes strains of white nationalism and QAnon-style conspiracy theories) can be divided into two broad camps: There is the faction of faithful fanatics (such as Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, Paul Gosar, and Madison Cawthorn) who are sincerely committed to militant bigotry. There is also an emerging body of Republicans who echo all the themes of Trumpism but seem, based on their earlier history of more moderate politics, to be motivated merely by a lust for the main chance and the opportunity to rise to power on a wave of intolerance.
Opportunists like Stefanik and Vance are more important than the fanatics because they show that Trumpism is increasingly hegemonic in the GOP—a creed that commands the devotion even of unbelievers.
The trajectory of Stefanik’s career follows the arc of expediency. Elected to a purplish New York district—which Barack Obama twice won—in 2014 as a moderate Republican, she was initially a supporter of John Kasich in 2016 and wouldn’t even mention Trump’s name after he became the GOP’s standard-bearer, indicating only that she would support the party’s nominee. As recently as 2018, she would demonstrate independence from Trump by demanding the resignation of his EPA administrator Scott Pruitt.
Nowadays, Stefanik is more Trumpist than Trump, mimicking the language of not just white nationalists but also QAnon. On Friday, Stefanik tweeted, “The White House, House Dems, & usual pedo grifters are so out of touch with the American people that rather than present ANY PLAN or urgency to address the nationwide baby formula crisis, they double down on sending pallets of formula to the southern border. Joe Biden has NO PLAN.” The phrase “usual pedo grifters” naturally raised a stink, evocative as it is of QAnon libels that the Democratic Party is controlled by a coven of demonic child rapists. She was widely reprimanded, including by a prominent Republican known for his anti-Trump stance, Representative Adam Kinzinger. Tellingly, Kinzinger is retiring from politics, while Stefanik is a rising star.
Asked to explain what Stefanik meant, her office offered two contradictory explanations. One claim was that it was a reference to the Lincoln Project, a Never Trump group made up of Republicans and former Republicans. If so, this smear, although expressed in a dishonestly broad way, at least had has some basis in reality: John Weaver, a cofounder of the Lincoln Project who has since left the group, has been accused by more than 20 young men, including at least one who was 14 years old, of sending them unwanted sexual messages.
But, as reported by Parker Molloy in her newsletter The Present Age, a Stefanik staffer told a caller that “pedo” is “not short for ‘pedophile,’ it is ‘pedo’ as in ‘children.’” The staffer encouraged the caller to “look it up on Google.” This etymological evasion is meant to muddle the common vernacular meaning of “pedo.”
In effect, Stefanik wants to make a vile accusation but deflect criticism by having her minions gesturing towards the ancient Greek origins of the word. As Colgate University political scientist Sam Rosenfeld tweeted, “It’s too perfect to see Stefanik go THAT FAR in aping current GOP best practices by explicitly throwing “pedo” around in everyday partisan discourse—only to then try to walk it back. Once you’ve hit ‘pedo’ you’re really not allowed to wriggle! ‘Pedo’’s the point of no return.”
Like Stefanik, J.D. Vance, who has secured the GOP nomination to be the senatorial candidate in Ohio, evidently made a conscious decision to take the path to political perdition. Best known for his memoir Hillbilly Elegy, Vance was once seen by centrist Republicans as a possible alternative to Trump, a figure that in a 2016 text message he speculated “might be America’s Hitler.” Writing in The Atlantic, David Frum recalls that from 2009 to 2012, Vance was an anonymous contributor to FrumForum, a blog Frum wrote to encourage a more reformist and moderate GOP. As Frum recalls, “Vance scorned culture-warring, valued expertise, endorsed social inclusion, rejected partisan rancor, and supported America’s important role in world security.” This is a complete contrast to the Vance of 2022, who secured Trump’s crucial endorsement by making a hard turn toward right-wing culture war politics.
As Mona Charen documented at The Bulwark,
But a funny thing happened after the introduction of J.D. Vance, anti-Trump voice of the working class. He began to drift into the Trump camp. I don’t know why or how, but Vance became not a voice for the voiceless but an echo of the loudmouth. Scroll through his Twitter feed and you will find retweets of Tucker Carlson, alarmist alerts about immigration, links to Vance’s appearances on the podcasts of Seb Gorka, Dinesh D’Souza, and the like, and even retweets of Mike Cernovich.
Charen goes on to note that Vance is also willing to mimic QAnon rhetoric.
In contrasting the moderate Vance of only a few years ago with the Trumpist Vance of 2022, David Frum leaves the impression that the Hillbilly Elegy author is a hollow man, an amoral operator who will jump on any bandwagon that promises to take him to high political office. This harsh personal judgement might well be true of both Stefanik and Vance. But such moral considerations are also irrelevant.
Every political party will have its share of schemers, weather vanes, and chameleons. The question is, how do the smart opportunists think they can gain power? In the GOP, the answer is clear: by becoming Trumpists, even if that means speaking the language of racism and QAnon.