Opinion: Texas, Where Republican Leaders Have Gaslighted Us All

The lies we're told/are cruel and old/ deep in the heart of Texas.
The lies we're told/are cruel and old/ deep in the heart of Texas. Picture by Carly Kocurek
It’s been a very bad week in Texas. The so-called “heartbeat bill” went into effect, essentially ending reproductive freedom. The draconian election bill custom designed to disenfranchise marginalized people passed the Senate. Lt. Governor Dan Patrick wanted to hold the entire legislative branch’s pay hostage so he could have transphobic, racist new laws put in place.

What is endlessly frustrating about all of this is that the actions of the Republican leaders are founded on complete bullshit. Literally none of their actions have a foundation in fact. It’s the mass gaslighting of a state, calculated falsehoods meant to make residents question their own sanity hard enough to capitulate.

The entire pro-life movement is based on a lie. The myth is that the protection of reproductive freedom enshrined by Roe v. Wade (itself a case about Texas nonsense) under the Fourteenth Amendment so outraged the religious right of the country that they started a crusade to protect innocent fetuses from murder. This is demonstrably false. The 7-2 decision was fairly non-controversial at the time and organized national resistance did not emerge until 1979, six years after the case was decided. Baptist Press even praised the ruling as an advancement of religious liberty.

The reality was that evangelical leaders were keen to toss out President Jimmy Carter in favor of a conservative because they wanted to keep religious schools racially segregated. Bob Jones University in particular had resisted calls for desegregation, claiming that the Bible supported the practice. A nasty fight led to the IRS pulling Bob Jones’ tax-exempt status in 1976. However, figures like Jerry Falwell realized that actively campaigning on segregation in a post-Civil Rights Act America was a non-starter. Instead, they latched onto the success of a wave of anti-abortion sentiment in Minnesota in 1978 when Republicans won both senate seats and the governorship. A lot of the success came from dedicated Catholic leafletting on the subject of abortion.

Thus was born the pro-life movement in America. Falwell led the charge, assuring any who would listen that we were now in a fight over millions of souls lost to abortion. The country had begun having cold feet on the subject of abortion in the ‘70s, with support for Roe v. Wade declining while never losing the support of the majority of people polled. Falwell’s fiery rhetoric wove a spell, and Carter was out. In his place was Ronald Reagan, a California occultist who was very grateful for the support of the new Moral Majority. Reagan did indeed go to bat for Bob Jones University as it fought for tax-exempt status in the Supreme Court, though he caved after public outcry.

The entire movement was a bait-and-switch to help keep Blacks out of schools, though now it serves as a rallying cry for another conservative cause: preventing universal healthcare. For example, religious organizations largely oppose the Affordable Care Act despite the fact that the law drove abortions rates in America down by 10 percent thanks to access to birth control. Conservatives consistently oppose Planned Parenthood even though their birth control programs are directly responsible for bringing abortion levels to an all-time low. This is not about reducing or stopping abortions; it’s about using them to keep healthcare from being a public right subsidized by taxes.

The entire “election integrity” movement is also a lie. The specter of illegal voting has been a preferred bogeyman of Republicans at least since the election of former President George W. Bush, but it was Donald Trump’s loss that supercharged the concept. Trump has consistently claimed that millions of illegal votes were the cause of his fall, and that battle cry was eagerly picked up in Texas. Governor Greg Abbott refused to acknowledge Joe Biden’s victory, and State Rep. Briscoe Cain (R-Deer Park) gleefully went to Pennsylvania as a member of Trump’s team trying to prove that Democrats somehow rigged the election there. Cain would come home to lead the charge with State Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineloa) on the election bill.

At no point has any Republican come up with proof of a stolen election. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton went on a crusade to show that deep blue Harris County was rife with illegal voting in 2020. His investigation turned up just 16 cases of fraud out of hundreds of thousands of votes cast, most of them being errors regarding addresses and none of which went on to prosecution. While a few real instances of voter fraud have been exposed in Texas, none of it has ever risen above the level of a systemic problem that needs drastic measures to fix.

What does need fixing, according to Republicans, is all the Democrats voting. Paxton himself has stated that Biden would have carried Texas if mail-in voting was more widespread in the state. Coincidentally, the new election law puts a great deal of restriction on helping people vote by mail in a state where doing so is already needlessly difficult. Disabled Texans are eligible to vote by mail in Texas, though the state is weirdly vague on what counts as a disability, leading many Texans to worry if they are going to be prosecuted if they use mail ballots.

It’s a well-known political axiom that marginalized people tend to vote Democrat, and the aspects of the election bill that restrict voting are all almost exclusively aimed at ways minorities vote. This is by design since non-Hispanic whites now make up a minority of Texans. In an earlier version of the bill, Cain used language that specifically recalled laws passed after women’s suffrage in Texas designed to protect the “purity” of the ballot box, by which they meant keeping Blacks from voting. State Rep. Rafeal Anchía (D-Dallas) very publicly pulled Cain’s metaphorical pants off of him at one hearing. Previous versions also included a ban on Sunday voting, which would affect Black church voting drives, and the current version bans drive-thru voting. It just so happens that a majority of people who used drive-thru voting in 2020 were non-white.

At every turn, Texas Republicans have failed to make the case that election fraud is a real problem. Instead, they use the accusation to trim away ballot access to people who vote Democrat.

Patrick’s focus on social injustice bills is also based on lies. The two bills he wants passed in order to restore funding to the thousands of staffers who work in the legislative branch are a ban on trans youth playing in sports except under their birth gender and another crack at “critical race theory” in public schools.

The transphobic bill didn't make its way through the Legislature this time, but Patrick has already announced that he's asked the governor to put it on the special session call later in September. The bill is supposedly a way to prevent inequality in high school sports by keeping “biologically male” students from having an unfair advantage. There’s also the claim that trans students in locker rooms are a danger to cis ones.

The myth that trans girls will run roughshod over cis ones is ridiculous and misogynistic. The Olympics have let trans athletes compete under their identified gender since 2004 and only this year has even one trans woman earned a gold medal, the Canadian non-binary soccer midfielder Quinn. It’s a pretty common tactic in online transphobic spaces to show off pictures of trans New Zealand weightlifter Lauren Hubbard as proof that trans women are too muscular to compete against cis women, though that’s gotten rarer since Hubbard failed to medal against her cis competitors.

As for the idea that trans girls are dangers in the locker room, there’s no evidence to support that. A Media Matters report in 2014 showed that out of 12 states where trans girls and women were allowed in female bathrooms and locker rooms, not one had a verifiable instance of an assault by a trans woman. I say verifiable because anti-LGBT groups like the Family Research Council are known to exaggerate and outright fabricate instances of trans girls and women exposing themselves in bathrooms and locker rooms.

The wave of anti-trans legislation hitting the nation is a con very similar to the anti-abortion movement. In this case, the fight against marriage equality was lost, so focus has shifted to trans people instead. However, like marriage equality, there is no evidence to suggest trans people are a danger to anything but an unfair status quo.

Also a danger to the status quo is the latest “critical race theory” bill, a phrase used by Republicans as a catch-all to demonize any teaching that questions the role of white supremacy in America and Texas in particular. State Rep. Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands), author of the bill, has been very clear that his primary worry is white people ever feeling bad about history.

“You can’t teach that one race is better than the other,” he said. “You can’t teach that one gender is better than the other. You can’t discriminate either… and say that one race or one gender is responsible for the ills of the past.”

The fact is, though, that white supremacy is an important part of our history. Our textbooks regularly ignore that keeping Black slaves was a major reason that we rebelled from Mexico. Jim Bowie is lionized for (probably) dying in bed at the Alamo rather than scorned for being a notoriously cruel slave trader. Nor is the history of the border patrol or the Texas Rangers (the cops, not the baseball players) as violent enforcers of white supremacy ever brought up. I mentioned above the legislative push following women’s suffrage to make sure that applied only to white women, an act that literally was semi-repeated in the evolution of the current election bill.

No matter how uncomfortable it makes us, we have to acknowledge that white supremacy is an ongoing problem with historical roots that should be part of our school curriculum. Republicans like Toth want to frame it as a cruel racist attack on white folks through lying by omission about the truth. In doing so, it serves the same purpose as the election bill; pushing minorities further down the line where they have less say and power.

One of the greatest pieces of American literature is Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman. Its protagonist is Willy Loman, a man who has spent his entire adult life weaving a web of falsehoods to make his family believe he is a well-respected businessman instead a mediocrity. He spends most of the play trying to convince his son to follow in his footsteps with these lies, crushing the young man under the weight of his father’s expectations. In the end, Loman kills himself because he is certain that the massive turnout at his funeral will convince everyone he is a big shot. Instead, he is buried in a sparsely attended ceremony, his lies finally unable to overcome the finality of his death.

I think about Loman a lot when I look at the Republican Party of Texas lately. Loman was driven by the desperation of his advancing age and the crush of capitalism as he failed to succeed in the system. Republicans, too, are driven by impending loss. In their case, it’s the terror of a changing world that is more diverse and less fond of late-stage capitalism. Conservatives gasp in horror as socialism rises in popularity among people under thirty who have watched things like home ownership and eventual retirement retreat from their reach.

Like Loman, Republicans are addicted to lying to shore up their vision of Texas, even as the truth becomes harder to ignore. Abortion, election fraud, the fear of trans people, and the hiding of white supremacy’s influence have objective realities that threaten the carefully built fantasy world that allows Republicans to hold power and to be big shots.

The problem is that they’ve reached the point where the options are to admit the truth or die with the lies intact. Unfortunately, a major political party is not a salesman, and the proverbial death is likely to affect millions of Texans in a negative way. We’ve already watched as science denialism has killed thousands of us during the pandemic, stubborn refusal to end the free-market power system left us powerless in the cold, and abhorrence of the Medicaid expansion leaves so many of us without healthcare.

The lies keep coming, and they are increasing in number, scope, and cruelty. One way or another, the truth is going to have its reckoning. The last question is how many lives are going to be crushed until Republicans finally run out of gaslight.
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Jef Rouner (not cis, he/him) is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner