The tragic plight of Brian Kemp, the Republican governor of Georgia, deserves careful study. It reveals that in the post-Trump GOP, the space for behaving with even a modicum of real commitment to democracy and civic virtue is rapidly narrowing to nothing — which has worrisome implications for our democratic future.
Kemp’s travails are detailed in a great new piece in the New York Times. It examines Kemp’s frantic efforts to atone for the heresy of refusing to help then-President Donald Trump overturn his Georgia loss, and then defending the loss as a legitimate outcome.
The central revelation is that Kemp sees his advocacy for Georgia’s new voting law as a way to win back GOP voters still fuming over his betrayal of Trump. Crucially, it’s the law’s new limits on voting — ones targeted at African American voters — that will make this happen.
It isn’t that Kemp admits this about the law he signed. He doesn’t. Rather, Kemp’s calculation is that, when critics call out those features of the law, he can cast this as proof of the left’s intention to subjugate and oppress virtuous GOP voters:
Mr. Kemp has seized on it as a political opportunity, defending the law as one that expands voting access, condemning those who criticize it and conflating the criticism with so-called cancel culture.
Now behold how frantically Kemp is working to make amends with those GOP voters:
Since signing the bill into law on March 25, Mr. Kemp has done roughly 50 interviews, 14 with Fox News, promoting the new restrictions with messaging that aligns with Mr. Trump’s baseless claims that the election was rigged against him.
To be clear, in “aligning” himself with Trump’s claims, Kemp does not declare the 2020 election illegitimate. Instead, he says the law is needed to restore voters’ “confidence” in elections, subtly validating the idea that voters might actually have reason to lack confidence in them.
This is the sweet spot widely relied upon by more “responsible” Republicans. It, too, is based on deception — there are not grounds to lack “confidence” in our elections, as 2020 reaffirmed their integrity. But as Jonathan Chait says, Republicans need an intermediary way to keep subtly flattering Trump’s lie while also escalating the voter suppression, which is a longtime GOP project.
The “confidence” canard solves this problem. It supplies justification for new targeted voting restrictions — while only partly validating Trump’s lie rather than fully validating it, an option not open to Kemp and other “responsible” Republicans. After all, the new law Kemp signed based on this justification does limit voting in numerous ways likely to have greater impact on African Americans.
Kemp can thus appeal to discontented GOP and Trump voters by seeking to limit voting while claiming that anyone who points this out is just victimizing Republicans as part of a broader liberal and/or leftist plot to oppress them.
To advance this idea, Kemp claims corporations opposing new voting limits are acting as agents in that plot — tools to impose cultural hegemony — joining many other Republicans denouncing “giant woke corporations” engaged in “corporate virtue signaling.”
“They folded like a wet dishrag to the cancel culture,” Kemp said in one of many Fox appearances, adding that oppressive corporate social liberalism will soon “come after” your most sacred values and “the way that you live your life.”
“Americans and Georgians should be scared,” Kemp warned.
A tangle of pathologies
Unravel this tangle of pathologies, and here’s what you’re left with. Republicans are seeking to limit voting all over the country. Even as they piously deny doing this, they’re also telling their voters that they’re right to fear future stolen elections and to fear liberal cultural hegemony exercised via “woke” corporate power.
Amusingly, it was left to Trump to unmask the game. Far from being satiated by Kemp’s efforts, Trump issued a statement ripping the governor for not doing still more to restrict voting. Trump claimed to want more “ballot integrity,” but as Brian Beutler notes, his statement explicitly defines “ballot integrity” as restricting modes of voting employed by Democrats.
Republicans’ own actions show the real threat they fear is more Democrats voting. And, while some cultural power is certainly exercised via corporate social liberalism, in this context their real objection is to corporations defending a future shaped by those voters’ maximal participation.
The ultimate perversity is that Kemp is being forced to atone for initially telling the truth about the 2020 election. That being the case, the way back into the good graces of GOP voters is to escalate the GOP voter-suppression project while citing corporate defenses of voting rights to create the absurdly exaggerated impression that those GOP voters are the real victims of disempowerment and subjugation.
Piling the perversity even higher, this in turn justifies whatever means are necessary to fight back, including the very voter suppression — an actual effort to disempower voters — they claim isn’t happening.