Abbott’s actions tells us a lot about today’s GOP and the conservative movement, but not because the governor is on the fringe. The way to understand his actions, like those of many in his party, is not that he’s pulling Texas to the right. He’s being pushed that way by people who are even more radical than he is.
In reaction to Abbott’s anti-mandate mandate, Southwest Airlines and American Airlines, both of which are based in Texas, have just announced they’ll be obeying the federal government’s vaccine order, which applies to federal contractors (as the airlines are) and supersedes state law.
That these companies are defying Abbott, and siding with President Biden, suggests how extreme Abbott is. But for someone such as Abbott, your credentials as a “true” conservative are never truly established. They must be renewed and reinforced over and over again — to the point that Republicans like him are now willing to go up against the business class who are their normal allies.
These days, almost no move Republican candidates can make would get the party’s base to say, “Hold on, that goes too far.” While Democrats constantly debate moving toward the middle, if there’s a limit to the GOP’s appetite for extremism, they haven’t found it yet.
Given how Abbott has so often been on the bleeding edge of right-wing politics — and the frantic fundraising that has given him tens of millions of dollars in the bank — you’d think he wouldn’t face much opposition to be the Republican nominee in his 2022 reelection bid.
But Abbott has seven declared GOP primary opponents, nearly all running against him from the right. They include right-wing media personality Chad Prather, real estate developer and former state senator Don Huffines (who proudly touts his “reputation for being one of Texas’ most conservative lawmakers”), and Allen West, who despite being utterly unhinged, could pose the greatest threat to Abbott.
West is in many ways the embodiment of the contemporary Republican Party. As a lieutenant colonel in the Army, West was relieved of his command in 2003 after firing a gun next to the head of an Iraqi detainee; like many other conservatives, West turned his misconduct into political celebrity, getting elected to Congress from Florida in 2010.
West lost his seat after a single term, became a Fox News personality, then was elected chair of the Texas Republican Party last year. His gubernatorial campaign is built on the idea that Abbott is a squishy moderate who can’t be trusted (even though former president Donald Trump has endorsed Abbott, citing his commitment to "Election Integrity”).
In the end, Abbott will most likely win the primary, because he has so many opponents to spread around the anti-Abbott vote. But he’s clearly feeling the need to continually demonstrate his conservative bona fides.
But “conservative” doesn’t mean what it used to, and Abbott’s anti-mandate mandate shows how.
His order is a direct contradiction of professed GOP free-market ideology. What could be more “big government” than the governor telling private businesses what they can and can’t demand as a condition of employment or how they decide who they serve?
But no one on the right will accuse Abbott of violating conservative beliefs with the order, because current GOP thinking is that measures to reduce transmission of the coronavirus are inherently liberal and, therefore, anything a public official does to fight those measures or even increase transmission is a demonstration of belief in the conservative cause.
Such insane thinking is possible because in 2016, Trump showed Republicans that winning base voters is not about hewing to a consistent and well-thought-out ideology. It’s about being on the proper side of the ongoing fight between right and left, however that fight may shift and change from year to year. Sometimes, it means getting government out of the way, and sometimes it means using the heaviest government hand imaginable. What matters is owning the libs, first, last and always.
There are some Republican politicians who demonstrate their lib-owning and base-pandering stylistically, but Abbott is doing it with substantive action, whether it’s suppressing votes, censoring teachers or enabling the pandemic to spread further in Texas.
These waters are not always easy to navigate; it may not be enough to simply be the craziest candidate in your race, particularly if you’re worried about what might happen in a general election. But in state after state, Republican candidates in 2022 and 2024 will be consumed with the question of where the sweet spot of extremism and credibility can be located.
As an incumbent with the powers of his office, Abbott may have found it. And if more of his own constituents die from the pandemic? That just shows how committed he is to the cause.