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Opinion How to respond to the GOP’s hateful culture wars

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) displays the signed Parental Rights in Education, known as the "Don't Say Gay" bill, during a news conference on March 28 at Classical Preparatory school in Shady Hills, Fla. (Douglas R. Clifford/AP)
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The Republican Party is on quite a tear. Around the country, it has been criminalizing abortion and dangling bounties for people to turn in women for seeking the procedure. In Texas, it is threatening to take transgender kids away from parents who seek appropriate medical advice. And in Florida, its ludicrous “Don’t Say Gay” law is a thinly disguised measure to target and ostracize LGBTQ kids.

All of this is part of the GOP’s attempt to impose its reactionary, cultural and religious worldview on others. The result: Book banning is at record levels, school officials face public threats, and teachers who want to provide accurate information about the history of slavery and race in America are being muzzled.

Democrats have found it difficult to respond, in part because they fear drawing more attacks or getting sidetracked on made-up issues. They might take lessons from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and White House press secretary Jen Psaki for how to handle the GOP’s hate wars.

Hogan showed the proper way to skewer Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) for his threat to retaliate against Disney for objecting to his state’s “Don’t Say Gay” law. In an interview with CNN on Sunday, Hogan characterized DeSantis’s philosophy as repressive and pro-big government, blasting DeSantis for dictating covid policies for private cruise lines and local schools. “And now,” Hogan argued, “he wants to criticize Disney for expressing how they feel about that bill. … We have a thing called freedom of speech. They can come out and say what they think. I think the bill was kind of absurd and not something that would have happened in our state.”

Republicans used to be all about freedom, limited government and capitalism. Hogan correctly pointed out that the GOP has morphed into a party that supports pervasive government and state-directed business policies. Republicans are not “taking back” America from the left; rather, they are turning against our constitutional structure and American values. Democrats would be wise to follow Hogan’s example to appeal not only to progressives but also moderates and conservatives, many of whom spoke out against Texas’s abortion bounty bill on privacy grounds.

Psaki took a different — but still effective — tack in an exchange with Fox News’s Peter Doocy on Monday. Doocy, ever in search of sound bites to advance the MAGA agenda, snidely asked, “At what age does the White House think that students should be taught about sexual orientation and gender identity?” Psaki refused to engage, responding instead that Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law is “propagating misinformed, hateful policies that do absolutely nothing to address the real issues.” She added that the Department of Education is “well-positioned and ready” to evaluate whether the law violates federal civil rights law. (Disclaimer: I am an MSNBC contributor.)

Doocy plowed on, insisting that the White House (which doesn’t set curriculum for Florida schools) say whether it supports gender education for kindergartners. Psaki shot back, asking if he had examples of schools teaching sex education to little kids. She then called foul on the whole charade: “I think that’s a relevant question because I think this is a politically charged, harsh law that is putting parents and LGBTQ+ kids in a very difficult, heartbreaking circumstance.”

In other words, Democrats don’t need to accept the premise that Republicans are addressing real problems or concerns with their extreme policies. They are legislating on an imaginary issue for the sole purpose of ginning up anger and stigmatizing LGBTQ families.

Democrats don’t do well when they play on Fox News’s turf. (Oh, you want to teach gender identity to kindergartners!) Instead, they should call out these efforts for what they are: intrusive and cruel ways to marginalize certain families. Democrats need not give credence to GOP propaganda that the problem is “woke” Democrats. In reality, this is about Republicans trying to define who is a real American and who deserves respect and decency. If Democrats make that argument, they’ll find plenty of support. After all, no one likes bullies.