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Opinion J.D. Vance, migrant babies and the unhinged GOP enemy hunt

Ohio Republican Senate candidate J.D. Vance. (Hannah Beier/Reuters)
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Just when you thought our politics couldn’t get any dumber, this week brought two new GOP attacks that spectacularly defied expectations. The Biden administration, we were told, is redirecting scarce infant formula to migrant babies and might be deliberately importing fentanyl to kill virtuous heartland-dwelling supporters of Donald Trump.

Both stories are superficially about President Biden’s alleged policy failures. But there’s a deeper through-line linking them: In both, the never-ending hunt for culture-war enemies has truly gone off the rails. Which in turn suggests ways the new right-wing populist politics is particularly vulnerable to such lapses into derangement.

The first of these got started when Rep. Kat Cammack (R-Fla.) posted photos depicting baby-formula shortages in stores. Despite these hardships, she complained, “they” are sending “formula to the border.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) then amplified the claim. The administration is providing “baby formula to illegal immigrants,” he railed, “while mothers and fathers stare at empty grocery store shelves in a panic.”

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Except it’s a crock. As Glenn Kessler shows, in supplying formula to migrant kids, the administration is following the law, which requires temporarily holding them before transfer to guardians. That includes mandated nourishment. The Trump administration did the same.

Republicans don’t say outright that starving detained migrant kids is preferable, that Biden should take formula away from them and give it to American parents. So why link the two developments at all?

The formula shortage is unquestionably a serious problem. But it’s a separate issue rooted in market and supply-chain failure. Connecting the developments insinuates that the deprivation many are facing is vaguely linked to the prioritization of migrant babies — the result of a zero-sum resource war in which you are the victim.

Indeed, when the story exploded on Fox News, this became more obvious. Again and again, as Matt Gertz documents at Media Matters, Fox hosts instructed Americans to feel infuriated and humiliated by this.

Now on to Exhibit B: J.D. Vance recently suggested fentanyl crossing the border might be “intentional” on Biden’s part. The GOP Senate nominee from Ohio declared this would be effective “if you wanted to kill a bunch of MAGA voters in the middle of the heartland.”

Obviously, this is also a wild absurdity. Overdose deaths got substantially worse under Trump than under Biden, and they’ve spiked far more among people of color, who are far less likely to be “MAGA voters.”

Of course, these claims aren’t meant as empirical depictions of policy problems. They are stories, ones featuring villains and victims. The key here is the relentless, never-ending search for ever more creative ways to stoke resentment, victimization and alarm about leftist enemies around every corner.

You see the same dynamic in the march of state-level laws restricting classroom discussion. They are designed to advance an underlying story, that teachers are out to pervert kids and psychologically torture them over their Whiteness.

When the enemy becomes migrant babies, surely it shows that this form of politics harbors a deeply embedded tendency to go off the rails. As Geoffrey Kabaservice, a historian of the right wing, told me: “This is in the right-wing DNA.”

Kabaservice argues that right-wing conspiracy theorizing inevitably propels itself to such absurd extremes. He points to Great Replacement Theory, which holds that liberal elites are scheming to replace native-born Americans with “obedient” voters from the Third World. The manias of the moment are arguably downstream from that.

The through-line here runs as follows, notes Kabaservice: “You bring the migrants, you give them the formula you’re denying to American kids,” and “at the same time, bring in this foreign-made substance, give it to native-born Americans, and they die off.”

In the more fevered right-wing imaginations, Kabaservice says, it all points toward a nefarious goal: “Accelerate the Great Replacement.”

It isn’t that every peddler of these absurdities thinks precisely this way. It’s more that this bundle of tendencies inevitably pushes into increasingly lurid and preposterous alleyways. The larger story arc, Kabaservice notes, is: “They hate you, which is us.” From there the narrative possibilities are limitless.

The evolution of Vance is a case in point. Writing at the Atlantic, David Frum traces this story in a new way: His intended audience is what has shifted.

The “Hillbilly Elegy” author has long been concerned with the “deteriorating prospects for working-class white America,” Frum notes. But before, Vance saw Trump-style populist politics as “cultural heroin" that held its denizens back from finding the strength to overcome life’s obstacles and realize their potential.

Now, however, Vance is targeting a new audience. His original plan was to offer an alternative worldview to Trumpism once Trump crashed and burned, Frum argues. Yet Trump’s movement succeeded, requiring Vance to reinvent himself with an “angry-white-male persona” more suited to the new mass constituencies Trump activated.

Indeed, Vance himself relates an evolution story more targeted to such an audience. In his telling, the scales have fallen from his eyes: The profound corruption of elite liberalism and its institutions is the enemy. Trump is the providential figure who produced the revelation required to see it.

Perhaps these new mass constituencies posited by Frum are the intended audience for all these tall tales. Whether it’s migrant babies or devious bureaucrats importing fentanyl to kill virtuous heartlanders, their spinners believe this audience will reflexively hate on whatever new enemy is paraded forth. One wonders if they’re right.