The Republican Party lost whatever credibility it had as a sincere partner in curbing white nationalism when its delegates selected Donald Trump as the party’s nominee for president in 2016. That credibility, such that it was, continued to erode over the following two and a half years as Republican members of Congress coalesced behind President Trump’s immigration policies, which were designed by advisers like Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon, who describe Latin American immigrants as an invading criminal horde, and sold in Fox News segments drumming up white fears of a nonwhite majority. The GOP arguably hit rock bottom with its continued support of Steve King, a Republican congressman whose openly racist politics — including his denial of nonwhite contributions to Western civilization — were rebuked by his own party for the first time this year. (He remains in office.) But it continued to plumb the depths on Tuesday, when Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee called on Candace Owens to testify during a hearing about the threat of white nationalist violence following terrorist attacks in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Christchurch, New Zealand.
Owens is a black right-wing media personality, communications director for the conservative advocacy group Turning Point USA, and a favorite of the Infowars circuit. Predictably, she took Tuesday’s opportunity to deny that racism is a particular problem in the Republican Party or the conservative movement more broadly. She called the Southern strategy — which during the 1960s saw the GOP embrace an anti-civil-rights platform to attract bigoted white southern voters — a “myth,” and accused Representative Ted Lieu of believing that “black people are stupid” because he played footage of Owens tacitly endorsing Adolf Hitler’s nationalism. Her unseriousness overshadowed the actual authorities who were invited to testify by Democrats, including Kristen Clarke, a civil-rights lawyer, and Mohammad Abu-Salha, whose two daughters and son-in-law were killed in 2015 in a suspected hate crime. There is an argument to be made that Owens was invited to distract the public from an issue that threatened to indict too many Republican legislators and voters regarding their complicity. But her presence had the unintended side effect of highlighting that complicity instead.
The bar for entry as a black Republican and YouTube celebrity turned congressional expert witness is low, and seems to privilege two traits: an enthusiasm for reassuring white Republicans that they are not racist, and a willingness to be a public symbol of their purported non-racism. Today, Owens is the most visible exemplar of both, and of the characteristics they require — namely, a relentless dishonesty in the face of factual evidence and an unquenchable thirst for the spotlight. She is also something of a last resort. The GOP has so thoroughly discredited itself as a party even remotely concerned with the plight of the average black American — and especially the average black American woman — that its white standard-bearers are willing to bestow legitimacy, expert status, and a certain degree of party spokesmanship on practically any black person who toes the party line. People like Owens have become Republicans’ go-to retort to allegations of racism. And her deployment betrays the belief, endemic to the GOP, that racism’s existence is a matter of opinion that can be debunked by any random black person’s say-so.
This is demonstrated by the continued success of Diamond and Silk, a pair of black female performers whose comedic tours — attended primarily by white conservatives — hinge on assuring their audiences that their support for Trump does not connote bigotry. It was demonstrated when Michael Cohen testified before Congress that Trump was a bigot, citing times when the president referred to black people as “stupid” and prone to living in degraded conditions by choice, only to have Representative Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican, respond by parading a black Trump employee before the committee as physical evidence to the contrary.
Racism is measurable, of course, in disparities ranging from wealth gaps to residential segregation to incarceration rates. But its deadly nature is perhaps no more vivid than after a mass shooting, when the bodies of Muslim worshippers in Christchurch or Jewish ones in Pittsburgh are dead and bleeding on the ground. Collectively, they are irrefutable evidence. Meanwhile, Owens’s claim to the credibility that allows her to dismiss such violence as overblown, or part of a Democratic plot to frighten nonwhite voters, is that she received racist phone calls from a white classmate in high school. Summoning her to Washington, D.C., to cast doubt on racism’s dangers demonstrates an irreverence on the part of Republicans that transcends the unseriousness of its vessel. It is downright sinister — not to mention denialist — regarding the GOP’s debt to the very white nationalist movement in whose name said violence is committed.
And even if the rate of deaths caused by white nationalists pales in comparison to those caused by car collisions or heart disease, that the former is powerful enough to inspire one person to kill 11 others in a single day is, at the very least, worth taking seriously. House Republicans this week treated it as theoretical, or worse, a joke. They presented to Congress and to Americans refuting testimony from a social-media provocateur whose entire brand is to lie about racism. It might have been innocuous had it not sought to obscure the toxic ideology that simultaneously radicalizes young white men, inspires mass murder, and questions the human worth of nonwhite people, all while enabling Republicans to capture the White House in 2016, against all expert predictions. The House GOP knew entering Tuesday’s hearing that the 2020 election is around the corner. It is in their best interest to save their meal ticket until it can once more be redeemed, rather than discard it simply to undermine the social ills that accompany it.