Kathy Barnette Falls Short—but Her Extremism Is the GOP’s New Normal

·4 min read
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty

The Pennsylvania Senate primary voting is done and it’s clear that insurgent right-winger Kathy Barnette failed to pull off an upset over fellow Republicans Dave McCormick and Dr. Mehmet Oz, Donald Trump’s favored candidate. But her late surge is an indication of how fringe figures are now outflanking even the former president.

As Fever Dreams hosts Kelly Weill and Will Sommer point out, Barnette “represents kind of a grassroots Trumpist uprising against Trump himself and kind of the broader GOP establishment”—one that led her fellow conservatives to wage a scorched-earth campaign against her in the waning days of the primary race.

When Barnette started to pull into a tie in polling with McCormick and Oz, the establishment candidates, various right-wingers like Fox News’ Sean Hannity started “portraying Kathy Barnette as this great villain who must be stopped,” Sommer notes. “Meanwhile, the Club For Growth, this big right-wing group involved in a lot of campaign fundraising, they have a sort of a longstanding feud with Trump. So they backed Barnette in order to get back at Dr. Oz and, and Trump through him. So this really kind of upended the race in its final days.”

The right-wing attacks on Barnette struggled to land precisely because some of her more hateful positions and conspiratorial nuttiness—such as on Muslims, gay people, transgender people, and the Capitol riot—are now par for the course for the GOP’s base, Weill says. “They don’t seem to be sticking because I think a lot of what the electorate wants is someone who is at January 6…”

Sommer adds: “The big Republican attack on Kathy Burnett has been that she’s just totally out there, just totally nuts. Like, unelectable in the general election. But the issues are all things that the people attacking her on, the right have previously had no problem with.”

Elsewhere on Fever Dreams, Michael Hayden from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) joins the podcast to discuss the mass shooting in Buffalo and the accused killer’s obsession with the bogus “great replacement” lie. The conspiracy theory, which has its origins in early 20th-century writing, went viral on the internet around the time Trump was elected to office, when “internet extremists kind of got together and started to collaborate to push these very types of ideas into mainstream discourse,” Hayden notes. Eventually, the rhetoric trickled up to the mainstream GOP—including to Fox News figures like Tucker Carlson—and to Trump himself, as the president reversed course on the Republican Party’s previous nods to America’s changing demographics (exemplified in conservative politicians like Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio, and Nikki Haley) and leaned into exploiting “polarized resentment” and white grievance.

Add on the country’s longstanding inability to deal with disaffected mass shooters, and you get a situation like the 2019 mass shooting at the El Paso Walmart, or the massacre in Buffalo. “I think it’s just a combination of Trump unearthing this hidden monster in our country, and that pre-existing phenomenon in the United States of sociopaths going in and shooting people in large groups—those things kind of came together. And now you have sociopaths latching onto this.”

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“There’s also the question of Trump and Trumpism, which as a culture needs to be defeated,” Hayden notes. “And I think it needs to be defeated with something that is more definitive than just winning an election. Right? That, I mean, there has to be, people have to be speaking up about what’s happening to our country and the radicalization of a lot of people.”

Along those lines, the podcast hosts also discuss a recent New York Times exposé on how QAnon factions within evangelical churches are driving out conservative pastors who give “any sort of nod to any kind of social justice, any kind of nod to Black Lives Matter or treating the poor well”—and how neo-Nazis in Idaho are driving out more moderate Republicans by entrenching themselves in local politics and running vicious harassment campaigns against their enemies. “I think this kind of hits on a theme that I think we’re going to be seeing more of this year,” Sommer notes, “which is sort of sane people with a connection to reality being driven out of public life… basically sort of giving it up when they’re like, whoa, these crazy people… this is just not worth the harassment for me.”

Listen, and subscribe, to Fever Dreams on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher.

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