Which is why it’s important to watch where the GOP decides to create controversies. And right now, some Republicans are trying to gin up opposition to a pair of President Biden’s nominees for Justice Department posts: Vanita Gupta, nominated to be associate attorney general, the No. 3 post in the department; and Kristen Clarke, nominated to head the civil rights division.
Both are well-regarded civil rights lawyers with long résumés that include previous stints in the Justice Department; their views are well within the mainstream of the Democratic legal establishment. And Republicans have plenty of targets they could pick for their performative faux-outrage.
So why these two? Is it just because they’re women of color? The answer is yes and no — but even the “no” part doesn’t get Republicans off the hook.
Senate Republicans have spent weeks on a messaging binge portraying Vanita Gupta and Kristen Clarke, tapped for high-ranking DOJ positions, as “extreme” and “radical” nominees who will weaken law enforcement. The GOP base is soaking it up, with Fox News host Tucker Carlson showing a keen interest in typically humdrum sub-Cabinet confirmations and focusing several segments on Clarke.
Gupta and Clarke are not the only Biden nominees Republicans have objected to; for instance, a few of them have waged a ludicrous but little-noticed campaign against Colin Kahl, a nominee for a senior Pentagon position.
We should also note that some women of color have coasted through the nomination process: Katherine Tai was confirmed as U.S. trade representative on a 98-to-0 vote, and Cecilia Rouse was confirmed 95-to-4 to serve as chair of the Council of Economic Advisers.
But because Gupta and Clarke are veteran civil rights lawyers, they have records that can be mined for highly evocative attacks — not because they’ve done anything shocking, but for the simple reason that they have been advocates for efforts to fight discrimination.
And who is making those attacks?
Cabinet nominations have for some time been an opportunity for ambitious opposition senators to signal partisan fighting spirit to the base. That was true in 2017, when Democrats preparing to run to unseat Donald Trump opposed most or all of his nominees, and it’s true now.
Which is why the Republican senators who have voted most often against Biden Cabinet confirmations are the ones considering running for president in 2024: Josh Hawley (Mo.), Ted Cruz (Tex.), Rick Scott (Fla.), and Tom Cotton (Ark.). So it’s no surprise that those senators have been among the most vociferous in denouncing Gupta and Clarke in particular.
To understand why they’re doing it, you have to appreciate the distinction between racism and race-baiting.
It’s not that Hawley or Cruz are committed to making sure no women of color work in the Justice Department. But they know that a fight against these particular nominees will attract the attention of a base that has been taught for a long time that the kind of civil rights issues Gupta and Clarke champion are an attack on White people, and therefore those who engage in those efforts are conservatives’ enemies.
They also know that conservative media — which likewise need to attract and hold an audience of conservative Republicans to succeed — have been going hard after Gupta and Clarke for months (and other women of color Biden nominated, including Neera Tanden and Susan Rice). Tucker Carlson has been doing angry segments about Clarke since before Biden was even inaugurated.
Much of it centers on the idea that these women are generals in an ongoing racial war, which can only mean they’re fighting against White people. Consider this editorial in the conservative Washington Examiner: “Race-obsessed Vanita Gupta should not be confirmed to Justice Department.”
Race-obsessed? Gupta led the civil rights division of the Justice Department and ran a civil rights organization. She’s “obsessed” with race in the same sense that Secretary of State Tony Blinken is “obsessed” with foreign policy.
But the ones who are most obsessed with race are the conservative media themselves. The rhetorical world in which conservatives move, the offerings of Fox News and conservative talk radio, are absolutely saturated with discussions of race — specifically, about how liberals are constantly making White people and conservatives feel bad about it, and how the only real racism that’s left in America is White conservatives being unfairly victimized by efforts to end discrimination.
So if you’re one of those senators who wants to run for president, you know that railing against Clarke or Gupta will win the attention of the conservative media, which will in turn show the base that you’re standing up to those “race-obsessed” people of color and fighting to keep them from bringing their “radical” views to government.
That doesn’t make you a racist. But it does make you someone who knows exactly what sentiments you’re appealing to in the GOP base.
There was a time when racist members of Congress made sure the laws disadvantaged people of color, because it reflected both their constituents’ views and their own. What we see today is clearly different.
It doesn’t matter what Hawley or Carlson believes in their hearts — just as it doesn’t matter that the GOP tries so hard to disenfranchise Black voters not because of racism per se but for reasons of partisanship (if Black people voted Republican, they’d roll a red carpet to the voting booth).
What we can say is that conservative politicians and conservative media share a conviction that White identity politics is the key to success within their party, because that’s what they believe their base wants. There’s no reason to think they’re wrong.