March 12, 2024 | Reading Time: 9 minutes

Britt’s SOTU response contained several lies and one truth

Republican consultants are worried about the party's extremist abortion policies, writes Claire Bond Potter.

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Editor’s note: The following first appeared in Political Junkie, Claire’s newsletter. –JS

I went to bed before Katie Britt, the junior senator from Alabama, responded to President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address. I know—it wasn’t very intrepid of me. But SOTU rebuttals are never good. It’s also never clear to me who the audience is for them. A handful of political junkies like us? The twelve civilians from the “other party” who tuned in to a president they dislike and distrust? Unaffiliated voters doing their homework eight months early?

Britt’s speech was no exception to the rule when it came to quality, delivery and information. We did learn, however, that the GOP is pivoting away from hate, and back to its happy place, hate and fear. And who has more to fear than The American Mom? If it isn’t inflation, Harvard, trans girls on the volleyball court, and a culture that feminizes their husbands and sons, it is (wait for it): bloodthirsty, undocumented immigrants who stream across the border for one thing, and one thing only: raping and killing American women.

The American Mom, when she appears on a conservative political stage, is always a white woman. Fear is her heritage and her birthright, and fear of sexual assault by men of color her guiding star. That has been historically true in American conservative politics. It is true now. The American Mom never appears in a political setting to tell you everything is ok and you can relax.

And it kind of works. In the last two election cycles, the majority of white women have repeatedly voted Republican: 55 percent in 2020, slightly more than in 2016. Fears in 2022 that Republicans were steadily losing that demographic turned out to be unfounded.

Britt’s speech is a preview of how the GOP plans to run the 2024 campaign: every vile GOP policy will be broadcast to women cloaked in the pink haze of maternal love. 

That was before Dobbs unleashed the whirlwind. Now, The American Mom is beginning to realize that the Republican Party might be her worst enemy. Amanda Eid nearly died in Texas when, after 18 months of fertility treatments (that some Republicans are also endangering) doctors refused to perform a medical procedure to remove a fetus that was dying inside her. A 13-year-old in Clarksdale, Mississippi, gave birth to her rapist’s baby, because there are no abortion providers in her state, and her family is too poor to travel. Maternal death rates in states that restrict abortion access were already 62 percent higher in 2020 than in states that didn’t restrict. Now, an expectant mother has to imagine driving or flying to another state if something goes wrong, regardless of how far along in her pregnancy she is. 

Let’s be clear: Katie Britt is not a dummy, nor is she “just a Mom.” Among other things, Britt is a high-powered lawyer, a skilled political operative and the former comms director for the man she replaced, Alabama Senator Richard Shelby. She was also a far better choice than the person she defeated for the Republican nomination in 2022. That was election denier Congressman Mo Brooks, one of the central figures in the January 6 insurrection. Brooks is a proponent of the “independent state legislature theory” that would allow states to nullify federal legislation and replace actual votes cast by actual Americans in a presidential election with a vote by a partisan state legislature.

All I am saying is that Katie Britt is really not the worst that Alabama has to offer us. Yet despite all of her professional accomplishments, she chose to veil them and take American Mom as her brand. Her campaign catchphrase was Momma on a Mission, and the theme of the SOTU response was: Katie Britt is a senator, but really a wife and a Mom. (Quiz: when was the last time you heard a man run for office with these phrases: “But really — I’m A Dad,” “Determined Daddy,” or “Fearless Father.”) Britt even stole Biden’s (admittedly worn out) story of the family sitting around the kitchen table solving problems, and the “empty chair” Bidenism, this time signaling a family member killed by an immigrant, or fentanyl, or a sex trafficker, or all of the above. 

Britt’s speech is a preview of how the GOP plans to run the 2024 campaign: every vile GOP policy will be broadcast to women cloaked in the pink haze of maternal love. The American Mom suffers, it is her job to suffer, and only the GOP feels her pain. Britt reassures us that education and success do not have to make a woman less of a Mom or less submissive to men. Here, the green dress that bears a close resemblance to the uniform worn by Serena Joy on Hulu’s dystopian series about Christian misogyny, The Handmaid’s Tale, was a nice touch.

And what causes the American Mom more suffering than anything else? That the Biden administration has “invited” undocumented immigrants to rape, murder and traffic her daughters. Elevating the recent, tragic murder of white Georgia nursing student, Lakin Riley, allegedly by an undocumented man of color, Britt reintroduced a time-honored trope that will resonate in southern states where the GOP needs to shore up support, like Virginia, Florida and Georgia.

Let me emphasize: the idea that white women are always in danger from men of color, wherever they come from, is categorically false. Black, Native American and Latina women are at higher risk for rape and a much higher risk of murder than white women; 80 percent of rapes are committed, not by a stranger, but by someone known to the victim; and 57 percent of rapists are white (an additional 27 percent are Black, not Latino.)

In other words, if the GOP’s proposal is to deal with rape by shutting the border, they are not really interested in preventing rape. We knew that.

The racism of this theme was then compounded by Britt’s misrepresentation of a lurid sex trafficking story meant to stigmatize both Mexicans and Joe Biden. The Post’s Glenn Kessler characterized the grisly ordeal suffered by Karla Jacinto Romero as the “centerpiece” of the GOP “rebuttal to Biden’s address.”

I won’t tell Romero’s story here. It’s genuinely awful. But here’s the thing: Romero was not held captive and repeatedly assaulted in the United States. It happened in Mexico. Even if you presume that the US government controls events in Mexico, Romero’s ordeal occurred during the George W. Bush administration. The victim herself says that there were no drug cartels involved, and she was never trafficked across the border. You can read more details about her story here. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Britt insists the story is true.

What does all of this tell us? First, that the place of white women in the Republican Party comes from a conflicted and confused set of demands: do they have power or do they not? (The answer is both.)

This is why Britt’s speech was so easy to parody, and why parody can serve as the most incisive analysis of a policy speech that is not one. 

Two days later, in the Saturday Night Live cold open, Scarlett Johansson (who also didn’t write her speech) sums up the GOP White Woman Strategy by introducing herself as a senator whose job is to serve the people of the “great state of Alabama. But tonight, I’ll be auditioning for the part of scary mom. And I’ll be performing an original monologue called: This country is hell. You see,” Johansson continues, “I’m not just a senator. I’m a wife, a mother, and the craziest bitch in the Target parking lot.” Later in the speech, she promises, “like any mom,” she will “pivot into a shockingly violent story about sex trafficking.” At another point, the screen transforms into a Home Shopping Network template, and Johansson offers the cross she is wearing around her neck for sale.

It’s a brilliant sketch, not just about how Britt’s speech failed, but also — like the former Confederacy under Jim Crow — in its central truth: there is no place for women in the GOP but as enablers of white men and as victims.

Believe it or not, this idea annoyed numerous Republican women. Former Trump aide Alyssah Farah Griffin tweeted: “I do not understand the decision to put her in a KITCHEN for one of the most important speeches she’s ever given,” while conservative podcaster Allie Beth Stuckey characterized Britt’s speech as “hard to watch.” Backstage, it wasn’t so polite. An anonymous GOP strategist growled: “everyone’s f—ing losing it. It’s one of our biggest disasters ever.” 

Weirdly, I think Britt’s speech would have worked if they had chosen another vessel — say, Kari Lake, Marjorie Taylor Greene (who would have to work on her reading skills), or Marcia Blackburn  —to give it. At least it might have seemed authentic.

However, one of the most delightfully contemptuous responses came from Ann Coulter, who has managed to make it through an almost 40-year career as a conservative pundit without allowing her femininity to compromise her rage (and vice versa.) 

Once an enthusiastic Trump supporter, less than a year after he was elected, Coulter broke with him over his failure to enact a radical anti-immigration agenda. Since then, she has also vigorously refuted election denialism. As a consequence, she has been virtually blacklisted from every conservative forum that MAGA dominates, and relegated to Substack like the rest of us.

Coulter promotes the same politics she always did, though, and remains adamantly anti-immigrant, legal or illegal. So while she may have approved in principle of Britt’s lengthy, and false, anti-immigrant rant, to Counter, the medium was the message. The idea of women as living in fear of sexual assault and Britt disavowing her own intelligence and authority as a Senator pissed Coulter off mightily. 

Characterizing Britt on her Substack, Unsafe, as “estrogen-laden” and “tearful,” Coulter quipped that the GOP chose a kitchen for the speech “presumably because a nursery school wasn’t available.” She also pointed out that no white Republican male has been asked to respond to a Democratic SOTU since 2012: “WE’RE NOT THE PARTY OF IDENTITY POLITICS, YOU UTTER IMBECILES.” 

It’s vintage Coulter. You have to admit she has a point. By mining the small number of women and people of color in the party for high profile events, the GOP is implicitly saying that race and gender do matter, even though all their policies say that these things don’t matter.

Coulter also lectured Britt for being girly: grown-up Republicans, she lectured, don’t use diminutives like “Katie.” In fact, Democrats of both genders do use diminutives, which — I am a longtime student in the School of Coulter Studies — actually reinforces her point, because Republicans aren’t Democrats. Republicans can’t expect voters to think that their policies are distinctive if they don’t present themselves as distinct. 

Politics, Coulter argues, should be politics, and sugar-coating hard messages is dumb — particularly if you are trying to frighten people about the future. As she snarls:

For the love of God, quit it already with the kitchens, dining room tables, fireplaces, living rooms, sofas, or anything else warm, fuzzy and cozy. It’s politics, for crying out loud. Normal people want politicians working to make their lives better, not emoting with us — least of all with the completely unbelievable story about her “sitting around the kitchen table” trying to figure out how her family can ever get by on her $174,000 base salary, PLUS premium health care for her whole family, PLUS a gigantic pension (which no longer exists anywhere in America except for teachers). 

OK — cops, firefighters and other public employees too. But the basic point stands — and can I add something? If that is indeed their kitchen, Mr. and Mrs. Wesley Britt absolutely have enough money to replace that ugly brown tile. You won’t say it, Ann, but I will.

The big takeaway from this little episode? That the Republican Party knows it cannot afford to lose even a few points of white women’s votes in November 2024. 

And yet lose white women they surely will, because the GOP’s extreme position on abortion has put everything from birth control, to IVF, to actually living through a wanted pregnancy on the table. They have been losing white women when abortion is on the ballot. And don’t think the Democrats are not going to hammer at this issue from now until election day. The best part? We really believe it!

Britt gave us a big grin at one point and said that the GOP supports IVF. But why should anyone believe them when there was no concerted campaign to eliminate IVF in the first place — and yet a Supreme Court judge in Britt’s very own state tried to do exactly that? As IVF clinics across the state shut down, with couples in mid-treatment and embryo transfers scheduled, the Alabama legislature had to quickly pass a bill protecting service providers and patients. Governor Kay Ivey sprinted to her desk to sign it.

The GOP can’t put the rabbit of reproductive rights back in the hat. Logically, the judge was right. If your position is that human life begins when the sperm and egg fuse (that is Britt’s, and the position of the GOP’s Life at Conception Act), then the survival of frozen embryos is just as much the state’s concern as a fetus nearing viability. 

And yet Republicans seem not to understand the implications of the laws they pass for real people. For example, the Alabama state senator who hastily wrote the bill to protect IVF admitted that the Republicans have no idea what they are doing. “A lot of people say conception, a lot of people say implantation, a lot of people say heartbeat,” Dr. Tim Melson said on the floor. “I wish I had an answer.”

Furthermore, extremist rants about immigration may backfire when their cruelty exceeds the protected space of a MAGA rally or Facebook page. Although Donald Trump’s hatred for people of color and race-mixing appears to be genuine, that isn’t true of most Americans. The 2020 census reported over 33 million Americans identified as multi-racial: this means that across party lines, exponentially more white people have people of color in their immediate families. 

Let’s even assume that the white women who vote Republican share Trump’s view. Think about it. Should you terrify women about the imminence of rape at the same time as the Democrats are there to remind them that the GOP is working hard to eliminate access to the morning after pill, or any kind of abortion that might result from that sexual assault?

I have an answer — and I doubt it’s one the Republican Party can hear.

Claire Bond Potter is the Editorial Board's politics historian. A professor of historical studies at The New School for Social Research in New York City, she is the co-executive editor of Public Seminar and the publisher of Political Junkie. Follow her @TenuredRadical.

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