An Acute Attack of Trumpism in Tennessee

Shame is a toxic emotion, and it often causes people to direct hostility outward.

Illustration of Donald Trump's head orbiting around the state of Tennessee
Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Getty.

What’s happened in Tennessee in recent weeks should be no surprise, coming from a party whose sensibilities and racial attitudes are embodied by Donald Trump.

Earlier this month, House Republicans in Tennessee, the state in which the Ku Klux Klan was founded, overwhelmingly voted to expel two young Black lawmakers, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson. Their offense? A breach of decorum and procedural rules. They led protest chants on the House floor following the mass shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville. Representative Gloria Johnson joined Jones and Pearson in the protests, but the vote to expel her fell short.

When she was asked why she had avoided expulsion when her two Black colleagues had not, Johnson, who is white, said, “It might have to do with the color of our skin.” Republican lawmakers denied the charge, calling it “disgusting, untrue, and highly offensive.”

That statement might be more credible if Trump, the leader of the Republican Party, who has a very troubled history when it comes to race, hadn’t had as his dinner guest a few months ago an outspoken anti-Semite and racist. Nor does it help the GOP case that in 2016, the then–chief of staff to former Tennessee House Speaker Glen Casada sent explicitly racist texts.

What we do know is that expulsion is extremely rare, with only two lawmakers previously ousted from the House of Representatives in Tennessee in the past 157 years. One lawmaker had been convicted of accepting a bribe; the other faced allegations of sexual misconduct. No House member has ever been removed from elected office for simply violating the rules of decorum. So these expulsions were extraordinarily punitive, especially because lesser penalties could have been invoked.

Tennessee Republicans engaged in an act of political vengeance, but did so with comical ineptness. Both of the Democratic lawmakers have already been reappointed, but now they are prominent figures with a national following.

On Monday, after being sworn in, Jones returned to the legislature accompanied by Johnson. Pearson—whose reappointment came two days later—looked on from the balcony.

“No expulsion, no attempt to silence us will stop us, but it will only galvanize and strengthen our movement,” Jones said. “Power to the people!” he shouted, bringing cheers from the gallery.

But perhaps the most revealing statement during this manufactured crisis came from Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton, who compared the incident to the insurrection and attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6.

“What they did today was equivalent, at least equivalent, maybe worse depending on how you look at it, to doing an insurrection in the state capitol,” Sexton said. When he was pressed about his statement, he said, “That quote did not say absolutely it was worse. It said it could be.”

No one, not even Republicans in the Tennessee state legislature, can watch what happened last week on the floor of the House and the January 6 attack on the Capitol and consider them remotely comparable.

What happened in Tennessee wasn’t an “insurrection.” It was indecorous, a breaking of procedural rules, but it was also an event without violence or destruction, without assaults or deaths, without heavily armed mobs or nooses hanging from gallows. No one in Tennessee will be charged and convicted of seditious conspiracy against the United States. And what happened in Tennessee didn’t include peddling lies and embracing crazed conspiracy theories in order to overturn a free and fair election. So what’s going on here?

We’re watching Trump-induced idiocy. For more than seven years, Republicans have defended Trump’s cruel, unethical, and deranged behavior. They are constantly having to deny what they have become in service to him. It’s created cognitive dissonance. How can the party of “family values” defend a moral degenerate like Trump? How can law-and-order Republicans defend a violent insurrection and threats against judges and prosecutors? How can “constitutional conservatives” rally around a man who attempted to subvert the Constitution by overthrowing an election?

The human mind’s capacity to rationalize such things is extraordinary, but not limitless. Some Republicans have the sense, even if it’s only in their quiet moments, that they have acted not only hypocritically but dishonorably. And it gnaws at them. They know they would eviscerate any Democrat who did a fraction of what Trump did. They therefore have to expend enormous psychological energy to keep from becoming sick with themselves for what they have become. Shame is a toxic emotion, and it often causes people to direct hostility outward rather than inward.

Tired from choosing to defend the indefensible, enraged at being called out, Trump’s supporters lash out. They desperately want to make critics of Trump the focus, forcing them to answer for their sins. Pointing to the misdeeds of their political foes allows Republicans to tell themselves, one another, and the rest of the world, See, we’re not so bad after all. They also catastrophize the threats posed by Democrats, because people will tolerate an awful lot of misconduct from their leaders if they’ve convinced themselves that the threat posed by the other side is existential.

As we’ve seen in Tennessee, this frantic state of mind leads Republicans to preposterous places and to act in politically self-destructive ways. One of the two most important political parties in the world is dominated by people who are enraged, embittered, and anarchic.

I understand the temptation to look away and to move on, to become inured to what’s happening, to consider the MAGA takeover of the GOP “old news.” But unless that mania subsides, until there’s a clean break with Trumpism, our political and civic culture will become even more deformed, even more monstrous, even more violent. This is no time to grow weary in doing good, “for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart.”