If someone asked me to identify the worst person in the Republican caucus at the Montana Legislature, it wouldn’t be easy. You’ve got a dog killer, a crackpot whose toupee is almost as bad as his racist views, a Senator who thinks we should privatize Indian reservations and Glacier National Park, and a host of bigots who believe their job in the Legislature is to punish people who lead lives different from their own.
But if you put a gun to my head (not a metaphor that makes me very comfortable with this crowd) and demanded I choose one, it might just be House District 85’s Theresa Manzella, who perhaps best embodies the contemporary Republican cocktail of ignorance and self-assurance, topped with a splash of bitter intolerance.
In this space over the years, we’ve reported on her support for armed anti-government extremists, bigotry against Muslims, support for the Confederacy, attacks on teachers and unions, and the militia movements that have caused so much harm in the West. She’s an adherent of the ahistorical and dangerous views of W. Cleon Skousen and firmly in the camp of the Republican Party that demonizes federal law enforcement officers and other officials.
And, of course, given that combination of absurd, reactionary, and dangerous views, she’s the kind of person the current Montana GOP selected as a delegate for the GOP National Convention in 2016.
All this lead up seemed necessary to explain that she just might have outdone herself today. Following the lead of the unindicted co-conspirator in the White House, she posted this image of the murdered Mollie Tibbets on her Facebook page and the Ravalli County Republicans page with the caption “Remembering Mollie Tibbets who was permanently separated from her family by an illegal alien.”
The Tibbets family, which is understandably devastated, does not want to politicize their loss, but simply wants to grieve. That human desire simply doesn’t compute with people like Manzella, who see an opportunity to “own the libs” and demonize immigrants to this country. Her callous disregard for the Tibbets family (in a meme the day after her body was discovered) demonstrates the depths to which these people will sink to attack people of color. A review of Representative Manzella’s social media doesn’t show any concern for the missing indigenous women across Montana and the U.S., but an opportunity to capitalize on the death of a white woman was just too tempting to pass up for even a few days.
Manzella is simply demonstrating what has become increasingly clear about today’s GOP: their entire electoral strategy seems to rest on distracting a certain core of voters with endless calls to hate and fear brown people. Any murder is, of course, a horrific tragedy, and I feel so much sorrow for the Tibbets family, but to pretend that the wall to wall Fox News, Presidential, and local candidate coverage of certain crimes is anything but coded racism would be absurd.
In their book White Backlash: Immigration, Race, and American Politics, professors Marissa Abrajano and Zoltan Hajnal argue that the Republican Party is using fear of Latino immigrants to convince certain white voters to support them and keep them in power despite the demographic changes in this country that favor Democrats in the future. They conclude that these strategies to win votes by constructing threat narratives about Latinos drive the punitive immigration policies we’re seeing now and increase the likelihood of racial conflict and backlash in the United States.
What Manzella is doing is what demagogues do: they distort the facts by stoking fears and manipulating existing prejudices, with no real regard for the actual victims or the consequences of their actions.
In another time, a leader of the Republican Party endorsing racist views, supporting anti-government violence and exploiting the death of a 20-year-old for political gain would be front page news. Today, it’s just more of the same and those beliefs are becoming normalized by the silence of the institutions that should be publicizing these views, to the detriment of our discourse and the very democratic values that this country depends on.