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When Republicans Backed Herschel Walker, They Embraced a Double Standard

As I wrote in this newsletter in March, the phrase “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” coined by George W. Bush when he was a presidential …

When Republicans Backed Herschel Walker, They Embraced a Double Standard
12.07.2022 21:07

As I wrote in this newsletter in March, the phrase “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” coined by George W. Bush when he was a presidential candidate, pithily captures a wisdom that’s difficult to discount, regardless of one’s political stripe. But its emergence as a critique of the educational establishment has meant that it’s generally thought of as a charge from the right.

There are times, though, when the right might consider attending to the proverbial log in its own eye, few more obvious and disturbing than the elevation of the ex-football star Herschel Walker, a Black man, as the Republican Party’s candidate in this year’s Georgia Senate race.

To start, Walker is fact-challenged: His campaign removed a false claim from its website that he graduated from college. He has falsely claimed to have worked in law enforcement. The lucrative chicken processing business he has reportedly claimed to own is apparently neither especially lucrative nor owned by him. In a local TV interview this year, he said, implausibly, “I’ve never heard President Trump ever say” that the 2020 election was stolen.

As Maya King reported this week for The Times, “After repeatedly criticizing absent fathers in Black households,” Walker “publicly acknowledged having fathered two sons and a daughter with whom he is not regularly in contact.”

It is hardly uncommon, however, for people running for office to have messy pasts. And in theory, someone could be an effective senator while, like Walker, questioning the theory of evolution: “At one time, science said man came from apes, did it not?” he asked in March. “If that is true, why are there still apes? Think about it.” Or even while, as he did two years ago, offering the take that there existed a “dry mist” that “will kill any Covid on your body” that “they don’t want to talk about.”

The problem with Walker is how glaringly unfit he is for public office apart from all that.

Asked whether he would have voted for President Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill, Walker objected that it was “totally unfair” to expect him to answer the question because he hadn’t yet seen “all the facts,” apparently unaware that one would expect him to have formed an opinion via, well, following the news. Asked, on the day of the Uvalde massacre, about his position on new gun laws, Walker seemed unclear that candidates are expected to at least fake a basic familiarity with the issues, responding, “What I like to do is see it and everything and stuff.”

Days later on Fox News, he went into a bit more detail in a verbal bouillabaisse that almost rose to the level of performance art, saying:

This isn’t a mere matter of verbal dexterity. He’s not just a political neophyte getting his sea legs as a public speaker — in recent months, we’ve watched Eric Adams, the New York City mayor, going through that. Walker isn’t just gaffe-prone, as Biden has been throughout his career. He isn’t someone underqualified and swivel-tongued, like the former governor and current congressional candidate Sarah Palin, who still gives the impression of someone who could have learned on the job. Walker doesn’t appear to have the slightest clue about, or interest in, matters of state, and gives precious little indication that this would change.

Here’s where I’m supposed to write something like, “Walker makes Donald Trump look like Benjamin Disraeli by comparison.” But it’s more that Trump, who has endorsed Walker, is pretty much as clueless. Trump’s speeches are riveting — at least to his devotees — and certainly more practiced, but given how recently we’ve seen what happens when someone who would lose an argument with a cloud is placed in a position of grave responsibility, it’s rather grievous to see Republicans now do this with Walker.

So why are they doing it?

You could say that the issue here is less racism than strategy. The incumbent Democratic senator, Raphael Warnock, is Black, and Georgia Republicans presumably hope that a useful number of Black voters who might otherwise default to supporting him will be swayed by another Black candidate with a famous name, regardless of his lack of credentials. Banking on public naïveté isn’t necessarily a racist act, but the optics here are repulsive: It’s hard to imagine Republicans backing a white candidate so profoundly and shamelessly unsuited for the role. It presents a double standard that manifests as a brutal lack of respect for all voters, Black voters in particular.

Serious figures have served in Congress’s upper house, from Henry Clay to Lyndon B. Johnson, Margaret Chase Smith to Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama to Tim Scott. And now, potentially, Herschel see-it-and-everything-and-stuff Walker? This amounts to the same kind of insult that comes from the left when elite schools lower admissions criteria in order to attract more Black students — a kind of pragmatism forged in condescension. Some call that bigotry. I would quibble about the definition, but only that, and not loudly. Walker as a candidate for the United States Senate is water from the same well.

Have feedback? Send me a note at [email protected].

John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He hosts the podcast “Lexicon Valley” and is the author, most recently, of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”


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