Commentary: 'We Are at War' — So Much for the GOP General Election Pivot to the Middle


Remember the old days, meaning a blink ago, when political candidates would come out of a pitched primary election and then pivot to appeal to the broader middle?

Now what you do is ramp up the violent rhetoric.

"We are at war," GOP candidate Joe Kent said Tuesday, the day he beat an incumbent member of Congress for a spot in the general election this fall.

"The left isn't the left of 10, 15 years ago," Kent vowed on the "War Room" podcast of former Donald Trump adviser Steve Bannon. "These guys don't care about winning arguments anymore. ... It's a total, full-frontal assault, and they're going after every one of us."

"So what we have to do when we take back power ... we have to play smashmouth."

"War and smashmouth." It's 2022's version, I guess, of "hope and change."

Kent, an "America First" Republican who defeated incumbent Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler in southwest Washington's 3rd Congressional District, was fuming in the aftermath of the FBI executing a search warrant on Trump's home in Florida. Bannon called it "jack-booted gestapo tactics," to which Kent agreed.

"We have to go after these people," Kent said.

This is really not normal — this propensity, across parts of elected politics at times but especially on the right, to respond to conflict or bad news with apocalyptic, violence-tinged rhetoric.

Since the 2020 election, I've documented in this space a state representative from Snohomish County calling on his followers to prepare for "a second Civil War"; a Congressional candidate from central Washington proposing the hanging of a public health official; and another GOP candidate, Loren Culp, suggesting a lynching and the shooting of judges and prosecutors.

Culp, a former governor nominee, went all histrionic again this week, after again being rejected by voters. He stated: "We do not live in a Constitutional Republic anymore, it is now a one-party totalitarian regime."

Echoed back Isaac Holyk, another "America First" GOPer from southwest Washington who says he's running for U.S. Senate in 2024: "So what are we going to do about it? This is what the 2nd amendment was made for, is it not?"

This is why the "we are at war" rhetoric is extremely concerning. It comes not from some anarchic street protester or Proud Boy, but in this case from someone, Kent, who is now a major-party nominee for Congress. Keep saying we're at war and eventually someone's gonna take you literally.

The framing that "they" are "going after every one of us" is crafted to incite. It's also wrong; with respect to the search warrant at Mar-a-Lago, nobody even knows what that's about yet.

Based on past results, the feds may have wildly overreached, or they may have a solid case. Most likely, it will fall somewhere in between. Shouldn't candidates for federal office pause for a hint of what it's about before invoking Civil War 2.0?

If Trump didn't do anything wrong — or even if he did but he beats the rap — then this will be more rocket fuel for both his "deep-state" critique and his comeback. We just don't know yet.

Despite knowing no facts, Kent went ahead and called for a retaliatory slashing of the budgets of the FBI and the Department of Justice anyway. In other words, defunding the federal police.

Take it from a Seattleite, Joe: You really don't want to go into defunding the police impetuously. Even if the idea has some merit, it can backfire on you hard (the Seattle City Council heard at a hearing on Tuesday that another 109 police officers have left the Seattle department so far this year, still with no programs scaled up to replace them).

"We must destroy the FBI," tweeted Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., one of Kent's big backers — sounding oddly like a protester at the CHOP back in 2020.

It says something about how extreme ideological partisanship can warp minds that one of the left's fringier ideas — defunding law enforcement — has now boomeranged around to the right. Its punitive appeal is more important than whether it works.

As for the talk of civil war, I've asked in the past for elected GOP leaders to tone-police the party's rising violent rhetoric. But it's firmly in the party's DNA now. Kent knows this innately — he just withstood a flood of special-interest money to defeat a more moderate incumbent, so he's shown he's a savvy-enough politician.

It's 2022, so there won't be any old-timey pivot to the center. Or any refereeing from the long-lost Grand Old Party. That means it's up to voters alone how much they really want to go into the future with war and smashmouth.