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The GOP’s Failing Politics of Retribution

Heavy-handed attempts to punish dissent are producing unexpected and unwelcome outcomes for Republicans in power across the country.
May 12, 2023
The GOP’s Failing Politics of Retribution
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 18: Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-TX) of the Congressional Hispanic Conference, speaks about border security during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on April 18, 2023 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

As is so often the case, Donald Trump set the template. He told the MAGA faithful gathered on March 4 at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland, “I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.”

Trump has always been animated by a longing to punish his enemies. But now this desire for vengeance seems to be catching on across the Republican spectrum. Retribution is all the rage, not just to punish political opponents but to crack down on internal dissent. The good news is that, in many of these cases, retribution appears to be backfiring thanks to both public aversion to tyrannical overreach and this crazy little thing called law.

Here are some recent targets of retribution efforts that have gone haywire, prompting backlash or even elevating the prospects of their targets in the process.

Tony Gonzales

U.S. congressman from Texas

Offense: Supporting gun safety measures after 19 elementary school students and two teachers were slaughtered in the Uvalde school shooting, which took place in Gonzales’s district.

Retribution: Censured by his fellow Republicans in the Texas GOP, on a vote of 57-5, on March 4, the same day Trump addressed CPAC. The censure motion said his views violated “core principles of the Republican Party of Texas”; two candidates have since announced plans to challenge him in the 2024 primary.

Upshot: Gonzales, elected to a second term in 2022, raised $1.3 million in the first three months of this year—his best quarter to date—while also picking up 80 endorsements. And regarding those primary challengers, Gonzales has a clear message: “Anyone who wants to lace ’em up against me, it’s a fool’s errand.”

Zooey Zephyr

Montana state representative, the legislature’s only trans member

Offense: Saying that fellow lawmakers who backed a state ban on gender-affirming care for minors would have “blood on your hands,” an expression that, as the Associated Press pointed out, has been oft used by other politicians—including prominent individuals from both parties and at various levels of government—without consequence. (She was also accused of inciting a disruptive protest in the chamber several days later.)

Retribution: Censured and barred from appearing on the state house floor for the remainder of the legislative session, which ended May 5.

Upshot: Zephyr, now nationally famous, is suing the state and the Montana house speaker in state court, saying her First Amendment rights have been violated and her constituents wrongfully deprived of representation.

Larry Krasner

Philadelphia district attorney

Offense: Taking a reform-minded approach to criminal justice—or, as House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff put it in a statement, “[implementing] policies and [mismanaging] his office in such a way that its purposeful ineffectiveness in combatting the crime and violence crisis gripping the city has contributed to the problem itself.”

Retribution: Impeached last November by the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, 107-85, along mostly partisan lines. Krasner is a Democrat.

Upshot: The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania in January rejected this impeachment effort as politically motivated and lacking in merit, forcing the cancellation of a senate impeachment trial. “You impeach people for crimes, you impeach elected officials for deep corruption,” Krasner said after the dust had cleared. “You don’t impeach them because you dislike what someone is doing in another city where you don’t live or work or where you can’t even vote.” He remains on the job.

Justin Jones and Justin Pearson

Tennessee state representatives

Offense: Protesting while black on the Tennessee House floor over the lack of legislative action to address gun violence after a shooter armed with an assault rifle killed three children and three adults at a private Christian elementary school in Nashville.

Retribution: Expelled from Tennessee’s house of representatives on April 6 by majorities of more than two-thirds.

Upshot: Both expelled lawmakers were reinstated by local governments as interim representatives in advance of special elections for their seats, which they’re both planning to run in; they are now making good use of the huge national platforms they’ve just been afforded. Their Republican colleagues in Tennessee, meanwhile, have become the subjects of much unwanted attention for what has been branded an “antidemocratic stunt.”

Mickey Mouse

Disney icon

Offense: Publicly opposing Governor Ron DeSantis’s “Don’t Say Gay” law.

Retribution: Following a failed attempt to revoke Disney’s special tax district status, DeSantis and other Florida officials seized control of the board that oversees development at Walt Disney World. The governor also suggested that the state might use unoccupied land adjacent to the company’s theme park to build a new prison.

Upshot: Disney invoking a rare legal clause that is based on the royal family and dates back to 1692, stripped the board of much of its power and is nowsuing DeSantis and others over their “targeted campaign of government retaliation.” The company’s case may be strengthened by DeSantis’s own printed words, given that he made his retaliatory goals against the company explicit in a recent book. Looks like Mickey might just walk away with a smile on his face.

Mauree Turner

Oklahoma state representative, Muslim and black, first “out” nonbinary state legislator in U.S. history

Offense: Briefly allowing into Turner’s office an activist who had just gotten into an altercation with a state trooper—or, as Republican House Speaker Charles McCall claimed, “harboring a fugitive.”

Retribution: Censured by colleagues in early March.

Upshot: Turner has refused to apologize, a prerequisite for regaining committee assignments. The Tahlequah Daily Press ran an article contrasting Turner’s harsh treatment to that of two Oklahoma house members who have been allowed to remain in leadership positions despite facing felony charges, respectively, for nepotism so bad it constituted “conspiring against the state” and a repeat driving-while-intoxicated offense.

Clifford Tatum

Harris County (Texas) elections administrator

Offense: Being in charge of elections in the state’s most populous county, which includes Houston, which last fall experienced problems including shortage of paper ballots in some Republican strongholds.

Retribution: Texas lawmakers are pushing a bill, supported May 1 by the House Elections Committee, that would affect only Harris County—which just happens to be the most Democratic in the state. The measure would abolish Tatum’s appointed position and return control of elections to the elected tax assessor-collector and county clerk.

Upshot: A recent investigation by the Houston Chronicle found that nearly as many Democrat-leaning districts as Republican-leaning ones experienced shortages. The bill is opposed by the Texas Civil Rights Project. A staff attorney with the organization told the elections committee that “just because a problem arose in an election administered by an election administrator, does not mean the solution is to revert back to the old county clerk system.”

Kimberly Graham

Polk County (Iowa) district attorney, Democrat in a sea of red

Offense: Getting elected last fall after promising not to prosecute marijuana possession and other low-level drug crimes, and saying she will not seek cash bail for most nonviolent offenses.

Retribution: Targeted by a proposal unveiled in February by Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds that would allow the state’s attorney general, also a Republican, to prosecute any case on behalf of the state, regardless of the position of the local elected prosecutor. (Reynolds, no surprise, ripped the prosecution of former President Donald Trump by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Braggs as “politically charged,” adding “I think it’s a sad day for the rule of law. I think it’s a sad day for America.”)

Upshot: Calhoun County Attorney Tina Meth-Farrington, a Republican who heads the Iowa County Attorneys Association, called the proposal “overreaching” and said that it “[infringes] on our prosecutorial discretion” while “throwing politics into the game.” That it does.

Andrew Warren

Hillsborough County (Florida) state attorney

Offense: Pledging last June to not use the resources of his office to prosecute violators of the state’s 15-week abortion ban. The state last month passed a ban on abortion after six weeks, pending court review.

Retribution: Suspended by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis from the job he had been elected to do.

Upshot: Warren filed a lawsuit alleging that DeSantis had violated his rights and overstepped his authority by suspending him for a pledge rather than any concrete action. In January, a federal judge ruled that he lacked the authority to overturn Warren’s suspension, even though he agreed that the governor’s action violated Warren’s free speech rights. Quoth the judge, Robert Hinkle: “The assertion that Mr. Warren neglected his duty or was incompetent is incorrect. This factual issue is not close.” His political profile substantially heightened, Warren is considering a re-election bid or even a run to unseat Republican Senator Rick Scott.

Bill Lueders

Bill Lueders, former editor and now editor-at-large of The Progressive, is a writer in Madison, Wisconsin.