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Deja Vu

Far-Right Republicans’ Radical, Bigoted Attack on the Defense Bill

Even the military isn’t safe from the GOP’s war on wokeness.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Representative Chip Roy, a member of the House Freedom Caucus

The rhetoric Republicans are trotting out as they prepare to wage culture war over our national security is tiresomely familiar.

“The Department of Defense’s transformation into a social engineering experiment wrapped in a uniform is the single greatest threat to this nation’s ability to defend itself,” far-right Representative Chip Roy told CNN. Senator Tom Cotton told Fox News: “The defense bill isn’t the place for Democrats to indulge the wild ideas of their latest social experiments.”

And then there was Army Col. Eugene R. Householder, who admonished that his service “is not a sociological laboratory” and that attempts to tamper with it “are a danger to efficiency, discipline, and morale and would result in defeat.”

Oh wait, sorry. Householder wasn’t speaking on the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2024, but rather the contentious issue of racially integrating the military—in December 1941. (He gave those remarks to the Conference of Negro Editors and Publishers, no less.)

So there is something painfully familiar about the arguments hard-right conservatives are bandying in this week’s big House fight over the $886 billion defense bill. At the same time, there’s something frighteningly radical about the stakes of this fight. There’s a real chance that the rabid right could spur (yet another) government shutdown; it’s already torching one of the last bipartisan traditions in Congress: supporting our troops by voting them lots and lots of money.

The reason: The GOP’s unruly right rump is having another one of its culture-war tantrums over national security issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights. Still angry that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy didn’t torch the global economy by forcing a U.S. debt default, the House Freedom Caucus and its fellow marauders issued new sets of demands this week, seeking to force votes on amendments which would prevent the Defense Department from helping its employees travel to get abortion care. They also want to defund the Pentagon’s diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, and to ban the military’s use of electric vehicles. After all, why in the name of Gen. Jack D. Ripper would we have any interest in reducing our military’s reliance on gasoline?

This is neither to fetishize bipartisanship nor sanctify our mind-boggling defense budget. But when so little of Congress remains relatively uninfected by a hyperpartisanship which brooks neither compromise nor quarter and prizes performance art over progress, it is striking and clarifying when another issue of general agreement succumbs.

As America’s most sanctimonious self-appointed guardians, House conservatives go on about keeping the nation strong by pouring as much money into its military as they can (while—ha!—carping about deficits). But their political nihilism used to stop at the defense budget’s generous edge. It started lapping over in recent years and now threatens to flood.

So the people who most ostentatiously strut around professing their loyalty to the troops are putting in danger the flow of funds they absolutely insist is vital to said armed forces and our national security. And they’re doing it to score cheap political points with their constituents in unwinnable battles.

After all, even some Republicans—those whose swing districts make them vulnerable to the desires of voters outside of their party’s base—oppose these radical proposals. That’s why the bill might go down. There’s even talk that the conservative chaos agents could fail to provide the procedural votes necessary for the House to even debate the bill. Given that the National Defense Authorization Act ordinarily is the easiest recurring funding bill to pass, it raises real questions about whether Congress will be able to agree to fund the government in the fall.

But let’s say McCarthy is able to hold his conference together long enough to do the House Freedom Caucus’s bidding. Do Republicans think that the Senate is going to pass—let alone President Biden sign—a bill rolling back some of the few abortion supports the federal government is still able to offer? Is this really the proverbial hill upon which they want to immolate themselves? Why do they hate our military? (Or so Democrats are prepared to ask.)

Then again, the Freedom Caucus is not interested in governing, just performance art involving live flame. Ensuring that the troops get paid is less important than ensuring that you’re heard in the conservative ecosphere pounding the hottest buttons for your fights. These are the people trying to keep their House colleagues on a tight leash. Having emerged healthy from their last tantrum, the hard right can’t resist the opportunity to strike at the next big, inviting target. And if McCarthy is able to navigate this set of landmines without having his gavel blown off, the pressure will only build for a grand spectacle when it’s time to keep the government running in the fall.

It’s the same animus that has driven freshman Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville to single-handedly shut down all senior-level Pentagon promotions for months over the Defense Department’s abortion policy. The guy who needed to sleep on the question of whether white nationalists were racists now wants to further inhibit abortion access for women service members. “We will lose talent” because of Tuberville’s antics, Air Force Gen. C.Q. Brown, Biden’s nominee to chair the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.

Which brings us back to the too-familiar ring of the GOP’s “social engineering experiment” talking points. “The Army is not a sociological laboratory; to be effective it must be organized and trained according to the principles which will insure success,” Householder told the Black editors and publishers on the day after bombs fell on Pearl Harbor. “Experiments to meet the wishes and demands of the champions of every race and creed for the solution of their problems are a danger to efficiency, discipline and morale and would result in ultimate defeat.”

The details have changed slightly, but the basic argument has remained the same for threat after bogus threat: Permitting women into the military will ruin unit cohesion, gays must not be allowed to serve because it’s a giant social experiment, women can’t possibly be allowed into combat … nor trans warfighters.

Somehow our armed forces have survived and, despite how the right apparently wants to disrespect them, remained the most professional and most effective force in the world. The malefactors in Congress are also enduring, indeed growing. With the Pentagon, FBI, and Fortune 500 now derided as socialist hotbeds, one wonders where they’ll turn next to fuel their performative fires.