Why Do Republicans Want to Kill Their Voters?

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I honestly thought it was fake news: Just after Kevin McCarthy became House speaker, giving away his power to right-wing antagonists the first week in January, I read about Congress members smoking on the GOP side of the aisle. Just a projection from my liberal allies of Republicans’ intent to erode public health, I assumed. Funny GIF to come.

But it was true. Representative Tom Cole was smoking cigars in his office. Others were reportedly smoking cigarettes in other places.

I thought it had to be illegal. It’s true that the District of Columbia makes all public buildings smoke-free, and a Bill Clinton executive order prohibits smoking in federal buildings that are under the authority of the Executive Branch. But House lawmakers’ private offices aren’t governed by those rules, and the Capitol is one of the few “office buildings” where smoking is still allowed inside.

Gross, if true.

Well, it is true; under McCarthy, smoking is allowed not just in members’ offices but in public areas too. Now comes more carcinogenic propaganda from right-wing losers.

Last week, Fox’s Tucker Carlson began preaching a return to smoking as a return to American values. Tobacco is so much more American than increasingly legal and available weed, he told his stoned-on-lies audience. “Nicotine frees your mind and [THC] makes you compliant and passive,” said Carlson.

He wrapped his rant in his classic attack on Covid precautions.

“They don’t care about your health: they closed the gyms during Covid! Anyone who closed gyms during a pandemic that kills people who are fat doesn’t care about your health at all. They hate nicotine, they love THC…. They hate it—it’s a real threat to them!”

I’ve always assumed Carlson got the Covid vaccine(s) and boosters. I know he and other Fox hosts worked from home during most of the pandemic, while railing against government efforts to prevent its spread among the rest of us. I also know he doesn’t smoke tobacco. (No idea about weed.) But he decries such public health measures to his audience.

We have already learned that death rates are higher in red counties than in blue ones. So-called “deaths of despair”—suicide, drug overdoses, alcohol-related maladies—are on the rise in the reddest congressional districts, especially among white men. Gun violence is higher there, too, So are Covid deaths and disabilities, thanks in part to conservatives preaching against vaccines and safety measures like masks. Even more remarkable, a New York Times analysis late last year found that the House districts represented by members who voted against certifying Joe Biden’s victory on January 6, 2021, saw their white population drop more than those of other House Republicans’ districts.

Some analysts speculate that this is why those districts’ voters supported an antidemocratic insurrection. “A lot of white Americans who are really threatened are willing to reject democratic norms because they see it as a way to protect their status,” one political scientist told the Times. The paper didn’t say whether the white population drop had anything to do with white Republicans’ increasingly self-destructive behavior, but it’s something to wonder about.

I shouldn’t be surprised at Carlson’s tribute to tobacco. He’s preached destructive faux-science before, most notably by talking up “testicle tanning” as a way to increase the declining sperm count of American men. Carlson himself once smoked, but he gave it up, though he reportedly still chomps on Nicorette gum to get a nicotine high. The pampered Swanson prince no doubt avails himself of the latest in medical research and care to extend his own life while making ours more miserable. We are reminded, with the publication of a last, posthumously published book, that Rush Limbaugh died of the smoking-related cancer he insisted didn’t exist, making him maybe less of a hypocrite than Carlson.

I was a child before the anti-smoking crusades. Both my parents smoked. I had asthma, and my asthma attacks during the winter could be triggered by my two parents smoking in the front seat of the car, windows closed, heat blaring. They weren’t abusive or neglectful; they didn’t yet know the connection between second-hand smoke and respiratory illness. I still remember feeling like I was inhaling hell. (They thought I was dramatic, which I often was, but not about that.) Now we know that second-hand smoke kills an estimated 41,000 Americans a year and causes hundreds of thousands of cases of cancer.

Republicans have long opposed anti-smoking measures, at least partly out of fealty to Big Tobacco. Former GOP Speaker John Boehner became infamous for handing out checks from tobacco lobbyists on the House floor in 1995. As Indiana governor, Mike Pence railed against tobacco restrictions and insisted that “smoking doesn’t kill.” But the recent pro-smoking crusade seems to be inspired more by culture-war imperatives than by desire to defend the tobacco industry. Check out these two Proud Boys smoking on the House floor during the January 6 riot. So hot.

Killing your own voters seems like a bad electoral strategy—Salon’s Amanda Marcotte calls it “getting lung cancer to own the libs.” Sadly, Republicans are mostly giving their base voters what they think they want. Expecting them to defy those voters’ wishes would presuppose a courage they’ve surrendered, especially in the Trump years. Red-state voters and Fox viewers are on their own when it comes to protecting themselves.