What? Greg Abbott’s Pandering to His Base?

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If it felt like Texas fell through the looking glass last week, congratulations! Clearly, you are not a conservative Texan. You probably do not think that the greatest threats facing the state are “illegal” immigration or attacks by foreign terrorists. You may very well believe that gun violence and mass shootings pose more pressing threats. And it’s quite possible that you don’t think that whites and Christians are subject to “a lot” of discrimination.

However, those are the dominant views of conservative Texans and, according to a fascinating report published by the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, Austin last Tuesday, they go a long way in explaining Greg Abbott’s rhetoric and actions in response  to the Paris attacks. “Texans’ Perceptions of Threats to the U.S. and GOP Politics After the Paris Attacks” is a must-read. The poll it reports was in the field prior to the Paris (and Beirut and Bamako) attacks; in effect, it serves as a baseline on Texans’ world view, thus providing needed context for Abbott’s reaction to the attacks and his seemingly effortless pivot from attacks by ISIS to shutting the door on Syrian refugees.

Authors Jim Henson and Joshua Blank make a strong case that the perceptions found in the November TPP polling are connected to politicians reactions. After acknowledging the real threats posed by ISIS and other foreign terrorists, they write,

it [does not]make one an unrequited cynic to suggest that in addition to legitimate policy concerns, there is a real domestic political context to these governors’ public opposition to the relocation of Syrian refugees in Texas, or elsewhere in the U.S. The latter seems particularly true given state governors’ limited ability to resist federally ordered refugee relocations.

They go on to make the point that fears about border security and “illegal immigration” have been “harmonized with counter-terrorism during the most recent legislative session as part of the public justifications for increased border security spending.” This point is critical to understand the governor’s tweet last Wednesday where he claimed that two Syrian families who turned themselves in to U.S. agents were “caught” when there was never any type of pursuit or search for them. On Friday, Politifact Texas rated Abbott’s tweet MOSTLY FALSE in its review of the tweet and the story (another excellent read). But that false rating highlights the gap between how progressive Texans view the current situation and conservatives view it–it does not matter to Greg Abbott if his tweet is true or not, as long as it gets 1K retweets and lands him on Sean Hannity last Wednesday night.

By the end of week, Abbott’s fight took a turn that seemed to catch a whole lot more folks off guard when he threatened Texas churches and religious organizations that are already working on resettling Syrian refugees in Texas via a letter from HHSC Executive Commissioner Chris Traylor (who will already be a familiar figure to those who followed the debacle earlier this fall regarding the proposed cuts to medicaid reimbursement rates for children’s therapy). Many progressives immediately reacted to this letter as a deeply unChristian and hypocritical action by a governor who tweets Bible verses (which it is).

However, we need to view Abbott’s attack on churches and organizations engaged in refugee work through a different lens, one that is more political and less morally outraged. Texas Tribune editor Ross Ramsey has an excellent post today on the phenomenon of politicians inflaming rather than calming voters at times of crisis (another recommendation in a post full of them). We need to understand the actual data behind Abbott’s politicized approach to Syrian and why he is willing to offend, disrespect and outrage so many mainstream Texas Christians.  That is what the Texas Politics Project report provides.

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