Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds finished out the 2021 legislative session in fitting fashion late Wednesday night, signing into law a hastily-passed bill to immediately ban schools from enforcing mask policies. Just over her shoulder during the ceremony was an anti-mask, Q-Anon conspiracy theorist who held a sign that suggested masking children was abuse. Reynolds signed that, too.
It was a scene that encapsulated just how far the Republican Party establishment in Iowa fell down the rabbit hole of far-right, online politics this year. Gone were any concerns that standing next to the embarrassing fringe could damage their standing with voters. Instead, they’ve fully embraced it.
This, the fifth year of full Republican control of the Iowa Statehouse, was certainly the biggest yet for right-wing legislative victories. But the tone and substance of the session took on a far different demeanor in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s electoral defeat.
So much of Republicans’ efforts this year seemed inspired not by long-held party or conservative values, but just by whatever was bouncing around conservative social media that week. Watching debates, especially whenever Sen. Jim Carlin stood up in the Iowa Senate, was like witnessing a bizarro live reenactment of a Facebook comments thread, performed by the elected “leaders” of the state.
The session began by Republicans using Trump’s lies about election fraud to advance their new effort to make it more difficult to vote in the state despite already enacting widespread reforms in previous years. Carlin, who has launched a Trump-loyalist challenge to Sen. Chuck Grassley, let it slip during debate that “most of the Republican caucus believes the election was stolen.”
Republicans continued fighting Trump’s various grievances when they pushed for a “tech censorship” bill that sought to strike back at social media companies for banning Trump from their platforms after he used them to incite violence and death at the U.S. Capitol. Sen. Jake Chapman, the bill’s sponsor, hoped it would make Trump want to move to Iowa.
“These platforms have become weaponized by progressive ideology,” Sen. Jason Schultz said of companies like Facebook, where the top ten performing posts in the U.S. each day are almost always ultra-conservative pages like Dan Bongino and Ben Shapiro.
The bill would have stripped tech companies of their Iowa tax credits, an abrupt about-face for a party that recently opened up the state treasury to bring an Apple data center to Waukee.
In February and March, a far-right Iowa news site set off a Red Scare-like panic across Iowa conservatives’ Facebook pages about the Ames school district’s planned Black Lives Matter week. Typically, such online freakouts would stop there, but this year House Republicans drug Ames school staff to the Statehouse for a special hearing to criticize them.
“You’re indoctrinating kids with this garbage, and so I want to know how you can justify presenting one side of a blatantly wrong viewpoint,” Rep. Bobby Kaufmann said during it.
Were that not enough, Republican lawmakers went many steps further by outright banning many forms of diversity training in the state, parroting language often seen in Fox News segments about “indoctrination.”
There were plenty of other little moments where legislators’ steady diet of online misinformation came through, like when Rep. Jon Jacobsen put up a strong defense of hydroxychloroquine treating COVID-19 in a subcommittee meeting. Carlin repeated the long-debunked idea that vaccines cause autism.
And who could forget Iowa Republicans’ all-out messaging blitz on Democrats wanting to ban meat, a total fabrication that right-wing news blared for weeks?
Of course, not everything new that happened this year sprouted from the depths of the online comments section. Charter schools, tax cuts for the wealthy, looser gun laws and a constitutional amendment on abortion have long been goals of Iowa Republicans, and this just seems to be the first session they felt secure enough in their power to push them through.
Still, throughout this year’s legislative session, I often thought back to conversation I had with a friend in college in the mid-2000s where we were discussing the increasing hold Fox News had on the Republican Party base.
“The lies they get people to believe gets worse every year,” I think I said. “But you know when it’ll get really dangerous? When the Republican members of Congress start truly believing in it, too.”
Many would argue the George W. Bush years were bad enough, but the point is that while Republican politicians took advantage of far-right lies and conspiracy theories to motivate their base and get elected, you got the sense they didn’t actually believe in the really wild stuff, nor did they try to implement it once they got into office.
Well, it seems we’re now fully through the looking glass, and the consequences of that were nowhere more apparent than in Iowa.
The core principles of the Iowa Republican Party’s governing strategy now revolve around whatever is leading the headlines on Tucker Carlson, Newsmax or OAN. The same right-wing memes and outright lies that get the most shares on Facebook are also what direct the party’s legislative docket. Many Republican leaders have become personally, completely subsumed by their social media feed, while others appear to have stopped trying to fight it.
Most of the younger Republican elected leaders and activists have no pre-Fox News mindset — they’ve grown up in the far-right echo chamber. Older conservative politicians seem to have slowly slid into that world despite forming their early political identities outside of it.
Labor leaders once considered Carlin one of the few Republicans they could work with — now he’s a walking, talking right-wing meme. Even people like Sen. Chuck Grassley can’t hide it when he tweets justifications for the Arizona election conspiracy theories, nor can Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks conceal her real views on masks when she refuses to speak to a reporter who’s wearing one.
But all that has been a gradually worsening situation. What seems to be the catalyst for this new era in Iowa was Trump’s 2020 defeat and attack on the Capitol.
If you were a non-fringe Republican who made it through four years of Trump’s presidency and the January 6 insurgency with your party loyalty intact, you went through a lot that you had to somehow justify to yourself. It seems like it was easier for those people to just give up and embrace the far-right conspiracy theories — it certainly doesn’t seem to hurt your electoral chances in Iowa, anyway.
Modern U.S. politics — and life here in general, really — has become such a constant whiplash of personal interactions, with one party living in a completely different reality than the rest of us. Unfortunately for those of us who call Iowa home, our politics are no longer simply influenced by the Facebook comments section, our entire state is now governed by it.
by Pat Rynard