EDITORIAL: For the GOP in Alaska and nationwide, how far is too far?

Anchorage Daily News, Alaska
·4 min read

Feb. 20—It took two years, but on Feb. 18, 2021, Gov. Mike Dunleavy finally had enough. In a blistering three-page letter, the governor reamed Sen. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, for her rampant misinformation campaign as head of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Despite the governor and Sen. Reinbold belonging to the same political party, Dunleavy issued a stream of vitriol seldom leveled at even his Democratic foes in the Legislature. Everyone has a breaking point, and the governor found his.

"You deceived the people of Alaska about their government's response to the largest public health crisis in a century. In doing so, you violated the obligation you have, as a member of the Legislature, to promoting and protecting public health," the governor's missive to Sen. Reinbold read. "Your baseless, deleterious and self-serving demands on government resources amounts to an abuse of public resources and will no longer be tolerated."

It's not hard to understand why Gov. Dunleavy unleashed his ire on Sen. Reinbold: For a full month, the senator has used her bully pulpit at the helm of the Judiciary Committee to belittle administration figures, partake in fact-free rants that misinform the public about the COVID-19 pandemic, entertain conspiracy theories, promote debunked medical claims and interview fringe figures who are all too happy to smear the medical and scientific establishment to gain personal notoriety. Reinbold falsely claimed the governor was making COVID-19 vaccines compulsory and equated his health mandates to martial law.

Given Sen. Reinbold's frequent and flagrant misinformation, the question most Alaskans asked themselves when they heard of the governor's letter likely wasn't "why," but "why did it take so long?"

It's a good question, and it's one worth asking on a national level as well. Over the course of several years, the Republican Party in the United States has undergone a transmogrification, with a conspiracy-minded, xenophobic populist faction suddenly at the reins of the party Abraham Lincoln founded. Ten years ago, if you'd asked a Republican why they chose their party, they would likely have answered with some mix of fiscal conservatism, belief in a strong national defense, the importance of the Second Amendment, and a sense that the U.S. was drifting toward moral relativism. Ask a self-identifying Republican today, and you might still get that answer — or you might get an unhinged tirade about stolen elections, a cabal of child abusers, and the COVID-19 pandemic being a Chinese government plot.

Though the Republican Party is still nominally one party, it's hard to see how the old guard of the GOP can coexist with the QAnon faction and the election-fraud diehards. The latter groups increasingly maintain their beliefs in direct contravention to reality. The predictions of "Q" have been repeatedly debunked and dozens of lawsuits alleging election fraud have been found wholly without merit, but it matters not a whit to the hardcore believers, who appear to think they can make these fabrications into reality through sheer force of will. And lately, these delusions have taken more and more dangerous form: Sen. Reinbold's anti-mask activism and COVID-19 quackery, if accepted by most Alaskans, would bring case counts roaring back to all-time highs. And five people died in January when election-fraud myth adherents, whipped into a frenzy by former President Donald Trump, rioted at the Capitol building in an attempt to stop the peaceful transfer of power to President-elect Joe Biden.

One participant in that riot, facing federal felony charges, was set to testify before Sen. Reinbold's Judiciary Committee on Friday, about the purported medical benefits of hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment. (It is apparently immaterial to Sen. Reinbold that the Food and Drug Administration has warned against the use of the drug by coronavirus patients.) Fortunately, Senate President Peter Micciche canceled that hearing personally on Thursday, preventing the spread of more misinformation. Which, again, should lead Alaskans to wonder, "why did it take so long?"

The answer is that decisions that would otherwise seem like common sense become more complicated when political reality intrudes. Despite Sen. Reinbold's well-established tendency to embarrass her caucus, she's not alone among legislators in her skepticism of COVID-19 health measure, and the Senate majority can't afford to lose very many members before it's in danger of no longer being a majority — that's why Sen. Reinbold came to be the Judiciary chair in the first place, and why the caucus ditched its requirement that members stick together on budget votes. That's also why, rather than repudiating the discredited election-fraud claims and QAnon adherents in their ranks, GOP members in the Lower 48 opted to censure and deride those who spoke against them.

But at some point, there has to be a reckoning, and it seems like it's coming soon, both in Alaska and across the U.S. — the Republican Party can't exist long in its present state. It must choose to reject the fringe that has come to dominate its rank-and-file, or it will become a fringe party itself, fixated on misinformation and raging at imagined enemies. For the health of our state and our country, we should hope it chooses to return to its principles.