The Republican Party has completed a hostile takeover of Texas and is doing everything it can to maintain power, with Governor Greg Abbott following in Trump’s footsteps, from education to voting rights. As a Texan, I’ve seen this up-close and personal.
In the latest example, Abbott created a 1836 Project and it has some concerned that it could end up being Confederate propaganda legitimized in Texas classrooms. The name itself is an obvious callback to both Trump’s 1776 Commission, which was a challenge to Nikole Hannah Jones’ 1619 Project launched by The New York Times. The 1619 Project attempted to reckon with the country’s legacy of slavery and inequity in America stretching back beyond the official founding of America as well as the founding of Texas.
While Abbott has called for a “patriotic education,” some of the comparisons to North Korea and China being floated around on social media are also unfounded. Even though the use of the language mirrors some language used by the leaders of those countries, that comparison actually falls flat under a minuscule amount of scrutiny. If those countries called for anything of the sort, it would come with the full backing of the government, not just one governor of one territory.
His call for a “patriotic education” is essentially a call of the faction of the Republican Party that believes wholeheartedly in the mission and the ethics of Donald J. Trump. It is a call of members of the Republican Party who believe that they can similarly use their offices to do whatever suits their craven desires for power.
This attempt to create a patriotic education has some history. In 2010, a decade ago, Texas became one of the leaders in a politically informed education; or including items into an education system that follows a particular political party’s interest. As reported by The New York Times, following a particularly contentious vote on the social studies curriculum, one member of the Texas Board of Education, Mary Helen Berlanga, left the meeting after stating “They can just pretend that this is a white America and Hispanics don’t exist….They are going overboard, they are not historians, they are rewriting history, not only of Texas but of the United States and the world.” Berlanga’s outburst was aimed at the Republican members of the board and even though it followed a bitter defeat, she was not wrong about what she said.
Berlanga’s comments are in a nutshell the very ethos of the Republican Party’s approach to not only education in the state of Texas, but to everything social and political in nature. At the time of the vote— which fell along the party lines of the 10 Republicans and 5 Democrats that comprise the board— the Republicans were interested in questioning the separation of church and state. They also wanted to add language to textbooks declaring that Germans and Italians were held in concentration camps during WWII. This was a move designed to argue that the internment of Japanese Americans during that time period was not racially or ethnically motivated.
In the decade since this GOP victory, things have only intensified as the various targets of the Texas Board of Education have included evolution, Hillary Clinton, Helen Keller, special-education funding, Palestinian rights and refuting that slavery was the fundamental reason for the Civil War, among other things.
The Texas Board of Education did not always tussle over ideological concerns or differing views of how certain topics should be covered in textbooks. The process of revising state standards is fairly straightforward as the Board creates curriculum teams, otherwise known as “work groups,” made up of scholars, educators and citizens from all over Texas with the goal of reviewing existing standards and suggesting possibilities for new standards.
However, all of that changed in 2010 when local teams sent their drafts of changes to the actual state board, where the largely Republican body created amendments to those changes. These amended standards were so flawed that the Thomas B. Fordham Institute criticized them publicly, calling them a “politicized distortion of history” that overlooked Native Americans, reduced the role of slavery, scarcely mentioned either the Black Codes or Jim Crow and completely dismissed the separation of church and state as a guiding constitutional idea.
This increasingly right wing power grab extends beyond education. Just before Abbott’s creation of the 1836 Project, he and Republicans who run Texas sought to codify their voter suppression tactics with new legislation that reminded many of the old Jim Crow laws, the same Jim Crow that the Republican-led Texas Board of Education did not want to be covered in Texas classrooms.
Some of the measures in the bill included the reduction of polling hours and the elimination of drive-thru voting and 24-hour polling centers, which had been central in efforts to ensure that everyone who wanted to vote could vote in an accessible manner.
In response to this legislation, last month Texas Democrats staged a dramatic walkout in the legislative session which deprived their Republican counterparts of a vote that would have further legalized voter suppression in Texas, and their courage earned them praise as well as an audience with national Democratic leadership.
The Republican Party controls all of the levers of power in Texas, and thus a walkout was the only power play that the Democrats had at their disposal. As I have previously argued, the Republican Party’s work related to voting in this state is about ensuring that their power is maintained. If they have to rig elections using the power that they hold in the state, then that is exactly what they will do and those cues are coming directly from Abbott. Of course, they couch those desires by referring to voting security. In reality, voting fraud is among the least likely of occurrences.
To that end, Abbott is also using that power to create one of the most lax gun laws in the country and reviving one of Donald Trump’s most controversial campaign promises—to build a border wall in Texas, financed in part by crowdsourcing. There is debate about whether he has the power to build a southern border wall, which Abbott has not fully addressed. He did, however, use Trumpian language to declare that the U.S.-Mexico border is overrun by a tidal wave of immigrants.
These xenophobic comments are also being supported by a $200 million increase in state funding aimed broadly at “border security” which will be supplemented by private donations, according to Abbott’s press release. During Trump’s presidency, only about 450 miles of the border wall were actually built, and there are already federal challenges to Abbott’s declaration that he will build a border wall to stem the alleged flood of illegal migration into the United States and Texas.
In addition to all of these developments, abortion access in Texas has been severely reduced, effectively eliminating abortion in the state. Similar to the weakening education standards, this too has been a long play by Texas Republicans. Beginning in earnest during the tenure of Abbott’s predecessor, Gov. Rick Perry, the restrictions on abortion have only gotten more severe, culminating in the passage of a so-called “heartbeat bill” which bans abortions as early as six weeks, arguably the most restrictive bill in the country. Reproductive rights advocates have described the bill’s language as designed to force abortion providers in Texas to comply with the bill or be sued by private citizens who support the bill’s aims. It should also be noted that the six-week cut off is typically the length of time it takes for someone to notice that they have missed a period, and thus are pregnant; this is an extremely restrictive law and it will be challenged at both the state and national levels.
Abbott has made it his mission to carry out the political will and work of Donald Trump, moving much like he did in the White House, rooting out and attempting to crush those who would oppose his plans and those of his party, but these moves will undoubtedly create more enemies, and will likely lead to his ouster from state leadership, particularly if his responses to both the COVID-19 pandemic and the great Texas freeze function as referendums during the election. Texas does not traditionally tolerate dictators or would-be kings and tyrants, so Abbott may have sealed his fate with his various machinations. If he’s indeed ousted, as the old saying goes, God bless Texas.