Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
Katie Britt meant to sound weird, but you weren’t supposed to notice

Katie Britt meant to sound weird, but you weren’t supposed to notice

As the Republican base becomes stranger and more hateful, party elites are losing the ability to simultaneously reach it and the general public

President Joe Biden delivered his State of the Union speech on Thursday, but most of the focus since then has been on Alabama Sen. Katie Britt, who delivered the Republican response. And with good reason. Her Handmaid’s Tale setting and melodramatic delivery were so disturbing that even party apparatchiks couldn’t contain their disgust. 

“It’s one of our biggest disasters ever,” one Republican strategist lamented to Daily Beast reporter Jake Lahut. Veteran right-wing operative Roger Stone called Britt’s performance “godawful” in a tweet which he later deleted. 

Saturday Night Live memorialized the humiliation for the ages in a brutal parody delivered by famed actor Scarlett Johansson which portrayed Britt as a “scary mom” who randomly alternated between being seductive and on the verge of tears.

None of this was supposed to happen, especially because Britt doesn’t normally talk like the caricature she portrayed on Thursday.  

Her strange demeanor was a deliberate choice, one that’s reflective of the tenuous connection between the Republican political class and the angry Christian fundamentalists who comprise the party’s base voters. 

A protégé of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Britt has risen rapidly through the ranks, joining his leadership team as an informal adviser after only a few months in office. Republicans have been eager to put Britt forward as a young female face for a party that’s finally becoming associated in the public mind with no-exception abortion bans. She was even starting to be touted as a potential vice presidential pick for presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump. 

Britt was seen as particularly useful by party leaders since she is the junior senator from Alabama, the state whose supreme court just gave embryos in a freezer full personhood rights. While this radical viewpoint is commonplace among Republicans—more than half in the House of Representatives have endorsed the Life at Conception Act which would place severe restrictions on in vitro fertilization—the vast majority of Americans disagree. A February Ipsos poll found that 66 percent of respondents believed that zygotes should not be considered as people, with only 30 percent of independents agreeing. 

“She looks like the moms at school drop off who would typically vote Republican but who’ve been convinced by Instagram that the GOP is taking her sister’s IVF away,” far-right Christian commentator Allie Beth Stuckey wrote in a comment praising Britt’s response “optics” while condemning her delivery. 

Being an overtly anti-feminist party’s ambassador to women is a fraught but essential task. Besides having to deny and obfuscate about the Republican base’s authoritarian vision of controlling women, they have to make excuses for a presidential candidate found legally liable for rape who has been accused of the act by 17 other alleged victims

Trump made it clear that women voters are on his mind during a Saturday campaign speech in North Carolina

“They talk about suburban housewives,” he boasted as members of the audience cheered. “Women love me. You know, I protect women. I protected. I protect.” 

Britt’s mission was so important to Republicans they sent out instructional talking points to right-wing commentators ahead of her speech comparing her to legendary public speakers like Ronald Reagan and hailing her as “America’s mom,” before she had even said a word.  

Contrary to the preemptive praise, however, Britt’s performance this year recalled the breathy speeches routinely given by South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, another youngish female Evangelical often touted as someone who could allay women’s concerns. Noem herself has been hailed as a more intelligent incarnation of Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor whose bizarre cadence and compulsive winking proved chronically befuddling to political observers in 2008. 

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While Palin’s shtick was off-putting to most Americans, her antics were well-received by White Evangelicals, the plurality demographic of the Republican base, which loved her obstreperous insults and crass Christian supremacism. 

This was the core demographic that Britt was trying to reach on Thursday, reactionary Christian women who have either used in vitro fertilization or know someone who has. Unlike Palin, however, the Alabama freshman senator seems not to prefer the native tongue of these voters. A lifer in the Republican political class, she is one of many right-wing women who, like Serena Joy Waterford in The Handmaid’s Tale, have built careers serving a movement that attacks women’s rights.  

For decades, professional right-wing activists were able to bridge the gap between their rabid base and the (usually educated) minority of independents and Republican-leaners who falsely believe the Democratic party is more extreme. But now that Trump is openly embracing violent and totalitarian rhetoric, this task has grown increasingly difficult to manage. Republicans’ core voters have become so bizarrely hateful that appealing simultaneously to them and the broader public is becoming nearly impossible. The two sides are so far apart culturally that trying to reach both is off-putting to everyone.  

This is why Katie Britt’s speech has been so universally panned. Her use of what progressive activist

calls the “fundie baby voice” accent that is so common among women reared in reactionary Christianity came across as bizarre and freakish to everyone else. At the same time, Britt also seemed inauthentic to many hard-core Trump devotees since she was engaging in a form of code-switching, away from her daily dialect of highly educated political professional. 

“No one was surprised that McConnell’s handpicked senator resonated so poorly with the base,” one Trump-aligned strategist told the Daily Beast, calling Britt’s delivery “the stuff of nightmares.” 

Far-right activist Laura Loomer concurred with that sentiment in a Twitter post:  

The GOP thinks they know what women like.  

So they actually thought it would be a good idea to put Katie Britt in her kitchen reading a script with forced emotion and fake outrage to get to suburban women vote.  

Women like men. Actually, We love strong men. We don’t need a woman in a kitchen who failed acting class to tell us our country is a mess. Now the GOP is a laughing stock because of the awful optics of last nights’ SOTU “rebuttal” by Katie Britt. 

I saw shadows of this happening last year in Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s Republican response to Biden. While she did not deliver her talking points in baby voice, the words that she spoke were filled with right-wing slang terms like “CRT” or “woke mob” that she never even bothered to define, rendering her message almost incomprehensible. 

Expect more of this to happen as the various election contests continue to move forward. Republicans are having to become stranger and more extreme to maintain the loyalty from their base voters. If Joe Biden’s team is smart, they will highlight this process every step of the way.

Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
Lots of people want to change the world. But how does change happen? Join Matthew Sheffield and his guests as they explore larger trends and intersections in politics, religion, technology, and media.