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Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s State of the Union response condemned the entire GOP

Sanders’ affinity for alternative facts revealed the Republican Party’s long-term problems.

The State of the Union response is one of the toughest jobs in politics. Many rising stars have struggled to bridge the gap between two images: the president speaking to a joint session of Congress versus a lone politician talking to the camera or a small audience. Even the most talented politicians have struggled to pretend that the two realities are in any way equally impressive. 

Sanders conjured an America that more resembled a dystopian hellscape than a country that added 517,000 new jobs just last month.

It was appropriate, then, that this year’s English-language Republican response was given by Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Arkansas’ new governor has plenty of experience crafting alternate realities for a national audience. In her two years as Donald Trump’s press secretary, up was down, “countless” FBI agents hated former director and Trump foe James Comey and separating immigrant children from their families was “very biblical.” But throughout her speech on Tuesday, Sanders’s affinity for alternative facts just underlined the Republican Party’s long-term problems in appealing outside its own base.

For 15 minutes, Sanders conjured an America that more resembled a dystopian hellscape than a country that added 517,000 new jobs just last month. “Democrats want to rule us with more government control,” Sanders warned. “In the radical left’s America … you get crushed with high gas prices, empty grocery shelves, and our children are taught to hate one another on account of their race.”

“Most Americans simply want to live their lives in freedom and peace, but we are under attack in a left-wing culture war we didn’t start and never wanted to fight,” said the former Fox News commentator. “Every day,” she moaned, “we are told that we must partake in their rituals, salute their flags, and worship their false idols.”

Never mind that, from transgender rights and critical race theory today all the way back through McCarthyism and beyond, the right, not the left, has embraced culture wars. Even when introducing herself for politically knowledgeable viewers, Sanders insisted on a culture war framing: “I’m the first woman to lead my state. He’s the first man to surrender his presidency to a woke mob that can’t even tell you what a woman is.” The closest Sanders came to a true statement was her declaration that “the dividing line in America is no longer between right or left. The choice is between normal or crazy.” And even that observation was only unintentionally correct.

As MSNBC columnist Michael Cohen observed on Twitter, Republicans “have no economic or cultural message that appeals to non-Republicans and all they know how to do is preach to the converted.” Every year, the right-wing echo chamber that champions the culture wars that Sanders says they “never wanted to fight” becomes more closed off. The feedback loop tightens further; the lingo becomes more impenetrable to the outsider. In this reality, the military is too “woke,” Jesus is white, Christmas is constantly under attack, government censors like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are champions of free speech, and senior citizens should sacrifice their lives for America’s economy.  

With a few more mentions of inflation, Sanders’s speech would have fit right in with Republicans’ message heading into the 2022 midterms.

While such insularity does wonders for television ratings (well, some ratings), it’s not a recipe for political success. With a few more mentions of inflation, Sanders’s speech would have fit right in with Republicans’ message heading into the 2022 midterms. As we now know, Republicans greatly underperformed, in part because swing-state voters rejected the most extreme GOP candidates. One could say those voters chose “normal” over “crazy.”

If Sanders had been interested in a different kind of speech, she could have looked at another speaker Tuesday: Rep. Delia Ramirez, D-Ill., who gave the progressive response to Biden’s address on behalf of the Working Families Party. The freshman representative, “the first Latina to serve in Congress from the Midwest,” didn’t eschew partisanship or shelter in bipartisan platitudes. But she also recognized that “we can’t depend on a party label as a reason to vote for us.” She framed issues like the high cost of health care not as choices between “normal or crazy,” but as real struggles facing working Americans. And when her voice broke as she spoke of her husband, “a Dreamer who has lived in the U.S. since the age of 14,” and the need for a pathway to citizenship and comprehensive immigration reform, even those who disagree with Ramirez on immigration could appreciate her plea. 

Ramirez, 39, and Sanders, 40, were born within a year of each other. But only Ramirez showed real leadership on Tuesday, speaking to Americans across the political spectrum. Sanders’ call for “a new generation of leadership in the Republican Party,” by contrast, only served to emphasize the toxicity of every generation of the party’s leadership. And until the right-wing information bubble bursts, that toxicity will remain strong.