The Texas Trio
If you want a peek at the dystopian Republican vision of our future, there is no place better to look than Texas. It is a state where voting rights are restricted, constitutional rights are under assault, academic freedom is being replaced with state-sanctioned propaganda in schools, and citizens are required to spy on their neighbors, all in an effort to prevent the people from focusing just how much they are being ripped off by the politically connected privileged elites. This repressive regime is backed up by a lawless judicial system at both the state and federal level, a result of decades of one-party rule.
The state is basically run by the Texas trio version, the Lone Star version of the axis of evil – Governor Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, and Attorney General Ken Paxton. Abbott probably has unfounded presidential ambitions and is competing with Florida Governor Ron Desantis for Trump’s mantle as they each try to outdo each other with abusive culture war policies and rhetoric. Because of his control of the State Senate and the budget, Patrick is the really most powerful man in the state, is Trump’s real favorite in Texas, and his goal appears to actually enact pretty much the entirety of the 2016 Texas Republican Party platform which was considered insanely radical at the time but is now the GOP mainstream. Paxton is as corrupt as they come and needs to win re-election as Attorney General in order to stay out of jail. All of them are bought and paid for by various business interests in the state. The state legislature is a part-time gig that is scheduled to meet once every two years for a maximum of 140 days and is most of the time a rubber stamp for the executive branch’s policies. It is usually filled with some extraordinary buffoons and as the late, great Molly Ivins noted whenever the Legislature was set to convene, “every village is about to lose its idiot”.
Paxton is the poster boy for white collar crime and corruption as well as the ability of white-collar defendants to never really be held to account. In 2014, Paxton was fined by the Texas securities board, hardly known for its strict enforcement policies, for misleading potential investors on multiple occasions. He still won election as Attorney General later that year. In 2015, Paxton was indicted in Texas for securities fraud and was charged with misleading investors by the SEC in 2016. That same year, Paxton settled a Medicaid fraud suit with a company whose CEO gave $100,000 to Paxton’s legal defense fund, nearly one-third of the total $329,000 the fund had raised at that time. In 2019, Paxton’s wife, who was also a State Senator, introduced a bill that would have essentially legalized the very kind of securities fraud her husband was accused of. Also in 2019, when another Paxton supporter was being investigated by the FBI, Paxton falsely claimed the warrants used for that investigation were tampered with and appointed a special prosecutor to pursue those charges even after Paxton’s own investigators found no evidence for the claim. When that supporter’s properties were about to be foreclosed on by lenders, Paxton issued a nonbinding legal opinion that foreclosure sales should not occur because of Covid restrictions on gatherings. All of this prompted eight of the Attorney General’s aides to openly accuse Paxton of bribery and abuse of office and report their concerns to law enforcement. All eight subsequently resigned or were fired. As with so many white-collar criminals, Paxton has been able to delay his original state trial for securities fraud for seven years now through a variety of legal maneuvers and the obvious complicity of the Texas judicial system in preventing a speedy trial. And yet, Paxton is still the odds-on favorite to win re-election again this fall, such is the norm of open corruption in Texas.
Paxton has been integral in the state’s assault on voting rights. He originated the absurd and dangerous lawsuit that attempted to have the courts decertify the Electors in four other states and allow the state legislatures to then appoint new ones. His rationale for such a legal declaration was that Texas had been harmed by the fact that those four other states expanded early and mail-in voting during the pandemic. Seventeen other Republican AGs signed on to this hot mess of a case and the majority of House Republicans wrote an amicus brief in support. Ted Cruz was so enthusiastic about the case that he promised to skip his next trip to Cancun and argue the case in front the Supreme Court. Needless to say, the case went nowhere in the federal courts and officially ended when the Supreme Court refused to take the case due to Texas’ lack of standing. That didn’t stop Paxton from attending the Stop the Steal rally where he incited the crowd that subsequently violently attacked the Capitol and democracy itself by saying, “What we have in President Trump is a fighter. And I think that’s why we’re all here. We will not quit fighting. We’re Texans, we’re Americans, and the fight will go on.”
Paxton’s failure to overturn the 2020 election just invigorated Texas’ efforts to even further restrict voting rights in the state, which were already some of the strictest in the country. Last November, the state passed a new law that restricts drive-through and 24-hour voting as well as additional temporary voting sites. It bars election officials from sending out absentee ballots without a specific voter request and even banned promoting the use of mail-in voting. It specifically targets large primarily Democratic counties by mandating those counties live-stream the vote-counting process and restricts the types of assistance poll workers can give voters, such as translations, while also increasing the ability of partisan poll-watchers to intrude and challenge voters.
Burdensome new voter ID requirements have resulted in anywhere between 8% and 30% of ballots being rejected in the recent primary elections held just days ago, depending on the specific county. Unsurprisingly, the counties with the highest rejection rates are primarily Democratic. The new voter ID requirement has even prevented voters from getting mail-in ballots if the state does not have the legal ID the voter provided on its voter registration file. Fixing your rejected ballot can mean hours-long drives to the county election office. Despite the new law that bans promoting mail-in voting, Lieutenant Governor Patrick sent a mass mailing on official state letterhead to Republican voters telling them to return their mail-in voting applications to the Secretary of State because Democratic election officials could supposedly not be trusted. That advice turned out to be an incredible own goal because the Secretary of State’s office had decided to reject any applications it received because they were required by law to go to the appropriate county election office. Because of Patrick’s illegal act and egregious error, the Secretary of State was then forced to change its policy and instead forward any applications it received to the proper county election office.
With their assault on voting rights complete, Patrick and Abbott turned their sights on abortion rights. Rather than wait for the Supreme Court to eviscerate Roe v. Wade in just a few months, they decided to eliminate most abortions in the state using an horrific scheme that would evade judicial review with the threat of economic annihilation for abortion providers and the creation of a Stasi-like reporting process. The new law creates a fetal heartbeat standard, which is not a medically accepted concept, for viability, and which would limit abortions to just the first six or so weeks after fertilization, often before a woman even knows she is pregnant. There is no exception for rape or incest. The law empowers any citizen to sue anyone who aids in an abortion beyond that time, from the abortion clinic to the doctor that performs the abortion all the way down to the taxi driver who drove the woman to the abortion clinic. Conservative groups have set up tip-lines for citizens to report fellow citizens who they think might have had an abortion. Under this law, a woman could be raped and then threatened with a $10,000 lawsuit by the man who raped her if she wished to get an abortion.
Needless to say, this law is at present totally unconstitutional as Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land. But that didn’t stop the conservatives on the US Supreme Court from buying the argument that since no state officials were involved in the lawsuits that would be brought against abortion providers, the Court could not block the law from going into effect. The Court did allow challenges to the law from doctors who might be subject to state disciplinary procedures, such as those of the State Medical Board, if they violated the law. Of course, it is not the fear of the State Medical Board that most are afraid of. It is the idea that you could be sued into oblivion for providing an abortion beyond the six-week period. The result is that abortion is no longer legal in Texas despite the constitutional right that still exists. In the first month after the law took effect, the number of abortions performed in the state have fallen by 60%. The average distance to abortion clinics outside the state is around 250 miles and those out-of-state clinics have seen dramatic spikes in Texans seeking their services. In addition, the demand for self-administered abortion medications has also dramatically skyrocketed.
Patrick and Abbott also got Texas on the bandwagon for state-sanctioned propaganda in schools. The new law passed in a special session last September declares that teachers “may not be compelled to discuss a widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs”. If they opt to do so, they must “explore that topic objectively and in a manner free from political bias”. In addition, a minimum of one teacher and one administrator from each school district must attend a to-be-determined civics training session that will instruct them on how race and racism should be taught. The law replaced a prior version passed earlier in the year that Abbott felt was not restrictive enough. As one education specialist noted, “It’s not just about what a teacher may or may not say. It’s also how they go about their class, how they design the class – how they might address really sensitive issues of race and gender and identity and sexism in their classrooms”. If that wasn’t fascist enough, the bill also prevents students from getting credits for volunteering for political campaigns and becoming involved in anything that resembles lobbying.
These attacks on the studies of race and gender are already having their intended, chilling effect. Some school administrators instructed teachers that they must present an opposing of the Holocaust and the Ku Klux Klan. Another school district abandoned an elective course that focused on researching and writing proposed legislation that would deal with problems in their community. The effort has now extended into libraries, both school and public, with books about race and gender being removed from shelves. This was aided by a Texas legislators’ targeting of 850 books primarily about race and gender, including such titles as “The Confessions of Nat Turner” and “LGBT Families”. Governor Abbott ordered the Texas Education Agency to investigate the availability of “pornographic books” in schools. Abbott’s dog-whistle order abetted parents’ efforts to ban books, especially those related to gender issues, from public libraries under the rubric of “protecting the children”. In many cases, libraries cave to the parental complaints and simply remove the books.
Patrick further escalated his assault on education with a proposal to end tenure at all state universities. In addition, Patrick proposed that any teacher found teaching Critical Race Theory “is prima facie evidence of good cause for tenure revocation”. Removing tenure would probably create a brain drain in the state, cripple the state’s university system, and probably return it to the Jim Crow propaganda machine of a prior era. But replacing academic freedom with a Jim Crow-like propaganda educational system the obliterates this country’s history of racism and denies any discussion of a true multi-cultural democracy is the goal of the Texas trio.
While Patrick focuses on destroying education, Abbott intensified his attack on the LBGTQ community. He has ordered the state’s Family and Protective Services (DFPS) to begin investigating trans children in Texas and prosecuting their parents for child abuse. In addition, teachers, doctors, law enforcement, and other officials who have a duty to report must notify Family and Protective Services of any trans children they encounter. The state has also removed LGBTQ resources from its websites as well as its associated suicide prevention hotline. In addition, DFPS has already initiated investigations based on vague reports and are demanding children’s medical records. As with the abortion ban, it is almost certain that conservative groups will set up tip lines so that individuals can snitch on their trans neighbors. As Elie Mystal notes, between the restrictions on abortion and trans children, “In Texas, AS OF RIGHT NOW… you can be raped, impregnated, forced to bring the fetus to term against your will, care for the child for years, but if the child is trans and you try to help them, the state can kidnap your child and prosecute you”.
Thankfully, a federal judge has intervened to put a temporary stay on the DFPS investigations. But it would be foolish to think there will be justice when working with the judicial system in Texas. Years of Republican Senators combined with the blue slip rule have created probably the most extreme federal Court of Appeals in the country. The Fifth Circuit which covers Texas and parts of Louisiana and Mississippi is filled with Federalist Society hacks and is the preferred forum-shopping locus to both stop Democrats from governing and advance the most extreme conservative legal theories. According to one legal analyst, “[I]t’s really hard to overstate how completely lawless and fringe right-wing the 5th Circuit is. [T]hey’ve completely abandoned any veneer of impartiality. [J]ust weird conservative bullshit going straight from a Facebook comments section right into the federal reporter”. Another lawyer reports that one judge on the Fifth Circuit “was hand-picked to be the national injunction judge”. Another judge in northern Texas, Reed O’Connor, “has become a favorite of Republican leaders in Texas, reliably tossing out Democratic policies they have challenged”, according to the New York Times. Under the current federal court system, Republicans can file a case in a specific court knowing that exactly which judge will get the case, which means they literally can and do forum-shop for the verdict they want.
Decisions coming out of the Fifth Circuit are striking in their absurdity. The Court blocked Obama’s effort to raise the salary threshold for overtime, an update that had been done without controversy since 1938. It affirmed the ridiculous theory that reducing the individual mandate to zero invalidated the entire ACA. More recently, it forced the Biden administration to continue Trump’s Remain in Mexico program, essentially making the Court the arbiter of US foreign policy since that policy requires the cooperation of the Mexican government. The Court has also ruled that unaccompanied immigrant children must continue to be deported because of the threat of Covid to the state of Texas, a state which has continually refused to enforce mitigation measures against the virus.
The Fifth Circuit has blocked Biden’s be-tested-or-vaccinated requirement for large businesses on the absurd grounds that the virus did not qualify as a “toxic or physically harmful” agent under OSHA rules, which seems at odds with the aforementioned ruling that unaccompanied children must continue to be deported because of the public health concerns of Covid. The Court has also endorsed religious exemptions for private businesses’ Covid-19 vaccine mandates, an unpublished decision that even one of the right-wing justices on the Court described as “orgy of jurisprudential violence…junks facts, text, history, and precedent, resulting in a one-off change in the law that alters the result for these parties”. It has extended that religious exemption to members of the military despite the services’ requirement for over a dozen other vaccinations. As one legal analyst noted only slightly sarcastically, “Folks, all federal immigration policy, and health policy, is now operated out of the District Courts in Texas, just as the framers intended”.
The decision to allow the aforementioned Texas abortion bounty law to go forward despite being specifically designed to avoid judicial review stands in stark contrast to the Fifth Circuit’s penchant for exerting and expanding its own power to restrain the executive power of Democratic administrations and highlights the extreme partisan nature of this Court. We see the same process in the Supreme Court. The fact that the new 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court has essentially allowed the destruction of what is still a legal constitutional right to be abolished by a lower court will only encourage the Fifth Circuit and other conservative-dominated circuits to willfully ignore precedent in the hopes the Supreme Court’s new conservative majority will back them up. All of which means that we can expect even more lawlessness from the Fifth Circuit.
Finally, the Texas trio are just truly horrible people. Paxton’s rampant corruption has been documented above. Patrick’s answer to Covid was literally that we should just let the old and infirm die because keeping the economy booming was far more important. Patrick tried to defend this position by arguing that “there are more important things than living”. Because of Abbott’s refusal to allow even the most minimal Covid restrictions – distancing and mask and vaccine mandates – until deaths skyrocketed, Texas ranks third in the number of age-adjusted Covid deaths per 100,000, behind Oklahoma and Mississippi, and surpasses both Florida and California in absolute deaths per 100,000. The number of unnecessary Covid deaths in Texas due to Patrick’s and Abbott’s policies is almost certainly in the thousands.
In what would be yet another farce if the result wasn’t so deadly, Abbott deployed the Texas National Guard to the border as part of his effort to use state resources to crack down on undocumented immigrants. He had already declared a disaster in several border counties and began arresting migrants on state charges as well as revoking the licenses of facilities where unaccompanied minors were being held. By last fall, that National Guard deployment had ballooned to over 10,000 men. But the mission was plagued with problems. First, there was very little for the men to do as they could only act in support of existing law enforcement. There were shortages of critical equipment, including cold weather gear, medical supplies, and basic housing. Some units had no toilets available. There were also massive problems in the payroll system, another long-standing problem that Abbott and Patrick had failed to fix, leaving some Guardsmen without pay for months on end. Their financial difficulty was compounded by the loss of income from their regular jobs which resulted in deteriorating credit scores and loss of school financial aid for some. Finally, having been separated by Abbott from their families and jobs for months on end for no real purpose, the deployment was hit by a wave of suicides.
Because Abbott and Patrick did nothing to protect the state’s power grid after a cold snap in 2014 that caused widespread electricity outages across the state, a similar failure of the power grid due to freezing temperatures in 2021 resulted in the deaths of nearly 250 Texans. According to the head of the state’s power system, Abbott forced him to raise power prices to the maximum allowed under law during that emergency, over 150 times the normal rate, which created a huge windfall for Abbott’s energy company donors. Utterly unconcerned about the damage of terrorizing trans children, Abbott’s spokesman has stated the attempt to declare the parents of transgender children as child abusers and separate their children from them as “is a 75, 80 percent winner” politically.
Like so many of their fellow travelers in the Republican party over the decades, the Texas triumvirate doesn’t care how many have to die, how much the rule of law must be eroded, how great the suffering they create, how deep their corruption, or how little of our democracy will remain in their desperate quest to grab and maintain power. What’s happening in Florida and Texas is the Republican vision for America and we should all be scared as hell.