A push is underway in the Queen City to advance a kinder, hipper slate of GOP candidates for municipal office. But underneath self-consciously cool, mostly millennial packaging lurks a tolerance for the authoritarianism that defines today’s Republican Party. The contenders themselves told us so.
When candidate filing opened in March at the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections, seven Republicans launched a joint venture to try to retake some political power in our overwhelmingly Democratic city. (Democrats hold the mayor’s office and a 9-2 majority on City Council.)
The group included incumbent Councilman Tariq Bokhari and six challengers: mayoral candidate Stephanie de Sarachaga-Bilbao, at-large candidates Kyle Luebke, Charlie Mulligan, David Merrill, and Carrie Olinski, and district 3 candidate James Bowers.
Bokhari is leading this political Pickett’s charge in a city where Republicans last won an at-large Council seat in 2009 and the GOP last held the mayor’s office in 2007. (Only about 19% of the city’s registered voters are Republicans.)
The group’s strategy to attempt to overcome these demographics is simple enough: embrace their status as outsiders and assail the Democratic lock on local power as ineffective, especially for those people that Democrats claim to represent.
Said Mulligan, “It’s time to make a change so that Charlotte is a city that every single community can thrive in, whether you are white, Black, Hispanic, Asian, LGBTQ or straight, whether you’re rich or poor, whether you’re young or old.”
“Right now we are a city that is far too divided. And guess what? That division keeps the people who are in power, in power.”
Perhaps sensing the toxicity of their party’s brand in a Democratic locale, the group seems keen to sometimes distance itself from the GOP. For example, of the four challengers with functional websites — Luebke, Mulligan, Merrill, and Olinski — the word “Republican” does not appear anywhere on them.
The poisonous partisan reputation from which these candidates are fleeing has certainly come honestly in recent years. Since 2015, the party of Lincoln has debased itself at the feet of a narcissist with no discernible political philosophy except a man-childlike desire to wield power as its own end.
As a candidate — indeed, even before he was a candidate — Donald Trump primed the pump of racism. As president, he abandoned long-standing norms of governance to satisfy his selfish whims. As a loser, he sought to overthrow the results of a free and fair election, doing that which no other presidential candidate has done in American history: refuse to acknowledge his opponent as the legitimate victor.
At each of these stages, a handful of Republicans said, “Enough.” But they have always constituted a small minority of the party’s members.
Today, despite a few voices of dissent, the Republican Party is Trump’s party — in the most literal sense: The GOP seemingly stands for nothing but tending to the former president’s hurt feelings and fragile ego by genuflecting and groveling before his orange visage. Most menacingly, this obsequiousness requires promoting the lie that the 2020 election was stolen, a counter-factual, authoritarian narrative that strikes at the heart of republican self-government.
Given the GOP’s current status as Trump’s mere alter ego, absent an explicit rejection of this political tall tale, to be a Republican today is to either endorse or, at a minimum, silently tolerate and enable this nefarious fantasy.
The Charlotte Observer recently gave the Republicans running for City Council an opportunity to disavow the Big Lie. Specifically, the Observer asked the Republican challengers appearing on primary ballots — de Sarachaga-Bilbao, Luebke, Mulligan, Merrill, and Olinski — the following question: “Is there an area where you disagree with your party? Why?”
If, to use Mulligan’s framing, any of these candidates sought to sew the seeds of unity by rejecting the Big Lie — the single most consequential and divisive issue in American politics today — here was their chance.
But no. Not a single one of these local Republican candidates seized the opportunity to disavow their party’s attempt to undermine the American republic.
Olinski simply goose-stepped into line, saying she had no differences with her party. (“Not at this time,” she explained.)
De Sarachaga-Bilbao hedged in response to the newspaper’s question: “I believe that both parties need to examine themselves so we can have a more inclusive American dream.” A cowardly non-answer.
While engaging in mindless both-sides-ism, Mulligan talked obliquely about gay people and abortion and expressly about weed: “For too long, the Republican Party has been focused on fighting the battles of the past. I am not interested in the government dictating how consenting adults should live their personal lives. We should decriminalize cannabis (subject to concentration limits), it’s long past due. Both the right and the left are guilty of trying to use social engineering, but individuals, and individuals only, are best positioned to make decisions for themselves, and I believe that voters are tired of it.”
Luebke took a similar tack: “As an openly gay man, I think that the Republican Party has a lot of work to do in engaging with the LGBTQ+ community and passing legislation that protects LGBTQ+ Americans. If elected, I would continue to be an advocate in the Republican Party for LGBTQ+ North Carolinians and would encourage the NCGOP to pass meaningful LGBTQ+ protections at the State level.”
Merrill did the same: “Many Republicans claim to be pro-freedom but want to deny the same freedoms that they enjoy to members of the LGBTQ+ community. While I have a clear personal opinion about abortion, my personal feelings should not impact the difficult decisions that a pregnant person may have to make.”
(An aside: The candidates’ consistent support for gay rights and their silent endorsement of an attempted coup marks the introduction of a peculiar type in American politics: socially liberal, politically fascist.)
Note that of the candidates who answered the Observer‘s question substantively, each addressed issues outside the purview of City Council. They did not feel themselves limited to addressing differences with their party only as such differences relate to municipal business. Rather, they took a wider view and spoke to issues at the state and national levels.
And there is no more pressing national political question swirling around today’s Republican Party than whether it stands for anything beyond the satisfaction of Donald Trump’s grievances, even if it means sacrificing the republic to calm his tantrums.
Our GOP candidates could have registered principled dissent from their party’s acquiescence to nascent authoritarianism and the man promoting it. They didn’t. And now we know who they really are.