Some Republican legislators need to grow up, stop stoking anger and peddling misinformation

May 5, 2020 12:15 am

State Rep. Nino Vitale, R-Urbana. Photo from Ohio House website.

This past week we’ve seen Americans at a fever pitch over stay-at-home orders imposed to save lives during the coronavirus pandemic. We’ve seen men armed with semi-automatic rifles in militia cosplay storm the Michigan Statehouse, screaming in the faces of the police officers preventing them from entering the Michigan House of Representatives.

We’ve seen unhinged citizens harassing reporters on the steps of the Ohio Statehouse with wild accusations. We’ve seen protesters gather at the private home of Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton, some reportedly armed. We’ve seen a dollar store security guard shot in the head reportedly for telling someone they weren’t allowed to be in the store without a mask.

One element that’s hard to escape from watching the small groups of protesters target Acton in Ohio and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is that they have directed their ire at female leaders as opposed to Gov. Mike DeWine or Michigan Department of Health Director Robert Gordon. This point was noted by Toledo Blade reporter Liz Skalka:

Also hard to escape are the blatant displays of anti-Semitism repeatedly popping up at these protests in Ohio and elsewhere. These protesters also seem prone to displaying the Confederate flag, flying the colors of treason and slavery in Michigan and Kentucky, both Union states.

As though misogyny, anti-Semitism, and waving the flag of racism and treason weren’t enough, we’ve also seen the anti-vaccination crowd growing in influence at these protests. Aggression toward law enforcement has been on display as well:

One of the key things to keep in mind while viewing this disturbed set of loud, angry people is that they still represent an extremist minority.

A Morning Consult poll put out Monday morning shows that fewer than 1 in 5 Americans are currently comfortable doing everyday activities. Of course, there is a partisan divide, with 27% of GOP adults responding they would go out to eat today vs. 10% of Democrats. Still, according to the survey, most Republicans said they were “very uncomfortable” reentering a variety of public spaces, such as movie theaters, amusement parks, and political rallies.

A NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist poll (conducted April 21 through April 26) showed 80% said they do not want schools, restaurants, or large sporting events to start taking place again until there is more testing, and 65% said they do not want to go back to work without more thorough testing. Of course, there were again stark partisan divides, with independents siding largely with Democrats.

None of this should be very surprising: that a very vocal extremist, reactionary minority is pushing hard for a total reopen, spitting venom, waving flags of hatred and intolerance, and peddling anti-science crankery.

What’s disturbing is the deeply irresponsible abdication of duty from Republican politicians stoking these groups. Of course this includes President Donald Trump and his infamous “LIBERATE” tweets against Democratic governors as these protests began cropping up.

But local elected officials in Ohio and elsewhere have also been reckless and irresponsible. In Michigan, one state senator ended up apologizing for wearing a Confederate flag face mask after initially defending it.

In Ohio, Republican state Sen. Andrew Brenner and wife Sara Marie came under fire for a Facebook post comparing Ohio under lockdown to living in Nazi Germany, sharing a photo of Acton, who is Jewish, and made on Holocaust Remembrance Day. This was condemned by Ohio Democratic leaders as well as DeWine, Ohio Republican Party chair Jane Timken, Senate President Larry Obhof, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, Ohio Auditor Keith Faber and Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose.

Conspicuously silent was Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder.

Meanwhile, there’s Republican state Rep. Nino Vitale of Urbana, who has questioned whether Bill Gates created the new coronavirus, referred to Acton as a globalist, sworn he won’t wear a mask because faces are the “likeness of God,” and encouraged Ohioans to defy the stay-at-home order.

State Rep. John Becker, R-Union Twp., is proposing legislation that would reopen Ohio “without delay” and revoke the authority used by the DeWine administration in responding to COVID-19.

State Rep. Paul Zeltwanger, R-Mason, is the chairman of the Economic Recovery Task Force and has presided over a committee that has played host to conspiracy theories, general downplaying of the seriousness of COVID-19, and allegations the governor shuttered the state economy as part of a political plot against Trump.

On Monday, state Rep. Jon Cross of Kenton speculated the coronavirus is China conducting biological warfare on the United States.

Making all of this worse, on Monday the The New York Times reported the Trump administration projects about 3,000 daily deaths by early June as states reopen.

Keeping that number down as we reopen is dependent on our collective actions going forward.

Ohio Lt. Gov. Jon Husted even said Monday that Ohio’s restart plan relies on Ohioans doing the right things to stay safe and keep each other safe, but these Ohio lawmakers are encouraging recklessness, vowing to flout their civic duty and advising others to do the same.

In times of crisis, Ohioans deserve thoughtful, calm, steady leadership, but instead we’re seeing these lawmakers peddling unhinged conspiracy theories, making wild accusations and gross exaggerations, sharing misinformation, stoking anger, and promoting anti-science bull.

Strident ignorance and temper tantrums are not impressive. They are not persuasive, and they are not intimidating. Coming from fringe reactionaries, they are childish and ugly. Coming from elected officials, they are unforgivable.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

David DeWitt
David DeWitt

OCJ Editor-in-Chief and Columnist David DeWitt has been covering government, politics, and policy in Ohio since 2007, including education, health care, crime and courts, poverty, state and local government, business, labor, energy, environment, and social issues. He has worked for the National Journal, The New York Observer, The Athens NEWS, and He holds a bachelor’s degree from Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism and is a board member of the E.W. Scripps Society of Alumni and Friends. He can be found on Twitter @DC_DeWitt