I first became formally affiliated with the Republican Party during the early 1970s. In spite of Watergate, the GOP at that time symbolized the qualities I most valued in politics: 1) limited government; 2) the furtherance and protection of liberty, at home and abroad; 3) the upholding of the free market, subject to adjustment for its abuses; and 4) tolerance of ethnic and racial diversity.
These four principles constituted the core of classical conservatism, which was the core ideology of my Republican Party. There were four historical forebears of this GOP philosophy:
1) Edmund Burke, who emphasized the defense of the continuity of institutions;
2) John Locke, who asserted the supremacy of the individual over the state and contended that the function of government should be limited to the protection of life, liberty and property;
3) John Stuart Mill, who defended the individual’s right to decide ethical and moral issues for himself and herself, as long as he or she did not constitute a threat to others; and
4) Milton Friedman, who preached both the efficiency of the free market and the essential connection between capitalism and freedom.
Classical conservatism in the second half of the twentieth century also had a master message framer and communicator in William F. Buckley, Jr. His newsmagazine, the National Review, contained in issue after issue the finest in conservative intellectualism.
The place of classical conservatism in the Republican Party was terminated with the advent of Trumpism in the second decade of the 21st century. Far from being a movement of individualism, liberty, and tolerance, Trumpism is a mob driven endeavor, with the goal of installing authoritarian rule and implementing big government designed to enrich the plutocrats.
Trumpism also strictly follows a path of white identity politics, with African-Americans to be placed in a subordinate economic and political position.
Trumpists have endeavored to relegate the place and message of William F. Buckley to the ash heap of history. After all, William F. Buckley knew what Trump was all about and despised him.
The message of William F. Buckley and Classical Conservatism has been displaced by the message of the Cultural Warrior. In New Jersey, this message contains four components:
- Anti-reproductive freedom.
- Opposition to new gun control measures, in spite of the expanding number of murders in our nation’s public schools.
- Opposition to vaccination mandates, in spite of the recent increase in Covid – related deaths.
- Playing the race card. This is defined as the seeking of popularity by appealing to racism, and in the context of an election, attempting to gain advantage by pandering to racist sentiment.
Now a point must be made on the “playing of the race card”. You can be a non-bigot and still for politically opportunistic reasons play the race card, with the motive that it may benefit you with the electorate. The harm done to People of Color by political figures who play the race card, however, is severe and usually irreparable.
In the New Jersey Legislature, the quintessential cultural warrior is Republican State Senator Mike Testa, Jr. of Cumberland County. He actually publicly has embraced the title of Cultural Warrior.
Testa plays the race card continuously and offensively, all the while denying that he is doing so. He does it to maintain his place of honor in the Pantheon of Donald Trump.
There are few Republicans in New Jersey who have in such servile fashion paid fealty to Donald Trump as has Mike Testa.
During his first campaign for the State Senate in a special election in 2019, Trump made robocalls for Testa. Even before Testa, Jr. won the election, Trump named him co-chair of his New Jersey reelection campaign.
I have been observing aspiring politicians come and go in the New Jersey State House for thirty years. I have never, however, observed such out-of-control ambition, unrestrained by any considerations of decency, as the ambition of Mike Testa, Jr.
Now there is nothing wrong with ambition, per se. When your ambition propels you to hurt the most vulnerable segments of our society in order to appeal to the worst biases and darkest impulses of the electorate, however, then such ambition-propelled behavior, is despicable. And Testa’s unrestrained playing of the race card is an archetypal example of the impact of Trumpism on his career. He uses the Trumpian style of playing the Testa race card. From the time he first arrived in Trenton, Testa has proclaimed his ambition to someday run for Governor of New Jersey. He expresses his ambition so blatantly, that he makes Chris Christie look passive and laid back by comparison.
A prime example of Testa’s repulsive ambition-fueled behavior was demonstrated by him in early 2021, when he introduced a bill to ban transgender athletes from participating in girls’ sports.
No one, Testa included, could point to a single controversy involving a transgender athlete then existing in the state. It had, quite literally, never been an issue in New Jersey, according to numerous experts. So why would he propose such a bill?
The answer is simple and obvious. Among Republicans, bias against transgender rights is transparent and widespread. Seeking to position himself for a future run for higher office, Testa sought to enhance his standing among those so biased and bigoted by introducing this legislation, a dog whistle if there ever was one.
He then engaged in similar dog whistle politics against the African-American community when he proposed a bill banning the teaching of Critical Race Theory in the public schools of New Jersey. Critical Race Theory is actually not taught at the K-12 level in any of our nation’s public schools.
Just as there was no controversy involving a transgender athlete in New Jersey, there is no issue in the Garden State regarding the teaching of Critical Race Theory. The motive of Testa in both cases is clear – political opportunism on his part: to appeal to biases and bigotry in the Trumpist GOP base.
I authored a guest column in the Star-Ledger on November 27, 2021, severely criticizing Testa and his cosponsor, Senator Joe Pennacchio (Republican – Morris), on the basis that the bill is both anti-African-American and anti-intellectual. . Testa appeared on the Fernando Uribe “Real Talk “internet radio show on November 29, 2021 and attempted to rebut my criticisms.
Instead, he actually made his situation worse. He stated his opposition to renaming Woodrow Wilson High School in Camden.
The high school is located in an overwhelmingly African-American neighborhood in Camden. It is being renamed because of the blatant racism of Woodrow Wilson.
Among the racist deeds of Wilson were his resegregation as United States President of the previously integrated federal civil service, his refusal as governor of New Jersey from 1911 to 1913 to hire African-Americans, and his opposition as Princeton president to the admission of African- American students.
In favoring continuing to force African-American youth in Camden to go to a school named for one of the worst racists ever to have served as President, Testa is committing a vile offense against the dignity of African-American youth of Camden and their parents. I confronted him on this in an email conversation after the aforesaid Uribe show.
He first responded by saying that “Racism, in all forms, is completely abhorrent.” Then, however, he stated that he was opposed to the removal of Wilson’s name from the high school because, as he put it, “To be further clear, I am anti-cancel culture. One can be anti-racist/bigotry and simultaneously anti-cancel culture.”
Now the “anti-cancel-culture” is as sophistic and as specious an argument as one can make to justify one’s playing of the race card.
Cancel culture or call-out culture is a modern form of ostracism in which someone is thrust out of social or professional circles – whether it be online, on social media, or in person. Those subject to this ostracism are said to have been “cancelled”. And such ostracism is often justified.
Trumpists use the anti-cancel- culture argument as a rationale for not removing from places of honor memorials to vile and wicked racists and former oppressors of African- American slaves. This week, Trumpist Republican legislative leaders in Tennessee opposed the removal of a bust of KKK leader Nathan Bedford Forrest from the state capitol to the Tennessee State Museum on the basis of anti-cancel culture. Following the logic of Mike Testa, it is clear that he would have supported his fellow Trumpist Republicans in continuing to honor one of the most evil bigots in American history – all in the name of anti-cancel culture.
Testa denies that he is a racist. I will accept his denials. He is the scion of one of the finest families in the history of Cumberland County. His grandfather, Judge Frank Testa was a very good and very great man before whom I had the honor to appear as a young lawyer.
There are examples in world history of people who were not bigoted, yet committed vile acts in furtherance of bigotry against targeted groups, all to advance their political agenda. An example is the former Chancellor of Germany, Otto von Bismarck who was said to be devoid of personal prejudice against Jews, yet in 1879 launched a vicious campaign of antisemitism in the German media in order to consolidate his support.
It really doesn’t matter, however, whether Testa is or is not a racist. He is not only doing profound harm to People of Color by his ambition-furled use of the race card. He is also doing harm to his own Republican Party, who must dramatically improve their stature in the African-American community if they are ever to win a statewide election.
And given Mike Testa’s preference for forcing African-American children to go to a school named after the profoundly racist Woodrow Wilson rather than violate the Testa sacred principle of anti-cancel-culture, I can only say, as Joe Welch, counsel for the Army in the Army-McCarthy hearings, said to Joe McCarthy: “Have you no shame, Senator Testa, have you no shame?”
Alan J. Steinberg served as regional administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as executive director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.