Elise Stefanik Really Doesn’t Need to Embrace Trumpism

Elise Stefanik, Republican of New York, started her career as a moderate Republican but has since embraced Donald Trump’s rhetoric and style. Getty

The dangers of the mainstreaming of extremist ideology and conspiracy theories become more apparent with each passing month, as yesterday’s tease on Fox News turns into today’s manifesto. Echoes of the so-called great replacement theory, which allegedly inspired the perpetrator of the horrific Buffalo massacre, can be found in anti-immigrant campaigns across the country. Those echoes also feature in the rhetoric of elected officials, some of whom seem to be aiming for high office. But there’s another price, apart from any terrible acts that might stem from such ideologies, and one we rarely think about. It involves what’s not getting done, and not even getting talked about, while we’re preoccupied with the ugliness.

Elise Stefanik is the third most powerful Republican in the House of Representatives—the chair of the House G.O.P. conference—having replaced the ousted Liz Cheney, and she is clearly a contender for Speaker, should the G.O.P. reclaim control of the chamber later this year, though she says that she has not made a decision about running for the office. She’s also been noised about in recent weeks as a Vice-Presidential candidate, should Donald Trump decide to make another run for the White House. On Tuesday, when the New York Post asked her about that possibility, she said, “I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future.” But Trump himself has been more forthright about her prospects, claiming, earlier this year, “At this rate she’ll be President in about six years.” For now, though, Stefanik is the representative for the vast, largely rural Twenty-first Congressional District, which covers nearly a third of New York State, encompassing the wild Adirondacks and their surrounds, along with the gritty industrial towns along the upper Hudson River and the southern end of the St. Lawrence.

Stefanik, who was educated at Harvard and began her career as a moderate Republican, has since learned both rhetoric and style from Trump, adopting his attitude as her own (and without the absurd self-parody of a Marjorie Taylor Greene or a Madison Cawthorn). At a recent press conference, she said, “I am ultra-MAGA, and proud of it.” Last month, in a tweet that her staff was later at pains to explain, she wrote, “The White House, House Dems, & usual pedo grifters are so out of touch with the American people that rather than present ANY PLAN or urgency to address the nationwide baby formula crisis, they double down on sending pallets of formula to the southern border.” Two days after the Buffalo shooting, she tweeted, “Democrats desperately want wide open borders and mass amnesty for illegals allowing them to vote.”

No Democratic officeholder that I know of has ever called for such a policy, but the claim was similar to ones that her campaign made last year, in Facebook ads that were widely criticized for echoing replacement-theory tropes. “Radical Democrats are planning their most aggressive move yet: a PERMANENT ELECTION INSURRECTION,” one claimed. “Their plan to grant amnesty to 11 MILLION illegal immigrants will overthrow our current electorate and create a permanent liberal majority in Washington.” (According to the Times, when asked whether she would disavow or repudiate replacement theory, Stefanik said only, “I condemn any form of racism.”) She engages in other far-right role play, too: last month, she co-sponsored a bill that would exempt up to three thousand dollars’ worth of guns from being seized alongside other property when people declare bankruptcy. After the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, she emphasized the need for mental-health screenings and said, “I do not support gun control. I stand up for the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens.”

Yet her district is by no means a right-wing stronghold, or at least it wasn’t before Trump emerged: it voted for Barack Obama twice. That would suggest that Stefanik did not need to become an aggressive ideologue in order to hold her seat, making her political calculation all the sadder. But this Trumpiness is helping Stefanik raise a lot of cash—and turning her into a national figure, a fact that’s too bad for America, and particularly for the district she represents. I lived in the Twenty-first for a number of years, starting in the nineteen-eighties, and it’s wonderful country—it’s a fount of much American history, from the advent of large-scale nature protection, in the Adirondacks, to what the New York State Legislature considers the birth of the U.S. Navy, in Whitehall. (A naval fleet was built to patrol Lake Champlain, once the most strategic waterway on the continent.) During the nineteenth century, the region’s small cities, with falling water to power factories, were industrially important and prosperous. Members of the family that co-founded a prominent paper mill in Glens Falls, for example, invested in fine art, and the local museum now houses their collection, which includes works by El Greco, Rembrandt, Rubens, Degas, Seurat, Picasso, and Renoir.

Some of those towns are hanging on pretty well, and some are now pretty hardscrabble; households in the district have a median annual income that is slightly lower than the national median. Some towns in the central Adirondacks are having a hard time keeping their schools open, as the population dwindles. The district’s residents are older than the national median, are less likely to have gone to college, and are far more likely to be white. All of which is to say that the Twenty-first is fairly typical of rural America, living off the proceeds of a past more prosperous than the future portends to be.

Earlier this month, the Washington Post published a fascinating article, datelined Jefferson, Iowa, about a rural, mostly white and Republican county that had watched its population slowly drain away. The piece notes, “Greene County—like much of rural America—is sinking into a demographic hole, down from more than 15,500 residents after World War II to an estimated 8,717 last year, with the population now falling by about 100 every year. Factories have dozens of job openings, schools have closed, and villages are crumbling.” Politically, this county did what you might have expected—it voted twice for Trump, a man who, in the first minutes of his campaign, warned that Mexico was “sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” The county also voted repeatedly for former Representative Steve King, who once remarked that, for every immigrant who made good, “there’s another hundred out there who weigh a hundred and thirty pounds—and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling seventy-five pounds of marijuana across the desert.” Yet, despite electing anti-immigrant candidates, Greene County saw neither a return to prosperity nor growth.

So, last year, a group of officials and businessmen in the county decided on a new tack: a “diversity project” named Nueva Vida en Greene County, or New Life in Greene County, which applied for a half-million-dollar federal grant to attract Latino workers and residents from other parts of the state to the area. The Post reports that, under the plan, “employers will arrange for vans to bring in workers as soon as this summer,” and “civic leaders are planning educational activities to integrate the community, with classes about soccer, language, and arts and culture, and they also are exploring ways to fix the area’s acute housing shortage.”

I’d guess that realizing this plan won’t be painless or easy. An immigrant from Mexico, who had worked at a Walmart in a nearby county a few years earlier, told the Post of being harassed in the store because of the name on his I.D. tag, Jesus, which, the paper helpfully reports, is “common in Latin America,” though less so in Iowa. “Who gave you that name?” he said a customer asked him. “My mother?” he responded. But the project may well work out over time, because, its director noted, the newcomers and longtime Iowans both “prioritize family, faith, work and education.” A few years ago, Sue Halpern and I reported on immigrant and refugee enclaves around the country: Ghanaians in the Bronx, Filipinos in Las Vegas, Vietnamese residents in Oklahoma City, and so on. We found these people more American, in the old-fashioned sense of believing that they could get ahead through education and hard work, than many native-born Americans are. A Bhutanese man who was saving up to buy a house for his family in Manchester, New Hampshire, while he worked and went to school to become a surgical technician told me, “U.S.A. stands for U Start Again.” What’s happening in these towns is not a great replacement; it’s a modest rejuvenation.

And it’s a rejuvenation of a kind that can change attitudes. My own support for immigration reform comes largely from a sense that we have to help people fleeing regions that we have damaged by pouring carbon into the atmosphere—in fact, in 2019, I was arrested for briefly occupying the reception area of Stefanik’s office in Glens Falls, alongside a few other protesters who wanted to discuss Trump’s border policy with her. But I know that other arguments will appeal to other people. A new survey of twenty-one thousand people in nineteen European countries—several of which, in recent years, have been racked by their own Trumpian debates about immigration—found that, once immigration was portrayed as critical to a nation’s endurance, respondents were “resistant to far-right fearmongering about ‘replacement theory.’ ” Those Europeans apparently recognized that, as an Iowan woman put in the Post’s story, “we need some diversity here. We’re all too old and White.”

Stefanik doesn’t need to go to the Midwest to see rejuvenation theory in action. She could just look at the city of Utica, right across the southern border of her district. A thriving textile center in the early twentieth century, the town declined to sad and tired Rust Belt squalor. But, since 1979, a local agency has worked to settle seventeen thousand refugees from many countries there; now twenty per cent of the people in the community are either refugees themselves or have at least one parent who is a refugee. And the effect on the town’s economy and its spirit has been salutary: downtown Utica has reportedly become “a checkerboard of international restaurants, churches, community centers and businesses.” As David Chanatry, a professor of journalism at Utica University and the producer of a recent documentary, “Utica: The Last Refuge,” explained to a local news site, the long-running effort to resettle refugees in the town “has been to the benefit of the refugees and it’s been to the benefit of a city that’s become their home.”

Republican Party politics in the twenty-first century have devolved into an attack on the national limbic system, using fear as the chief tool. By this point, according to a new poll, a third of Americans believe that “an effort is underway to replace native-born Americans with immigrants for electoral gains.” But, by focussing on that xenophobic message, the country is losing a real opportunity. As various local experiments demonstrate, rational conversation about topics such as immigration isn’t impossible, even in the most unlikely places. At least, not if leaders choose not to demagogue the issues. If, however, the Stefaniks of the G.O.P. let ambition override both moral and practical sense, we’ll end up in a nation where every transition becomes a precipice, every change an attack, and every new accent an imposition, rather than something that can make us—in all senses of the word—a little richer.

Bill McKibben is a founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org and a contributing writer to The New Yorker. He writes The Climate Crisis, The New Yorker’s newsletter on the environment.