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The Convert
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The Convert

The radicalization of Mike Lee.

Sens. Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Rob Portman talk as the Senate impeachment trial of then-U.S. President Donald Trump continues at the U.S. Capitol on January 31, 2020. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The most interesting question about Republicans who’ve accommodated themselves to Trumpism is one that can never be answered definitively.

Cynic or convert?

Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, Elise Stefanik, Marco Rubio: You and I can guess whether they’re opportunists who’ve made peace with MAGA to protect themselves in primaries or whether they’ve talked themselves into believing sincerely that America must be cleansed of leftist “vermin.” But all we’re doing is guessing. Only they know for sure.

To complicate matters, hardly anyone left among the right’s political establishment is clearly either one or the other. We can safely say that most Republicans in Washington began as cynics about Trump, but the human mind resists cynicism as a permanent state. An opportunist who knows that he or she is engaged in something sleazy inevitably will start to rationalize why it isn’t. It’s actually virtuous!

Practically every Republican in D.C. has traveled some distance from cynicism to conversion in the past eight years, and they’re the only ones who can read their respective odometers. Observers like us are left to size up the condition of the vehicle from the outside and try to deduce from that how much mileage there might be under the hood.

On Sunday, my colleague Andrew Egger sized up Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and offered a guess as to how far Lee has journeyed from cynicism to conversion. Not much, Andrew theorized.

“Hard to think of a worse heel turn in all of politics than Mike Lee suddenly realizing getting ‘based’ was the way to the heart of the world’s dumbest people and becoming a willing accessory to whitewashing January 6,” he tweeted. “None of these guys’ views have changed about J6 an iota. They know the ‘feds!!’ conspiracy theory is just as bullsh-t as the ‘antifa!!’ one that developed in real time was. What they’ve realized is where their political incentives lie.”

We’ll come to the substance of what Lee said about January 6 below. What I want to stress up front, though, is how much I disagree with Andrew. I don’t think Mike Lee is being cynical.

Not about this and really not about anything. Mike Lee is one of the most earnest converts to Trumpism in Republican politics in my assessment. If we could see the odometer on his trip from cynicism to conversion, I suspect we’d find it’s higher than practically anyone else’s.

Countless small-government Tea Party “constitutional conservatives” have been radicalized since 2015 and become cultish conspiratorial post-liberals. Why should it surprise us that the first man to successfully primary an establishment Senate incumbent during the Tea Party revolution of 2009-10 would become one as well?

There are two problems with thinking that Lee’s enthusiasm for MAGA-style populism is a matter of calculated pandering. The obvious one is that he doesn’t need to pander to get reelected.

He needs to pander a little, perhaps. Making an enemy of Donald Trump the way his colleague Mitt Romney has would be dangerous. But of all the solidly red states in the union, Utah may be the least Trump-y of the bunch. Trump himself got less than 50 percent of the vote there in 2016 in a three-way race with Hillary Clinton and native son Evan McMullin. Romney won a Senate seat two years after he famously attacked Trump in a speech as “phony” and a “fraud.”

On Election Day 2016, having called on the GOP’s presidential nominee to quit the race over the Access Hollywood tape that was released just a few weeks earlier, Lee nonetheless won election to the Senate in Utah by more than 40 points. When his seat came up again last year, Democrats tried to knock him off by declining to nominate a candidate of their own and throwing their support to the conservative-ish McMullin. Lee won by double digits anyway.

In other words, he has a wide berth in his home state. Had Mike Lee remained his old “constitutional conservative” self and quietly checked the requisite MAGA “loyalty” boxes as needed—endorsing Trump, voting no on impeachment—there’s no reason to think he wouldn’t be in the Senate until doomsday. He doesn’t have to pander lavishly for the sake of his career, particularly right now when he’s in year one of another six-year term.

So if he sounds like a crank, it’s not because he has to. It’s because he wants to.

Which brings us to the other problem. Only a true convert to crank populism would embarrass himself to the degree Lee routinely does nowadays. There’s a gratuitousness to some of his lapses of judgment that suggests he’s not faking them to impress the grassroots right’s worst elements, as is often the case with his buddy Ted Cruz. One simply can’t step on as many rakes as Mike Lee has lately without being genuinely blind.

Let’s start with a minor example.

The number of Republicans who still take Vivek Ramaswamy seriously is a small and shrinking group; it’s flabbergasting that a United States senator is not only one of them but is willing to broadcast that fact to the world. (More than once, in fact.) Ramaswamy’s grandstanding to MAGA types has been so farcically over the top, and so self-contradictory, that he often sounds like a game of post-liberal “Mad Libs.” Even Cruz found his blatant grandstanding at the last debate obnoxious.

Imagine being such a transparently phony populist huckster that Ted Cruz thinks you’re “inauthentic.” Mike Lee’s bar is considerably lower than that, it seems.

Here’s another tweet that caught my eye, mainly for the weakness of the argument.

Whatever one thinks of the virtues of preserving Confederate iconography, it’s obviously not the case that removing Robert E. Lee’s statue will amount to “writing him out of history.” Historical records will continue to recount the actions of a defunct slaveholding regime even if/when America stops celebrating that regime with statuary in public spaces.

Mike Lee is a former Supreme Court clerk and a credible-ish candidate to eventually serve on the court himself. He didn’t need to offer an opinion this embarrassingly feeble on a subject so far afield from his usual hobby horses; his chances of being reelected to the Senate in Utah in 2028 do not hinge on him having an opinion on a monument in Virginia in 2023, another blow to the “cynical” theory of his behavior. He sounded off about Robert E. Lee because he wanted to. A guy who used to be known mainly for wanting to cut spending has had his revanchist culture-war consciousness awakened. The heroes of the Confederacy are predictable beneficiaries.

One more, worthy of mention precisely because it’s so trivial and embarrassing.

“NAFO,” in this instance, stands for “North Atlantic Fella Organization.” Pro-Ukraine social media users adopted the term early in the war with Russia to describe their collective efforts to counter enemy propaganda online, mostly through jokes and memes poking fun at the Russian military’s haplessness. They’re trolls, yes, but trolls who, for once, are siding with the good guys in a conflict.

They came to Lee’s attention after he posted a Twitter poll asking his followers if they want to send another $100 billion in U.S. aid to Ukraine. The NAFO guys saw it and promoted it to their own users, leading the “send the money” side to win overwhelmingly, which was funny given the way Lee expected the polling to go.

Instead of learning a lesson about the usefulness of online polls and laughing it off, Mike Lee, United States senator, demanded to know who’s paying NAFO. A group with a smirking Shiba Inu as its mascot.

A politician doesn’t flash paranoia like that because he sees electoral advantage in it. He flashes it because he can’t help it, because the brainworms he’s developed from eight years of populism have devoured his critical faculties and left him seeing sinister plots behind every setback. 

Which brings us to January 6.

For the sake of brevity, I won’t rehash Lee’s underhanded role in Donald Trump’s coup plot. I wrote about it last year. And you’ve all seen the texts to Mark Meadows, I hope.

One would think a guy who spent the post-election period in 2020 trying to find a “legal” way to overturn the election wouldn’t want to revisit the last gory chapter of that episode. But Lee couldn’t help himself after House Speaker Mike Johnson announced on Friday that he would make most of the House’s security footage from January 6 available to the general public.

Why any populist Republican should care about that at this point is unclear, as Tucker Carlson’s staff was given access to the footage many months ago. If there was proof on the tapes that your lying eyes had deceived you, that somehow a bunch of feral MAGA goblins trying to bust their way into the Capitol to disrupt Joe Biden’s victory wasn’t what it appeared to be, one would think Team Tucker would have found it.

But this is what it means to see sinister plots behind every setback: January 6 was a major setback for right-wing populism (and was recognized as such at the time), and so populists have spent the better part of three years trying to find the plot behind it that will at last exculpate them and their movement. Maybe Antifa was behind the riot. Or maybe it was undercover federal agents inciting MAGA voters to violence.

Or maybe there really was no riot at all and the cops were part of it? Or something?

I remember conspiracy theories after 9/11 alleging that the planes that struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon weren’t actually real. If people could believe that, I suppose they can believe that outnumbered cops judiciously deciding not to confront Trumpist goons after they’d breached the Capitol is “proof” that the videos we’ve all seen of the battle outside … also aren’t real? Or don’t matter? Or that the people chanting “hang Mike Pence” wouldn’t have actually hanged Mike Pence if they’d found him?

The point Lee and his fellow travelers are trying to make, it seems, is that there was less violence than one might assume that day. That January 6 was, er, “fiery but mostly peaceful,” to borrow a term that right-wingers used to mock before now apparently adopting it.

Outside the MAGA base, no one can understand what the “new” footage is supposed to prove. But inside the MAGA base, where enemy schemers are forever conspiring to suppress some secret truth that would vindicate the right, the “new” footage is explosive.

And of course Mike Lee, United States senator, is well inside the MAGA base. A true convert.

So he bit on the “new” footage, hook, line, and sinker. He did more than that, in fact: He promised to put the director of the FBI on the hot seat about it.

Is that rioter flashing a badge? Was this evidence at last of a clandestine federal operation to embarrass saintly Trump supporters by posing as hooligans in red caps and wrecking the Capitol?

It was not. That’s not a badge, it’s a vaping device. And that’s not a fed. It’s a guy named Kevin Lyons who’s sitting in prison right now for his role in the insurrection. “I’m an idiot, I realize that. I was stupid. I don’t know what came over me,” he told the judge at his sentencing. “I apologize to you, the country, and my family.” Take 60 seconds and scroll through this thread by NBC News reporter Ryan Reilly, which has all you need to know about Lyons’ conduct that day.

Lee has spent the past 48 hours being pummeled by critics for his moronic error. Liz Cheney tweeted a “heads up” at him to alert him that a “nutball conspiracy theorist” appeared to be posting from his account. His babbling about “hidden” January 6 footage is what inspired Andrew Egger to accuse him of lying about the insurrection deliberately in order to pander to the Republican base—the height of cynicism, if true.

But I don’t think it is true. Mike Lee wouldn’t humiliate himself for electoral advantage by publicly mistaking a vape for a badge. Sure, he might hype the “new” footage; he might demand “answers” from Chris Wray and Liz Cheney; but he wouldn’t detonate his own credibility by amplifying a sloppy, easily-debunked conspiracy theory about a supposed federal agent provocateur caught on video surveillance. (Why would an undercover fed flash his badge knowing that there are security cameras around, anyway?) That’s not the sort of thing a cynic, who knows better, does.

That’s the sort of thing an earnest convert—a true sucker who believes his own side’s propaganda—would be duped by. Ted Cruz wasn’t duped by it. Lee, the convert, was.

How did Mike Lee, of all people, end up a true-believing Trump cultist?

I wonder, ironically, if he’s a victim of his own idealism.

That may be wishful thinking on my part, as I used to think Lee was the most impressive young politician to come out of the Tea Party era. He was intelligent, conservative, soft-spoken, and appeared to take the Constitution seriously. His finest hour was when he tried to lead a floor revolt against Trump at the 2016 Republican convention. Who knows how much Ted Cruz really believed the “conservatarian” dogma he used to preach, but Mike Lee? He believed it.

Maybe I was wrong about his commitment to conservatarianism, although I don’t think so. What happened to Lee, I suspect, is the same thing that happened to millions of other Tea Party devotees: He was gradually radicalized toward paranoid hyperpartisanship through charismatic attraction to Donald Trump’s authoritarian persona, relentless consumption of right-wing media propaganda, positive reinforcement of his beliefs by his social circle, and the insidious transformation of political “identity” under immense tribal pressure.

Those grassroots Tea Party alumni are idealists too. They used to hold signs at rallies complaining about Barack Obama’s spending before their hero became president and tacked another $6 trillion onto the debt—and they meant it. Now they claim the January 6 riot was a joint Antifa-FBI operation designed to make Trump look bad—and they mean that too. They revered the Founding Fathers circa 2010 as a bulwark against Obama-style government expansion; now they want to undo some of James Madison’s work because it’s limiting Trump’s ability to persecute leftists. They were serious in both cases. Their priorities may change over time but they care passionately about whatever the priority at a given moment happens to be. They believe it.

Isn’t that Mike Lee?

I suspect he’s uncomfortable being cynical. How could he not be? He spent most of his career being thought of as a man of unusual principle and probably came to view himself that way. Cruz may be able to talk out of both sides of his mouth about Trump—publicly and privately—but for Lee, nothing short of an earnest conversion might do if he’s to exist contentedly within the party in its current phase. He’s still a man of principle; it’s just that his principles now require him to believe things that would make Alex Jones cringe.

I expect to see him offered a position in Trump’s kakistocracy Cabinet in 2025, if not a seat on the Supreme Court should one open. The next time Mike Lee tries to undermine democracy on Trump’s behalf, he won’t do so a la 2020 as someone who’s still transitioning from traditional conservatism to MAGA; he’ll do it as a convert in full, with all the zealotry pursuant thereto. He won’t just say the right words. He’ll believe them.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.