The Case for Joaquin Castro’s Norm-Busting

Joaquin Castro is a congressman from San Antonio, Texas. He’s the twin brother of Julián Castro, who’s running for the presidency. On Tuesday, Joaquin Castro did something his fellow Democrats tend to be uncomfortable with but that may be necessary to beat back the resurgence of homegrown fascism. He broke a norm.

Normally, members of Congress would not seek to publicly shame private citizens from their own districts for donating money to the reelection campaign of a president from the opposing party. There are, to be sure, good and healthy reasons for this norm, including the basic respect for institutional integrity, etiquette, and decorum, as well as the self-regulating fear of potentially chilling donor enthusiasm for your own party.

Castro, however, has apparently decided that this norm was no longer sustainable. So he tweeted the names of San Antonians who have contributed the maximum amount to Donald Trump’s re-election campaign.

The need for action stemmed directly from the slaughter of innocents in El Paso, Texas, a massacre that punctuated the president’s ongoing three-year effort to ostracize and outlaw immigrants and people of color. Last week’s alleged shooter warned before the attack of a “Hispanic invasion”—using language similar to Trump’s. If donors are free to fund a president who is inciting violence, the public has the right to know who they are.

Of course, the public could easily find out who these private citizens were if they wanted to. Federal law requires disclosure of political campaign contributions. Transparency is the point, because transparency is central to democracy. Castro, with his tweet, sparked outrage not because he made this information public. It already was. He sparked outrage, because he did it as a member of Congress. Norm-busting has consequences. The question, however, is whether the consequences are worth it.

The Republicans say no. It’s dangerous. The conservative Washington Examiner ran a headline saying his tweet was “blatant intimidation.” But even more dangerous is the fact that Republicans, especially the president, have not only busted norms but vaporized them, and for malicious reasons. The citizenry can no longer even agree on observable reality after years of right-wing propaganda and conspiracy-mongering. For the Republicans to act as if certain norms as sacred after doing more than most to betray them is the height or hypocrisy.

What’s more, the Republicans are trying to amplify their make-believe outrage over Castro’s norm-busting at the center of public debate so that everyone is paying attention to their emotions—and not the emotions of the innocent people, i.e. immigrants and people of color, being intimidated, terrorized, and murdered simply for being who they are.

Beyond Trump’s demagoguery about invading hordes, there are two other examples I would call to our attention. The FBI issued a bulletin in 2006 alleging that white supremacist groups were “infiltrating law enforcement” to target people of color and recruit new members. It warned of “ghost skins” who are not overtly racist but blend into society to “covertly advance white supremacists causes.” In June, ICE deported an Iraqi diabetic raised in Detroit to Iraq, where he couldn’t find insulin and eventually died. Immigrants say they feel hunted. Yet the GOP pretends that Trump is is the real victim.

Some may say that Castro’s norm-busting is a gift to Mitch McConnell. The Senate Majority Leader has long sought to stuff as much money as possible into the political system while legalizing complete anonymity for the very rich. The Washington Post‘s peerless Paul Waldman said McConnell will use the Republicans’ fake outrage over Castro’s norm-busting—and their fake fear of fake left-wing violence as a consequence—to “justify moves toward his ultimate goal of a system where the wealthy can give as much to candidates as they want.”

All that may be true, but he was going to pursue that goal anyway. Meanwhile, that still puts the Republicans and their cancerous bad faith at the center of the debate surrounding how to respond to the most pernicious forces in American society. What should be at the center is the real people most affected by white supremacy, especially those who have perished as a result of its manifestation. If we don’t honor the dead with at least that much, we have broken faith, dishonoring them, ourselves, and our devotion to the American creed.

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John Stoehr

John Stoehr is a Washington Monthly contributing writer.