Rep. Jason Spencer’s foray into the underside of popular culture is one of the most cringe-worthy moments in recent memory, an occasion where you can’t help but feel sorry for the guy.
I thought he was the type of pol who’d say or do anything and not step back from it. I figured he was absolutely unembarrassable.
I was wrong.
Spencer is the now-infamous — and soon-to-be former — Republican Southeast Georgia legislator who went on a new Showtime series “Who Is America?” run by the guy who played “Borat” and acted like A) the ultimate rube and B) someone out of his mind.
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The lawmaker thought he was dealing with an Israeli security expert and was learning methods to fight terrorism, including screaming the N-word, acting like a rude 1930s caricature of an Asian and then ramming his bare butt into an actor playing an Islamic terrorist.
As his former state House colleague Joe Wilkinson put it, “You just can’t make this stuff up.”
There are two things that strike me regarding Spencer. The first is that someone can be smart enough to earn a master’s degree and become a medical assistant, yet be dumb enough to get duped so damningly.
The second and more important takeaway is there seems to be an increasing number of Jason Spencers in politics.
He had hoped to hang on for five more months to finish out his term and qualify for the lifetime health care afforded to legislators who serve eight years in office. Sure, he doggedly fought Obamacare and subsidized medicine for others. But when it’s you and your family, it’s different.
Spencer is fringe but is by no means unusual. Conspiracy theories, dog whistles, personal attacks and insipid meanness are increasingly in play. There was something about Spencer that represents the dark id of American politics, the de-evolution of rhetoric, a coupling of ignorance with partisanship.
Spencer once warned a former black legislator that she might “go missing” in the Okefenokee Swamp if she kept pushing for the removal of Confederate statues. It was a friendly warning, he said, not a threat.
He’s also the guy who pushed legislation to bar women from wearing burqas on their drivers’ license photos or even while driving. He said he was fighting terrorism but quickly pulled the bill when the Republican leadership essentially said: What in the heck are you doing? You’re making us look like you!
Eventually, and thankfully, it finally caught up with him this year when the voters in conservative House District 180, the state’s most southeastern corner, tossed him out of office in the GOP primary, putting in a 24-year-old sheriff’s deputy.
I called some former and current legislators to get a sense of the current body politic.
Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul, who used to be a state senator and head of the state GOP, said, “We’ve been headed down this road for 30 years. The old school of politics allowed the two sides to battle it out and then talk afterwards to see if there was any middle ground.”
But that land of compromise or even discussion is a vacant space these days.
“You hear people say, ‘I want my country back,’” said Paul, who often thought the opposition was wrong, but still patriotic. “Now your adversary is not only wrong, he’s evil.”
And who can hammer out a compromise bill on transit if the guy on the other side is Ayatollah Khomeini?
The Republican leadership has never liked Spencer and his self-styled maverick ways.
Former Rep. Wilkinson, a Republican, said his son recently ran into an AJC political reporter at a rally for gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp. He said they talked about the topsy-turvy, bitter campaign with secret tapes, shotguns and Donald Trump’s Twitter endorsements. His son said, “Have you ever seen a week like this?”
And then, the next day Spencer was on TV ramming his butt into Sacha Baron Cohen in an attempt to defeat ISIS.
Democratic state Rep. Scott Holcomb of House District 81 in Atlanta noted two reasons for the growth of fringe characters: “First, gerrymandering has resulted in some districts where extremists win. Second, there is massive distrust of government and people are frustrated. They want change. That leaves openings for people like Trump and Spencer and others like that.”
Spencer, in a statement, said he has received death threats because of his political stands and that Cohen and his producers took advantage of his fears, while also lying to him.
He thought he was engaged in a “demonstration video” of Israeli terror-fighting skills
“As uncomfortable as I was to participate, I agreed to, understanding that these ‘techniques’ were meant to help me and others fend off what I believed was an inevitable attack,” Spencer said. “I deeply regret the language I used at (Cohen’s) request as well as my participation in the ‘class’ in general. If I had not been so distracted by my fears, I never would have agreed to participate in the first place.”
I must note that these are fears that Spencer fanned to get elected.
Said Holcomb, “I think Jason believed every word that he said on the show. Every word. He was baited a little, but he jumped at it.”
Holcomb added that there are lots of serious issues during this era of breathtaking — and sometimes terrifying — change, especially in the employment and technology world.
“It’s unfortunate all the focus is on politics because the policy is what makes a difference,” said Holcomb in his best eat-your-vegetables manner. “I can see why people get turned off. We too often fail to give a good reason to tune in.”
But when they do tune in, what they see scares them.