OPINION: ‘Modern muskets’ and misinformation are eating the GOP alive

November 21, 2020 Atlanta - Pro-Trump protesters, some with flags and signs, attend a rally against the results of the U.S. presidential election outside the Georgia State Capitol on Saturday, November 21, 2020. Several different groups converged at the Capitol for a rally to show support for and against President Donald Trump. (Photo: Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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November 21, 2020 Atlanta - Pro-Trump protesters, some with flags and signs, attend a rally against the results of the U.S. presidential election outside the Georgia State Capitol on Saturday, November 21, 2020. Several different groups converged at the Capitol for a rally to show support for and against President Donald Trump. (Photo: Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Once you jump down a rabbit hole, it’s hard to climb back out. And that’s where Georgia Republicans find themselves right now, with the state government still in GOP control, but extremism and misinformation inside the party threatening to change all that.

It’s manifesting itself from the campaign trail to the General Assembly and the result could be the party that swept to power in 2002 for connecting best with average Georgians, getting swept back out for losing touch, not just with average Georgians, but with reality.

Former state Rep. Josh Clark is running for U.S. Senate against Herschel Walker and three other Republicans in the May primary contest. But after a quiet start to his campaign, he announced this week that he’ll give away one AR-15 per week through the election, for a total of seven of “America’s modern muskets” as Clark calls them.

That’s six more than U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene gave away with her own her “Shall not be infringed” raffle earlier this month.

In Clark’s fundraising appeal, the candidate makes the case that having an AR-15 at home will allow peace-loving armed patriots “to step up and defend their family, their neighbor, their community and their country.”

Americans have to be “equipped and ready” to protect their families against all enemies, foreign and domestic, Clark says in a video that includes him showing his children the proper technique to shoot an AR-15. Is he talking about a Red Dawn, Russian invasion? About his own county commissioner?

I spoke with Clark as he was on his campaign’s 45-foot bus driving between events.

He said the Russian invasion in Ukraine shows you can’t take anything for granted, even here. “It’s easy for us to assume, since we’ve been so blessed in this country, that an external threat wouldn’t happen,” he said.

I asked if he was anticipating arming against an American threat or government when he including domestic threats in his campaign materials. “In the Civil War, the North had to defend the Union,” he said. “And, God forbid anything like that should ever happen again, I think best way is to make sure we as Americans are always equipped and ready to defend freedom and liberty.”

It’s startling for a candidate for U.S. Senate and former state representative to roll out his 7-gun giveaway, draped in the language of tyranny, and mostly shoulder shrugs in the party, but that’s exactly where they are today.

It’s a long way from the media hysteria that came with then-candidate Kemp just cleaning a gun near a teenaged actor in his campaign ad four years ago, but the GOP in Georgia has changed significantly since then.

Clark is highly unlikely to make a dent in Herschel Walker’s huge lead in the GOP Senate primary, but just having on the GOP ballot tells Georgia voters this is part of the party now.

More direct primary pressure is on display now at the General Assembly where Clark used to serve. A bill from GOP House Speaker David Ralston to expand Georgians’ access to mental health care sailed through the House but has hit the brakes in the state Senate, where a Senate committee has been considering the Mental Health Parity Act for the last week.

The bill is before the state Senate health committee, which has already passed several smaller bills related to mental health that could be incorporated into a final package.

But a coordinated, far-right campaign has also inundated the senators who would vote on the bill with cut-and-paste mass emails that include misinformation about it.

The anti-vaccine group Stand for Health Freedom claims a provision of the bill to cancel nursing students’ loans is really a “Trojan horse” to hide tax increases. The group has mostly done work in Canada and New Jersey but has inundated Georgia lawmakers with hundreds of form emails in the last few weeks.

Atlanta-based Truth in Education falsely claimed that the bill would allow child predators to avoid jail time for their crimes and receive therapy instead. That led some activists to call the bill, the truly disturbing, “Pedophilia Protection Act.” (The bill’s sponsors said it does not change the criminal code in any way.)

Before focusing on the mental health bill, Truth in Education was active in pushing for bills in the Georgia Capitol to ban Critical Race Theory and the teaching of divisive concepts in schools.

I reached one activist in Savannah, who spoke against the bill on social media. When I asked her why she opposes the legislation, she said that “people in the military should not have to take those injections.”

The injections, of course, were the COVID vaccine, and the connection in her mind was that it all represents government overreach. Some people do need mental health services, she said, but many “need to turn off the television and go out in the sunshine.”

Neither COVID vaccines nor mandatory school clinics nor any of the other concerns I heard from activists are in the legislation they’re protesting. But they believe the information they’re getting.

That Republicans are having to fight misinformation from their own constituents instead of debating the complex issues inside the bill is just another signpost of where Republicans have arrived after years of trying to win with the votes of far-right extremists and misinformation peddlers, without also calling them out when they’ve gone too far.

Nothing could better demonstrate the GOP’s dilemma in Georgia than Donald Trump’s visit to Georgia Saturday, when he’ll campaign against a slate of sitting Republicans, including Gov. Brian Kemp, in favor of his own picks.

Kemp’s offense against the former president is obvious — refusing to go along with Trump’s relentless attempt to overturn the Georgia election. But what the rest of the not-Trump slate did wrong isn’t so clear, other than being allies of Kemp’s.

What did Insurance Commissioner John King, do to offend Trump other than get appointed by Kemp?

King is now facing Trump-endorsed Patrick Witt, a former lawyer for the Trump legal challenge in Georgia and a last-minute GOP candidate for insurance commissioner.

On Monday, Witt came out against Ralston’s HB 1013, too, saying the bill requires new insurance mandates, which Witt said would “require us to pay for whatever the radical leftists at the World Health Organization tell us to.”

Will GOP senators vote for a bill that could help many of their constituents, even if a damaging conspiracy theory about the bill is out there, too?

Welcome to life in Georgia’s Republican Party in 2022.