Politicians typically enter office with a variety of interests, goals and focuses.
A wave of progressive Democrats were elected in 2018 with the stated goal of bringing universal healthcare to the US. Franklin Delano Roosevelt promised to lead the country out of the Great Depression with the New Deal. Donald Trump wanted to build a wall, “drain the swamp”, and force people to say “Merry Christmas”.
Tommy Tuberville, the Republican senator from Alabama, has taken a different tack.
In a series of interviews and statements in recent months, he has invested his political capital in an attempt to defend white nationalism, and white nationalists, in what one anti-racist group called a “deeply disturbing” crusade – one that only appeared to come to an end this week, after condemnation from his Republican colleagues.
Tuberville’s dalliance with white nationalism – understood by most in the US and elsewhere as a racist ideology – began in May, when he used a local radio interview to criticize the government’s efforts to “get out the white extremists, the white nationalists” from the military.
Asked in that interview if white nationalists should be allowed in the military, Tuberville, an avid supporter of Trump, said, “Well, they call them that. I call them Americans,” before going into a rambling aside about the January 6 insurrection.
“Right after that, we, our military and Secretary Austin, put out an order to stand down and all military across the country, saying we’re going to run out the white nationalists, people that don’t believe how we believe,” Tuberville continued. “And that’s not how we do it in this country.”
Invited to clarify his remarks a couple of days later, Tuberville did anything but. He said the military “cannot have racists”, but, when asked if white nationalists should serve in the military, said:
“You think a white nationalist is a Nazi? I don’t look at it like that,” the senator said.
“I look at a white nationalist as a Trump Republican. That’s what we’re called all the time. A Maga person.”
As Tuberville’s comments gained more attention, few have seemed to agree with his sanitized definition.
“White nationalism is undoubtedly, nakedly racist,” Dr Cassie Miller, lead senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told the Guardian.
“To suggest anything otherwise would seem to be an attempt to make white nationalism an acceptable political position. That a senator would try to carry water for a violent, racist political movement is deeply disturbing.”
Tuberville, 68, was elected to the Senate in 2020, after spending most of his career as a college football coach. (His website still refers to Tuberville as “coach”, and his official Senate portrait shows him tossing a football in the air.)
If a defense of white nationalism seems a strange hill for a new senator to die on, his other main interest also fits in with a far-right cause: abortion. Tuberville, who sits on the Senate armed services committee, has single-handedly held up hundreds of military appointments as part of his opposition to abortion being provided in the armed forces.
His continued opposition has left the Marine Corps without a confirmed leader for the first time in 150 years, and on Thursday Joe Biden accused Tuberville of “jeopardising US security”.
While the Marine Corps was wondering who was going to be in charge, Tuberville instead kept plugging away about white nationalism at the beginning of the week, in an interview with CNN.
After Tuberville suggested that a white nationalist was “just a cover word for the Democrats now where they can use it to try to make people mad across the country”, the CNN host Kaitlan Collins stated that the definition of a white nationalist is someone “who believes that the white race is superior to other races”.
“Well, that’s some people’s opinion,” Tuberville said.
“My opinion of a white nationalist – if somebody wants to call them a white nationalist – to me, it is an American,” Tuberville reiterated. “Now, if that white nationalist is a racist, I’m totally against anything that they want to do. Because I am 110% against racism.”
Rolling Stone seemed to capture the saga best. “Tommy Tuberville Is Either Extremely Dumb or Extremely Racist,” read the magazine’s headline (the article clarified that Tuberville could also be both), and even members of Tuberville’s own party condemned him on Tuesday.
Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate minority leader called white nationalism “unacceptable”, while John Thune, the Republican Senate whip, said: “I mean, I would just say that there is no place for white nationalism in our party, and I think that is kind of full stop.”
On the Senate floor, Chuck Schumer, the Democratic majority leader, was more robust.
“For the senator from Alabama to obscure the racist nature of white nationalism is indeed very, very dangerous,” Schumer said. “His words have power and carry weight with the fringe of his constituency, just the fringe, but if that fringe listens to him excuse and defend white nationalism, he is fanning the flames of bigotry and intolerance.”
Tuberville’s website lists six different office locations, in Washington and across Alabama.
No one answered the phone at any of the offices on Tuesday morning, as it seemed Tuberville was in the middle of a period of reflection: that afternoon the senator seemed to back away from white nationalism.
Asked by CBS, on Capitol Hill, to define a white nationalist, Tuberville said: “A white nationalist is somebody that thinks that they should be the only ones in this country.”
The CBS reporter followed up: “Racist, all the time?”
“Right, right: racist, that’s what I’m saying,” Tuberville said.
All it had taken was two months, a series of botched interviews, a slew of negative headlines and a rollicking from his party leaders, for Tuberville to get on board with the most of the rest of the US.