Here are five things we know about Dan Crenshaw. He was just elected to represent Texas’s 2nd congressional district in the House, on a typical Republican platform built on border security, “religious liberty” and energy industry boosterism, and opposed to abortion and gun control. He’s a former Navy SEAL who served three tours of duty over ten years. In 2012, while serving in Afghanistan, he lost his right eye to an IED, and now wears an eye patch. He was the butt of a poorly considered joke on SNL last week, when Pete Davidson joked about that eye patch and downplayed the incident that wounded Crenshaw. Finally, until the media reported about it in late August, Crenshaw was a moderator of a Facebook group that promulgates conspiracy theories and racist memes.
That Tea Party Facebook group promoted events like the white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. It pushed such conspiracy theories as Pizzagate, #QAnon, and the murder of Seth Rich. It’s the kind of fact-free internet cesspool that has helped turn America into a country divided not just by issues but by whether we believe in facts or not. And Dan Crenshaw was a moderator of this group. Crenshaw defended himself by saying he was offered admin status by the group’s moderators and accepted it solely to post his own campaign ads to the group, as if courting conspiracy theorists and racists for their votes is somehow acceptable. Crenshaw’s campaign, like the Republican party itself, embraced some of the most dangerous, uninformed and divisive elements in America today, effectively encouraging their beliefs.
SNL’s bad—but relatively tame—joke about Crenshaw was immediately turned into the latest line of attack against mainstream media by far right hucksters and hypocrites like Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter. These bad actors are always looking for any issue to turn into a wedge in their war on mainstream culture. This is the same Coulter, of course, who once belittled the service of another soldier-turned-politician, Georgia’s Max Cleland, who was awarded a Silver Star for his actions at Khe Sanh and lost three limbs after a grenade mishap a few days later. Those smears haven’t stopped Coulter from regularly appearing on Fox News. Sean Hannity, along with several other Fox hosts, was a big proponent of the Swift Boat smear against John Kerry’s military service during the 2004 Presidential campaign. The right-wing anger over Davidson’s joke is another example of their disingenuous, performative hypocrisy, and should have been roundly dismissed by anybody who isn’t beholden to Fox’s propaganda.
Well, SNL didn’t dismiss it. Last night Weekend Update featured a cameo from Crenshaw, who was invited on so Davidson could apologize and then get roasted in turn by the Congressman. If this was all SNL had Crenshaw do—make an Ariana Grande reference and then crack a few jokes about Davidson’s appearance that were very possibly written by Davidson himself—it would still be misguided. It would still publicize a politician whose platform will threaten women and marginalized populations, and who encourages the kind of extreme beliefs that flourish on the far right fringe of the internet.
SNL did far worse than that, though. The show had Crenshaw deliver an earnest appeal for unity to help heal the divisions in America today. It let Crenshaw look like the bigger man in this short, one-sided “feud,” which had already raised his national profile and provided the Hannitys of the world with last week’s grist for the right-wing grievance mill. If you didn’t know anything about what Crenshaw ran on, you’d watch that video below and think that he’s a reasonable voice for peace in a polarized country, and not a guy who openly marketed himself to the most extreme and divisive voices in politics today.
Perhaps Crenshaw won’t govern the way he campaigned. Maybe promoting himself to the far right was just a cynical way to court necessary votes, and now that he’s won he’ll keep his distance from the racists and conspiracy theorists and let the most extreme parts of his platform slide. Of course he’ll be up for reelection in two years, so it’s hard to believe that’ll happen. (He also actually calls the Paris climate accord “value signalling” in his official platform, which is very close to the term “virtue signalling,” and thus makes him sound like some a-hole troll on 4chan.) Even if Crenshaw will try to pivot away from the far right now that he’s won, again, he won by supporting those fringe elements, and even if he isn’t tempted to go that route again in future elections, he’s already emboldened them. And by inviting him onto the show to preach about unity, SNL just gave Crenshaw a massive boost in mainstream visibility and credibility.
Making fun of a wounded soldier’s disability is terrible. So is polishing the public image of a partisan ideologue. Only one of these two acts could eventually lead to dangerous policy getting passed, and it’s not cracking jokes about an eye patch.