The rise of political remoras
Elise Stefanik is a political remora. Once you understand what that means—and how it happened—you'll better understand modern politics. Also: recommended readings to stimulate your brain.
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Every so often, human analogies fail me, and I must turn to the animal kingdom to describe our politics. This time, we meet the remora, sometimes known as the suckerfish—a marine creature that spends its life attaching itself to a larger, more powerful fish and feeding off its ectoparasites and loose flakes of skin for sustenance.
This helps the larger fish, perhaps, but the main beneficiary is the remora, as it leeches its lifeblood from the host, drifting through the seas without an independent thought of its own.
Elise Stefanik is a political remora.
You may not know who Elise Stefanik is, but she is, to me, the most disturbingly fascinating political creature in modern American politics. She embodies the descent of the Republican party from a flawed, but broadly democratic political movement, to one that is now avowedly anti-democratic, led by an authoritarian who incites political violence.
Stefanik won her seat in Congress in 2014, a 30-year-old from upstate New York who proclaimed big dreams of ushering in profound change. She cut her teeth in the George W. Bush White House before working on the Mitt Romney/Paul Ryan ticket in 2012. (Without whitewashing the record of those three flawed men, there is an enormous difference between Bush/Romney/Ryan and the Trumpian MAGA movement; the most important is that the former all believe in democracy while the latter do not).
In her first magazine profile as a Congresswoman, Stefanik spoke glowingly of the virtues of bipartisanship, vowing to work with Democrats who she saw as partners, not enemies. She spoke enthusiastically about the prospect of playing softball with New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat.
When asked about her priorities, Stefanik said this: “I strongly support equal pay for equal work for women, and talked about that a lot on the campaign trail. I also support the Violence Against Women Act, and want to be a strong voice for young women, even if that means breaking with the party.” In TIME magazine, her mentor, Paul Ryan, described her as “the future of hopeful, aspirational politics in America…She is thinking about the big picture when the crowd is scrambling to capitalize on the controversy of the day.”
During the Trump administration, Stefanik began to evolve, from Paul Ryan acolyte to Trump remora. On January 6th, 2021, Stefanik voted against certifying the 2020 election, an official attempt to subvert democracy and install the loser of an election into political power.
But there were still tiny—albeit almost imperceptible—glimmers of independent thought. After the violence at the Capitol ended, Stefanik said this:
“This has been a truly tragic day for America. Americans will always have the freedom of speech and the constitutional right to protest. But violence in any form is absolutely unacceptable. It is anti-American and must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
Last weekend, however, her evolutionary journey neared its completion. Stefanik was confronted with a tape of those comments on NBC’s Meet the Press. She responded by distancing herself from her own words, saying that comment was taken out of context. And then, the bombshell:
“I have concerns about the treatment of January 6th hostages,” she said, referring to those who are serving jail time for their role in the Capitol attack.
The word choice was no accident: for months, Trump has been using the same rhetoric, referring to the people who violently attacked police officers while breaking into the chambers of Congress as “hostages, not prisoners.”
The words flaked from Trump’s mouth into Stefanik’s, completing her transformation from someone who presented herself as an independent, bipartisan moderate vowing to swim against the GOP current into a political remora enthusiastically sporting a red hat on her dorsal fin. It was an audition tape for vice president. “Pick me!” Stefanik seemed to plead, hoping to enjoy future sustenance offered by the loose orange skin flakes presented by her host.
Then, the pièce de résistance: Stefanik refused to promise that she would certify the 2024 presidential election, rightly raising fears that she was already plotting to overturn the next election—should Trump lose.
What happened to her? The answer helps explain the descent of the Republican Party into MAGA madness.