What to do with a senator like James Lankford? Photo: Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Letter from Washington: The curious case of Senator Lankford

Who deserves to live in ignominy and who deserves a path back?

James Lankford, a Republican Senator from Oklahoma, was halfway through his speech objecting to the certification of Arizona’s electoral college votes last Wednesday when a bang of the gavel announced the suspension of Senate proceedings. A Senate official hurried over and told Lankford: “The protesters are in the building.”

As one of the dozen or so Republican Senators who arrived at the Capitol on January 6 planning to object to Joe Biden’s clear and legitimate victory last November, Lankford deserves a share of the blame for the violent chaos that interrupted his speech. By adding credence to Donald Trump’s stolen election lie, he and his colleagues helped reinforce the primary grievance of the mob that stormed the Capitol. And Lankford should not be allowed to forget his part in last Wednesday’s grim proceedings.

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But since then, the Oklahoma Senator has set himself apart from other objectors by displaying a level of contrition that the likes of Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz seem congenitally incapable of. After the Senate reconvened, he was one of the small group of Senators to drop his challenge to the election results. This week, Lankford wrote an apology letter not to the American people, not even to everyone in Oklahoma, but to his “friends in North Tulsa”, a neighbourhood in the state’s second largest city with many black residents and the site of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, one of the ugliest moments in American history.

In the letter, Lankford writes that his challenge to the election result “caused a firestorm of suspicion among many of my friends, particularly in Black communities around the state. I was completely blindsided, but I also found a blind spot. What I did not realise was all of the national conversation about states like Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, was seen as casting doubt on the validity of votes coming out of predominantly Black communities like Atlanta, Philadelphia and Detroit.”

The Oklahoma Senator has displayed a level of contrition that the likes of Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz seem congenitally incapable of

“After decades of fighting for voting rights,” he continued, “many Black friends in Oklahoma saw this as a direct attack on their right to vote, for their vote to matter, and even a belief that their votes made an election in our country illegitimate. I can assure you, my intent to give a voice to Oklahomans who had questions was never also an intent to diminish the voice of any Black American… In this instance, I should have recognised how what I said and what I did could be interpreted by many of you. I deeply regret my blindness to that perception, and for that I am sorry.”

This year, Tulsa will mark the 100th anniversary of arguably the country’s worst racist massacre. As many as 300 Tulsans died in a bloody 24-hours in 1921, the overwhelming majority of them black. Thousands were made homeless. Greenwood, a thriving, prosperous neighbourhood known as Black Wall Street, was flattened by a white mob. Lankford’s apology came after calls to have him removed from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission.

According to the local newspaper, Tulsa World, Lankford has been “arguably more involved with Black Tulsans, and particularly the historic Greenwood District, than any statewide Republican officeholder in decades.” In Congress, he is one of the few Republicans who has worked with Democratic colleagues on voting rights reform. Last year, Lankford, a Baptist minister, was critical of Trump after he cleared protesters to hold a bible up outside St John’s Church, near the White House. He was one of the architects of last summer’s Republican police reform bill. Immediately after the election, when the president was making unfounded claims about a rigged result, Langford said he would intervene to make sure Biden received intelligence briefings but then quickly changed his tune.

All of this made Lankford one of the more surprising names on the list of senators who initially objected to the certification of Biden’s win. (The fact that Lankford faces re-election in a deepest red state in two years’ time is perhaps the best, though not exculpatory, explanation.) It also makes the central claim of his apology — that he had a “blind spot” when it comes to the racial baggage associated with claims of election fraud — hard to believe, leading many to question his sincerity. And even if we take Senator Lankford at his word, “too little, too late” would be a perfectly reasonable objection. A more charitable response might at least give Lankford credit for at least engaging with his part in it all when many Republicans have just decided to change the subject.

But this complicated cocktail — complicity, an underwhelming apology and a Congressional track record that points at more than just mindless partisanship — makes Lankford an interesting test case for how the Republican Party proceeds after Trump and after last Wednesday.

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The path to a healthier democracy and a sane GOP surely involves offering the likes of Lankford an off-ramp from the Trumpian madness without downplaying the seriousness of their willingness to indulge the stolen election lie. In other words, who deserves to live in political ignominy and who deserves a way back?

This is the difficult question that those interested in building a better Republicanism after Trump must grapple with. I suspect that toughness towards the President himself and the uber-MAGA contingent — starting with a vote to convict Trump in the upcoming impeachment trial — needs to be mixed with a more forgiving approach to the likes of Lankford. For without the Lankfords of this world, the anti-Trump contingent will have little hope of building a coalition large enough to win the battle for the future of the right that awaits.

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