Katie Britt Wants You to Be Afraid — It’s the Fuel That Feeds Conservative Power

Alabama Republican Senator Katie Britt wants you to be afraid. Very afraid. Image: YouTube

Last week, Katie Britt, one of Alabama’s two Christian nationalist senators, provided a now-notorious rebuttal to President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address. If nothing else it was compelling television (and it even inspired a widely shared Saturday Night Live parody featuring Scarlett Johansson). 

Speaking from her family’s luxurious-but-barren kitchen, and carefully staged as “America’s mom,” the Republican senator wasted no time diving into her worries about “the future of the nation.” Using an exaggerated voice and melodramatic body language, she lied about sex trafficking in an attempt to discredit Biden’s border policies, a narrative contradicted by the victim herself. As if that weren’t enough, Britt blamed spending by the Biden administration for inflation, a claim rejected by most economists, and indulged conspiracy theories about the Chinese Communist Party’s intentions for the U.S.

Historian Heather Cox Richardson placed Britt’s appearance in the context of social conservatism’s long reactionary project, commenting that Britt “represented the outcome of the longstanding opposition to women’s equal rights in the United States.”

Britt was more than a representative, though. She was an active marketing agent, selling both opposition and the fear that fuels it.

It’s almost universal today to find social conservatives clinging to a rigidly hierarchical vision of family and society out of fear of difference, cultural change, or anything or anyone who challenges those hierarchies. Nearly 30 years ago, George Lakoff posited that, at the core of the conservative mindset is the “strict father” model of the family, in which people respond to a fallen and dangerous world with the authority of a strong and virtuous male head.

Fear is the glue that holds the strict father family together, and so fear must be forever sustained. It demands a constant rehearsal of the reasons to be afraid of the outside world, and why those reasons require obedience to one’s betters. Social conservatism is a perpetual sales job to convince both insiders and outsiders of its own worthiness.

To put it another way, social conservatives have to sell fear to themselves and to everyone else in order to maintain power, both inside the family and in society at large.

The day after the State of the Union, Amanda Marcotte published a detailed exploration of “tradwives” or “momfluencers”—social entrepreneurs selling a highly idealized version of socially conservative family life. The next day, Marcotte closed the circle, describing Britt herself as a tradwife and detailing the connection to her political message.

Marcotte isn’t alone. Others have picked up on the cues, including Britt’s former beauty queen looks and her “fundie baby voice,” which is more commonly associated with women like Michelle Duggar who believe that a wife should be submissive toward her husband.

Alongside the ongoing project to sell fear, tradwives and other representatives of social conservatism are often doing a literal sales job. Like any influencer, they hawk books and videos and podcasts and other products. Britt does have her own book to sell (God Calls Us to Do Hard Things sells for $22 on Amazon), but in her SOTU response she was flacking the Republican party line. Most likely, she was also selling herself as a possible running mate for Donald Trump (and she’s still selling, attempting to fundraise off the pushback she received).

It’s fair to point out that the sales vehicle here amounts to a highly selective fantasy of success as a stay-at-home mom. Of course, facts are somewhat beside the point, because what’s being sold is an identity. Being a fan of a momfluencer like Britt is a way to find a place in the social conservative community writ large. It’s a way to become the kind of person who wants to achieve the fantasy and so to shrive oneself of the anxiety that comes from being toward the bottom of the hierarchy.

In that sense, tradwives and their followers aren’t a new phenomenon. They’re simply an extension of the evangelical path of literally “buying into” the fold, stretching from contemporary Christian music to the Left Behind series to James Dobson’s books and cassette tapes—albeit with a much deeper reach than earlier iterations.

The French philosopher Guy Debord criticized such performative attempts to fit in as “spectacle,” defined as social connection formed through participation in commodified identities. Debord called spectacle “nothing more than an image of happy unification surrounded by desolation and fear at the tranquil center of misery.” Looking through all the carefully curated homey-ness, it’s hard to disagree.

Because while momfluencers and tradwives might sell a daydream, the Katie Britts of the world put their image in service of a cruel and reactionary project seeking to roll back reproductive freedom, economic protections, and, at its most extreme, even women’s right to vote. There can be little doubt that such a platform would immiserate millions of people should it come to pass.

Fortunately, although Britt had all the trappings of a tradwife, she didn’t have the slick media skills needed to close the sale. Sure, she might have convinced a few people to renew their subscriptions. But outside the tent, her performance bombed. Even Republican operatives were appalled. The social conservative project is wildly unpopular, as voters have demonstrated again and again post-Dobbs. Associating that platform with a weird, unlikeable presentation makes it that much easier to dismiss. Just ask Ron DeSantis.

Which doesn’t mean the strict father model is going away any time soon. There will always be people who believe in the conservative vision of a hierarchical family. There will always be people willing to sell that vision with fear. Katie Britt will be back in some form.

But this was a spectacular face-plant. It demonstrated that the identity of Mom remains contested, as does the vision of the family she represents. These are not things that a right-wing Christian dogmatist can buy and sell from her kitchen table. And that’s likely to be the case going forward, which is perhaps the best news anyone outside the world of social conservatism could hope for.