A day with Dave Brat

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS -

Tall and grin­ning, U.S. Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) works the crowd at Mid­night Brew­ery, a craft beer hall in a ru­ral in­dus­trial park just west of Rich­mond in Goochland County. “Great job with Dent,” says a sup­porter at a “Brats and Beer With Brat” fundraiser that has drawn a siz­able crowd from Brat’s 7th Con­gres­sional Dis­trict, which stretches from the brack­ish York River to Culpeper’s dairy farms.

Brat is on a roll, so to speak. The hard-line con­ser­va­tive had just trashed Rep. Char­lie Dent (R-Pa.) on “Meet the Press.” Since he beat then-House Ma­jor­ity Leader Eric Can­tor in a stun­ning pri­mary up­set in June 2014 with strong tea party sup­port, he has been rip­ping up the tra­di­tional GOP hi­er­ar­chy.

“Up in D.C., they’re out of whack,” Brat tells the cheer­ing crowd. His lat­est coup, as a mem­ber of the rad­i­cal right-wing Free­dom Cau­cus, is forc­ing out House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). The cau­cus held the po­si­tion hostage, de­mand­ing Congress go along with pro­ce­dures it dic­tated on find­ing a re­place­ment.

Brat’s mes­sage is one of re­sent­ment and frus­tra­tion. Hit­ting “il­le­gal” im­mi­grants is good ma­te­rial even though his dis­trict is mostly white and ru­ral. Its His­panic pop­u­la­tion is only 4.9 per­cent.

He draws eerie al­lu­sions to the na­tion’s xeno­pho­bic past when he pro­claims that the three es­sen­tial in­gre­di­ents for a suc­cess­ful na­tion are fol­low­ing the JudeoChris­tian reli­gious tra­di­tion, rule of law and free mar­kets. He doesn’t talk about his pet is­sue — over­whelm­ing fed­eral spend­ing, debts and deficits — be­cause “that’s on my Web site,” he tells Brat­fest at­ten­dees.

Un­der­lin­ing his sta­tus as a rebel, Brat was in­tro­duced at the beer hall by Ken Cuc­cinelli II, an­other stri­dent so­cial con­ser­va­tive who was Vir­ginia’s at­tor­ney gen­eral and a gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­date in 2013. Prais­ing Brat’s “grass-roots tsunami,” he touted Brat’s “get­ting rid of the likes of John Boehner.”

To get an idea of where Brat gets his sup­port, I chat with his sup­port­ers. The com­mon themes are that gov­ern­ment is the en­emy and out­siders are threat­en­ing.

One woman, a new­comer to po­lit­i­cal events, says she re­sented re­ceiv­ing a query from the Amer­i­can Com­mu­nity Sur­vey of the U.S. Cen­sus Bureau de­mand­ing, un­der crim­i­nal penal­ties, an­swers to per­sonal ques­tions such as when she leaves for work each day. An­other woman wear­ing a large Ted Cruz but­ton says she backs Brat “be­cause he stands up for what he be­lieves in.”

A mid­dle-aged cou­ple munches on bratwursts. On im­mi­gra­tion, the woman said: “They should be brought in to El­lis Is­land and be de­bugged, like my hus­band’s an­ces­tors were when they came from Ger­many.” Her hus­band smiled at her joke. Were her pre­de­ces­sors sim­i­larly de­bugged? No, she replied, they were from England.

As the Brat­fest at­tests, Brat has solid Mid­west­ern roots, hav­ing grown up in Michi­gan and Min­nesota. Even the mus­tard came from Cleve­land. The­ol­ogy and eco­nom­ics are im­por­tant to Brat, a former eco­nom­ics pro­fes­sor at small Ran­dolphMa­con Col­lege in nearby Ash­land. He stud­ied at a sem­i­nary in New Jer­sey and got his eco­nom­ics doc­tor­ate from Amer­i­can Univer­sity.

Brat’s the­ory is that the best form of cap­i­tal­ism evolves from the merger of reli­gious ethics and free mar­kets. He’s a devo­tee of John A. Allison, former head of North Car­olina’s BB&T bank and the Cato In­sti­tute, who pushes “eth­i­cal” cap­i­tal­ism and the writ­ings of Ayn Rand.

Brat’s defin­ing mo­ment came in 2011 when he wanted to run as a Repub­li­can for an open House of Del­e­gates seat. But the party bosses chose Pe­ter Farrell, the young son of Thomas Farrell, a ma­jor GOP donor who is head of Do­min­ion Resources, the state’s pow­er­ful util­ity.

Brat was out­raged. “If you want to talk about a rigged sys­tem, this is it,” says Bob Holsworth, a Rich­mond po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst. Next, Brat went af­ter Can­tor, a bright up-and-comer and dar­ling of the Rich­mond busi­ness es­tab­lish­ment who was sup­posed to be Boehner’s suc­ces­sor. But Can­tor, wrapped up in his Wash­ing­ton world, ig­nored his con­stituents, giv­ing Brat an open­ing.

So what does Brat stand for other than the pol­i­tics of re­sent­ment and bro­mides about lim­it­ing gov­ern­ment power and spend­ing?

It’s hard to tell from the some­times bizarre state­ments he makes. Brat chal­lenged reau­tho­riz­ing $14 bil­lion in spend­ing to teach low-in­come chil­dren with this thought: “Socrates trained Plato in on a rock and then Plato trained in Aris­to­tle roughly speak­ing on a rock. So, huge fund­ing is not nec­es­sary to achieve the great­est minds and the great­est in­tel­lects in his­tory.”


Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.)

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