Recent reports of grave human rights violations and state usurpation of federal border security responsibilities in Texas are a wake-up call for Democrats to pursue a far more confrontational strategy against Republican fear-mongering about the southern border. In particular, moves by Governor Greg Abbott to militarize border enforcement and portray the flow of unarmed, poverty-stricken migrants as an actual invasion of the United States constitute a challenge to bedrock American values that cannot be allowed to gain further traction or prevail.

Over the last week, the Houston Chronicle and the New York Times have reported on extreme efforts by Texas law enforcement and National Guard members to repel immigrants from crossing the border. Among other evidence, the Chronicle and the Times obtained an email from a state police medic who “described exhausted migrants being cut up by razor wire, a teenager breaking his leg to escape the barriers and officers being directed to withhold water from migrants struggling in the perilous heat.” The medic also described a pregnant woman caught up in concertina wire, as well as a young girl who was literally pushed back by authorities, subsequently passed out, and ultimately required assistance from medical workers. At least 3 other state police officers offered similar accounts, including receiving orders to refuse water to migrants. There are also reports of migrants drowning in deep river water in efforts to avoid obstacles placed in shallower reaches by Texas authorities.

Notably, several immigrants interviewed by the Times, including some who had been involved in such incidents, have offered corroborating accounts of state border personnel cruelty. In one incident, someone appearing to be a Texas state trooper removed a blanket placed over concertina wire by those attempting to cross it, leading a person to slip and gash her head. Immigrants have also described being lacerated by concertina wire strung underwater, on which they unwittingly stumbled.

Undoubtedly, there are some who would say that these immigrants have simply gotten what they deserve — that bloody wounds, physical expulsion, and terror are proper penalties for daring to seek asylum or a better life in the United States. And so it is vital that the rest of us, who constitute a decisive majority of the country, offer not the slightest quarter to the deranged sadism and willful inhumanity wielded against our fellow human beings seeking a better life in the United States.

Abbott and his kind make a fuss about how they’re only seeking to protect the country against drugs and criminals. But their eagerness to treat all migrants at the southern border as criminals, as invaders, to dehumanize people who may very well have solid legal claims to asylum and a pathway to eventual citizenship, gives their sordid worldview away. No legitimate “defense” of the United States can possibly involve entangling pregnant women in cutting wire, physically pushing away young girls, or denying water to parched immigrants in punishing heat. In attempting to project toughness, they instead broadcast their own moral failures, essential cowardice, and lack of understanding of this nation’s fundamental character.

As disturbing as these recent events are, they are merely a piece of a larger story about the Republican Party’s turn against liberal democracy and increasing comfort with authoritarian policies tinged with violence in the service of a white supremacist vision for America. When GOP politicians like Abbott attempt to foment hysteria about the U.S. being overwhelmed by dark-skinned migrants seeking to rob the rest of us of our birthright, they are activating white fears that they are on track to lose their majority status in the U.S. in the coming decades. At its most extreme, such politicians indirectly or directly invoke the idea of the Great Replacement theory, in which demographic change is viewed as a sinister plot by Jews and “globalists” to replace white Americans.

It is not coincidental that the Texas GOP’s pursuit of an anti-immigrant agenda increasingly involves an effort to undermine and challenge long-established prerogatives of the federal government at a time when a Democrat holds the presidency. Specifically, the recent abuses appear to be outgrowths of Operation Lone Star, Abbott’s attempt to use the Texas National Guard and other instruments of state power to patrol the border in a de facto challenge to the federal government’s responsibility for border security — as well as a blatant attempt to curry favor from right-leaning voters and media, as Greg Sargent recently noted.

The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein, in a recent continuation of his must-read series on how the GOP is building up a “nation within a nation,” points to Abbott’s machinations as fitting into a larger phenomenon of red states carving out power based on right-wing principles and in opposition to federal power. But I believe the attempts to usurp federal powers around immigration and border controls should be viewed even more harshly, as another aspect of a slow-rolling insurrection in which much of the GOP has been engaged since the latter days of the Trump administration. As Brownstein and others have described, Republicans have aimed squarely at rolling back and reversing key aspects of American democracy, including voting rights, the power of the federal government to set basic standards in areas such as the economy and environmental protection, and civil rights for disfavored groups, with the aim of ensuring minority (i.e., white Christian) rule over a diversifying America. But rather than constituting politics as usual or some sort of harder-edged tactics (which seems to be the default position of mainstream news organizations like the New York Times) or as an attempt to insulate GOP-majority areas from the broader American majority, these efforts in fact aim at the wholesale subversion of majority rule and inevitably aim at corrupting democracy at the federal level to achieve their aims.

The recent border actions, even outside the human rights violations and possible crimes committed by Texas authorities, fit even more persuasively into an insurrectionary framework, involving not only a direct challenge to established federal legal authority around border control and foreign affairs, but the use of National Guard troops as something akin to the governor’s personal army against (imagined) foreign invaders. Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch effectively conveys the scale of the operation:

It’s the governor of America’s second-largest state building up his own military force that’s as suitable for Kandahar as for Eagle Pass — deploying Blackhawk helicopters and C-130 cargo planes to support the specially trained soldiers of what state officials called the Texas Border Tactical Force. Texas has spent an astronomical $4.5 billion on the project so far, deploying about 10,000 troops and law-enforcement officers at any given time — with no end in sight.

[. . .]

It’s not only the massive scale and cost of Operation Lone Star, but the fact that these Texas troops aren’t working in concert with the federal government.

So the more consequential story here is not the flow of migrants across the border, which ultimately is the predictable result of the combined forces of climate change, poverty, and foreign political repression intersecting with the fundamental appeal of the U.S. as a land of wealth and freedom. Rather, it is the frenzied urgency with which leading GOP politicians foment a false sense of crisis about immigration, and increasingly embrace tactics that have less to do with actually controlling it and far more to do with eroding federal power while enacting a grotesque vision of white supremacism.

But while what’s happening at the border needs to be viewed as part of a larger story about a GOP-abetted reactionary movement, it has a special, even unique, importance to this movement — and to the American majority’s countervailing efforts to blunt and defeat it. There is a very good reason right-wing politicians like Abbott have chosen to make immigration such a focus of their efforts and propaganda, and the dehumanization of brown-skinned immigrants central to their political appeal. They grasp that current-day conflicts over immigration form a wedge issue with which to derange and possibly destroy a vital American consensus with which they disagree. This consensus holds that immigration has been essential to the growth and vitality of the United States — and equally importantly, that one’s claim to being an American has nothing to do with one’s place of origin or the color of one’s skin.

Moreover, as the GOP has shown itself to be increasingly motivated by white grievance politics, the war on immigrants is in some way the ultimate expression of such politics, combining the literal and the symbolic: an opportunity for politicians like Abbott to make actual war on the dusky specter of demographic change, by targeting immigrants of color and also symbolically sending a menacing signal to non-white Americans better protected by the rule of law — while simultaneously stoking the demographic fears of white Americans about the supposed threat posed by darker-skinned citizens and non-citizens alike. You can’t fully make sense of what is happening in Texas without acknowledging the role of white supremacism and GOP fears of demographic replacement. It helps explain the viciousness and the tenacity of what we are seeing; but it also make the border and immigration essential territory for fighting back against this perverted and stunted vision of America’s future.

To date, the Biden administration has pursued a cautious path towards Abbott’s provocations, issuing a stern denunciation of the allegations but taking only limited actions to actually rein in the state’s various abuses. It is not difficult to see Abbott’s crude political game — for him and other Republicans, the play is to bait the Biden administration into denouncing and attempting to roll back his retrograde policies, so that GOP politicians can in turn pronounce the Democrats as being pro-illegal immigrant, soft on crime, and more concerned with the rights of immigrants than the needs of YOU, a real honest-born-and-bred everyday American. It is a familiar dance, only with an enhanced level of sadism and higher stakes than ever for our country.

Throughout the Biden administration, the president and Democratic leaders have generally opted to dampen rather than seek confrontation with a radicalizing GOP, seemingly rooted in a belief that the American majority prefers calm after the tempestuous Trump years, and will reward Democrats for being the low-drama party. Yet what Texas is doing along the southern border demonstrates the limits of this political strategy. The offenses against human rights and federal power are too outlandish to ignore; letting them stand implicates all Americans in their cruelty, while eroding long-established principles of federal power in the service of an insurrectionary spirit. And as I noted above, the larger stakes involve no less than a confrontation over whether a white supremacist vision will be allowed to gain further sway over American politics, with all the cruelty, authoritarianism, and destructive policies it entails.

Clearly, it is time for Democrats to find a way to pop the “Democrats are weak on border security” nonsense that only encourages GOP aggression and makes Democrats themselves think twice about responding to the sorts of horrors happening along the Rio Grande. The idea of an emergency at the border, and that there is a full-fledged “invasion” underway, is a triumph of right-wing propaganda fueled by nativist fantasies that have become central to the GOP’s political appeal. The Democrats need to bring the hammer down on the hateful actions by Texas authorities while also openly discussing and unraveling the various fantasies — of white supremacism, of “invasion,” of faceless hordes coming to take Americans’ jobs — in which right-wing politicians’ actions are grounded.

This is not just a battle over policy — it’s a fight over what America is and what it should be, and to avoid it is effectively to cede the field to the GOP’s noxious ideas and inhumane acts. And so Democrats will not only need to expose and deconstruct the Republicans’ dark vision for America, but will also need to put forward their own alternative — one that provides inspiration for Americans chilled by the tired themes of racism and fear on which the GOP relies. Fortunately, a powerful narrative of an America made great by immigration and diversity is close at hand — because it’s the reality that most of us are living every day. The great majority of Americans can trace their origins to other lands; an attack on immigration is ultimately an attack on all of us actual Americans with mongrel roots and tangled family trees. Unfortunately for the Republican Party, it has put itself in opposition to the values that actually bind most Americans; these include compassion, solidarity, a love of democracy and the belief that every voice and vote counts, and agreement that we resolve our differences through talk and debate, not by storming the Capitol, turning the National Guard into a personal army, or impaling migrants on concertina wire.