Katie Britt’s Strange Speech – The Atlantic

You might not have known it from Katie Britt’s State of the Union rebuttal last night—a performance derided by members of her own party as “bizarre” and “confusing”—but up until then, Britt had distinguished herself in the Senate with a reputation for being startlingly, well, normal.

As in, she wasn’t obsessed with Twitter (or X, as it’s now called). She evinced more than a passing interest in policy. For her, conservatism seemed to mean things other than simply “supporting Trump.”

It was just five days ago that Newt Gingrich was imagining the possibilities for Britt’s future, framing the freshman senator from Alabama’s coming rebuttal to President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address as her “big audition.” “It will be interesting to see if Britt rises to the occasion,” the former House speaker had mused to a New York talk-radio host. “If she does, it will be a major step up in her potentially being Trump’s vice-presidential candidate.”

When I called Gingrich this morning and asked if Britt had, in fact, risen to the occasion last night, he sounded flustered. “Ah, well, um, I don’t have any comment right now, thank you.” He hung up.

Gingrich is far from the only Republican skirting on-the-record conversations today about Britt’s performance. The Alabamian’s 17-minute address, delivered from her own kitchen, surprised many in the party for its tonal confusion and the dramatic affectations that often distracted from the message itself—a party-line discourse on illegal immigration and the imperiled future of American families. The speech has been mocked widely on social media and cable news, including by various right-wing commentators. But lawmakers and other prominent Republicans—those who had cast the event as Britt’s potential star turn—have mostly stayed quiet.

Why did the GOP assign such stakes to a speech from someone who, before last night, most Americans had never heard of?

Pressure is of course inherent to any State of the Union rebuttal; parties have long used the event to sell Americans on a vision for the future of their institution, the kind of leadership voters can expect if they just stick it out (promise!). Yet the hopeful anticipation attending Britt’s appearance was unusual, and not only because her party is desperate to showcase that young, college-educated mothers still exist within their ranks: Britt, married with two children, was just 40 when she was sworn in as Alabama’s junior senator last year, the youngest Republican woman ever elected to the upper chamber.

Britt’s real distinction, however, has been her ability to move with startling ease among the various factions of her party, maintaining good standing among the chamber-of-commerce types responsible for her political rise while steadily earning the trust of her more overtly MAGA colleagues and voters back home. In a moment when the GOP base diligently screens elected leaders for even a phantasm of apostasy, Britt’s 66 percent approval rating in Alabama suggests that not even her cross-aisle friendships—she’s been vocally supportive of Democrat and fellow freshman Senator John Fetterman, who early in his tenure sought inpatient treatment for clinical depression—have compromised perceptions of her purity. (Her approval rating is three points higher than that of Tommy Tuberville, Alabama’s other senator, whose politics, from his 2020 campaign on, have been anchored in little more than outspoken devotion to former President Donald Trump.)

Call it the Richard Shelby example. Shelby, the longtime Alabama senator who retired in 2023 after 44 years in Congress, first met Britt in 2004; he hired her as a press aide on the recommendation of his wife, who had taught Britt at the University of Alabama. Twelve years later—during which time Britt graduated from her alma mater’s law school and practiced in Birmingham—Shelby named her chief of staff. From 2016 to 2018, Britt observed up close her party’s shifting dynamics in the Trump era and the skill with which her boss navigated them; rather than rushing to Fox News to discuss the president’s latest tweet, he quietly wielded the power he’d patiently amassed atop some of the most powerful committees in Congress. When running to succeed Shelby, Britt assured his legions of deep-pocketed supporters that she would take her former boss’s lessons to heart. Translation: She would leave the sound bites to the Auburn football coach.

But as she campaigned, she also showcased her ability to win over the most ardent of Trump fans—including Trump himself. Though Trump had endorsed her chief primary opponent, Mo Brooks, the ultra-right-wing congressman from northern Alabama, early in the race, Britt lobbied for the former president’s backing as soon as his relationship with Brooks showed signs of fraying. Trump soon announced his support for Britt; in the space of a year, he had gone from calling her an unqualified “assistant” to a “RINO Senator” to praising her as a “fearless America First warrior.”

In her short time in the Senate, Britt has followed, more or less, Shelby’s head-down approach, securing a coveted spot on the Appropriations Committee and impressing her party’s leadership with unusual initiative in fundraising for her senior colleagues. “If she aspires to rise through elected leadership, I see a pretty clear path forward,” Senator John Cornyn of Texas told Politico’s Jonathan Martin last year.

Less than a year into her tenure, Britt set out to promote the release of a memoir, God Calls Us to Do Hard Things: Lessons From the Alabama Wiregrass. Asked by a CBS host about her interest in joining the Trump ticket, Britt laughed off the question. Since then, Britt’s name has landed on any number of VP longlists drawn up by major media outlets. (Trump, for his part, has never suggested the Alabama lawmaker as a possible candidate.)

For prominent Republicans, Thursday was the night to introduce the woman lauded in the halls of Congress to the rest of America. If the responses (and non-responses) have been any indication, it wasn’t the unveiling they’d hoped for. Addressing the camera from her own kitchen table in Montgomery, Britt seemed to ricochet from one practiced emotion to another as she conjured an apocalyptic portrait of America under the “dithering and diminished” Biden. She focused much of her speech on illegal immigration, sharing in detail her encounter with a young girl sex-trafficked by a cartel, and referencing the Venezuelan migrant charged in the recent killing of the Georgia nursing student Laken Riley.

“Right now,” Britt said, “the American dream has turned into a nightmare.”

At times her facial expressions seemed incongruous—a strained smile as she shared her fear for “the future of children in every corner of our nation”; a flicker of aw-shucks pity at some mentions of Biden, seemingly at odds with the studied malevolence she would go on to attribute to him. At other points, she paired an intense gaze with a whispered voice, including in a direct appeal to American parents “and, in particular, to my fellow moms”: “We see you, we hear you, and we stand with you.”

Her own Senate colleague’s clumsy assessment of the speech seemed to reinforce precisely the stereotype of the GOP that Katie Britt, in being tapped to deliver the party’s response to Biden, was theoretically meant to counteract. “She was picked as a housewife, not just a senator, somebody who sees it from a different perspective,” Tuberville told reporters today. (Britt’s office did not respond to an interview request, but in a statement to Business Insider, her spokesperson said: “Joe Biden angrily screamed for an hour and was roundly praised for a ‘fiery’ speech. Katie Britt passionately made the case on the need for a new direction and is being criticized by the liberal media. Color me surprised.”)

When I reached Shelby by phone this morning, he told me he had stayed up to watch his former chief. How had she done? “Well, I think this: You know, she’s young, she’s dynamic. You never know where you’ll go, but she’s on a fast track, and …” His voice briefly trailed off. “I thought she did well last night. You’ve gotta remember, that’s a lot of pressure; that is a lot of pressure to follow a State of the Union.”

He went on: “She touched on some bases; of course, she’s expected to do some things, and I thought she came [off] pretty—pretty well. I couldn’t have done it, you know?”

Shelby brought up the chatter about Britt as a contender for Trump’s running mate. I asked what advice he would give her if Trump invited her onto the ticket. “Well, she doesn’t need any advice—she can make her own decision,” he said. “But, you know, to run on a national ticket—not many people ever turn that down.”

For all the various takes on Britt’s performance last night, and what it might mean for her political future, she seems to have done well by the person who arguably has the most power over it, at least in this moment.

“Katie Britt was a GREAT contrast to an Angry, and obviously very Disturbed, ‘President,’” Trump wrote on Truth Social last night. “She was compassionate and caring, especially concerning Women and Women’s Issues. Her conversation on Migrant Crime was powerful and insightful. Great job Katie!”