“The grassroots are upset because they’re being told to be upset.”

Of all of the statements from the now-infamous recording of the conversation between House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, Rep. Dustin Burrows, and Empower Texans CEO Michael Quinn Sullivan, this stood out to me more than any other because it explains the alternate reality many of our legislators have been attempting to craft since the beginning of the 86th Legislative Session and the resulting disconnect with conservatives who just aren’t buying it.

Though Burrows made the statement, I can attest as a former legislator it is one which several legislators have made to me in one form or another, and one which most Austin political insiders believe wholeheartedly.

It explains why GOP legislators believed they could sell the biggest do-nothing session in recent memory as a conservative victory, even while Democrats and the liberal media loudly celebrated. It explains why numerous legislators released coordinated statements urging us to move on after the speaker issued a non-apology “apology” that ignored his most egregious ethical lapses and potential violations of law. It explains why state GOP leaders are considering throwing gun owners under the bus in a special session. It is prototypical projection, they assume conservatives operate the way they do—top down, unprincipled relativism dictated from on high. They believe there is no right and wrong, there is no principle, there is only what people are told is right, wrong, or principled.

The 86th Legislative Session sales push made that clear. In an apparent misunderstanding over the meaning of “Pride Month,” legislators spent all of June telling voters how proud they were of themselves for the recently concluded session. In fact, it was an obvious and dismal failure.

The only conservative victories of note were either neutered or symbolic: a 3.5 percent property tax cap that applies to only 22 percent of the state and gives cities a year to raise taxes uncapped; an infanticide law that prohibits already illegal conduct; a law to ban local abortion clinic funding that was so weak, Austin already found a way around it; and the passage of the “Save Chick-fil-A” law, which was so poorly drafted, even the anti-Christian Human Rights Campaign stated that it was “pleased it passed in a form which causes no significant legal harm” to its cause.

These so-called “victories” were eclipsed by the first budget in six years that actually increased the real size of government, laws giving public schools far too much control in assessing the mental health of our children, throwing billions of dollars more into a broken school finance system with little structural reform, spending $1 million in taxpayer money for a public campaign on “safe gun storage” supported by anti-gun groups, and Bonnen’s leadership team killing one of the most important pro-business priorities to protect city LGBT ordinances modeled after the “Equality Act” proposed by Democrats in Congress. Republicans tried to sell the session as a conservative victory akin to “winning the Super Bowl”, but people were not buying it.

A similar scenario has played itself over again since the Sullivan-Bonnen meeting. When Sullivan revealed he had a tape which proved Bonnen lied and potentially implicated him in criminal conduct, Bonnen issued a non-apology “apology” and instructed several members to play out a choreographed bit of theater where they released statements saying the apology exhibits “humility,” “admits missteps,” and seeks to “rebuild trust that has been broken.”

The veil slipped when they each used these same key phrases and released the statements at the same time, showing the whole charade was nothing more than a coordinated, consultant-driven political strategy designed to drive public opinion and preserve their own power. The result wasn’t elevated public opinion of the speaker; it instead raised questions about the legislators supporting him—either they realize the seriousness of the conduct and are lying to us or they don’t even grasp the severity. If it’s the latter, then what kind of conduct have they been engaging in behind closed doors? The response effectively implicated a broader group of the GOP caucus in what should have been a two-person scandal.

These missteps result from a fundamental misunderstanding that persists today. The grassroots are not upset because they are being told to be upset. They are upset because they see that their party leadership is failing them and, with a few exceptions, legislators are choosing self-preservation over principles, honesty, and ethics. The grassroots understand they won’t always get the results they want. But honesty and ethics are non-negotiable and not part of some political game. The sooner legislators realize this, the sooner we can repair this disconnect and get back to winning elections.

This is a commentary submitted and published with the author’s permission. If you wish to submit a commentary to Texas Scorecard, please submit your article to submission@texasscorecard.com.

Matt Rinaldi

Matt Rinaldi is the general counsel for a Texas healthcare company, director for a publicly traded hotel and hospitality company, and was a Texas state representative representing northwest Dallas County from 2015-19. He graduated with honors from both Boston University School of Law and James Madison University, with a degree in economics.