Even if you do not know your state representative’s name, you probably have some idea of what they look like. With entirely too few exceptions, the United States only produces a few different types of politicians, nearly all of whom exist within a strikingly narrow range of aesthetics. This is why the U.S. House of Representatives for this remarkably diverse country looks like a version of Guess Who? in which virtually all the little faces on the board are extremely old.
The same rule holds for the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which is less diverse than the country as a whole and has a 203-member House of Representatives and a 50-member Senate. It is the biggest full-time state legislature in the nation, vigorously gerrymandered and prone toward thirsty signifying and testy inaction in the way that state governments tend to be. If I tell you that Aaron Bernstine is a third-term member of that House’s Republican majority, representing a very strangely shaped district that includes parts of three different western Pennsylvania counties, you can probably close your eyes and imagine pretty accurately not just how he looks and acts, but how he serves the people of his district.
If you are imagining a man who looks like a child’s drawing of Jeremy Renner, and whose 2020 re-election campaign was mildly complicated after he posted, on his own Snapchat, video in which he made his 5-year-old son smoke a cigar and another in which he made the same son say that they were going to Nashville to chase “Cadillac pussy,” and who, when confronted with that, issued a huffy statement saying that “this last minute political driveby shooting,” by which he meant people noticing the videos he had posted, “is unfortunately the new norm today and it’s why good people don’t run for office”—you are pretty much up to speed on Pennsylvania Rep. Aaron Bernstine. And if you understand what representatives like Bernstine do—win low-turnout elections against marginal opponents (he defeated Green Party challenger Darcelle Slappy in 2018), or run unopposed (as Ballotpedia said he is doing this year), while acting out on social media in the theatrical and aggrieved ways that are his party’s default, and voting with that party as required—then you will not be surprised by the amendment he announced on Tuesday to the bill funding the commonwealth’s large public universities. Again, you will not have to imagine very hard. What would this man, at this fraught moment, believe was his most important obligation to his constituents? Here it is worth noting that Bernstine went to Penn State. Think of the dumbest thing that a sloppy, posturing, valueless elected official could do. Have you got it yet?
“Rep. Aaron Bernstine (R-Butler/Beaver/Lawrence) has introduced an amendment to Senate Bill 1283 that would require Penn State University to provide information about the Joe Paterno statue,” his office’s official statement begins. This was the statue that the university took down from its position outside Beaver Stadium in 2012, in the hope that doing so would remove a “source of division and obstacle to healing” in the effort to deal with the impact of Jerry Sandusky’s prolific, serial, generation-spanning campaign of child sexual abuse while on Paterno’s coaching staff. Bernstine makes clear in his statement that he feels like that decision was unfair to Paterno’s legacy, and also that he is very concerned about how the statue is being treated, wherever it is. And until Bernstine is satisfied that the statue of Paterno is being afforded the appropriate deference, he is prepared to keep state money away from the school, and also from such state-funded institutions as Temple, Pitt, and Lincoln University:
“The amendment would require Penn State to submit a report to the House and Senate Education committees about the location of the statue, and the method of storage and protection of the statue. This report would be required in order for the university to receive its annual appropriation from the state.”
This is, of course, very stupid, if not quite as stupid as posting a video of yourself making your kindergartner hit a cigar—or one in which Bernstine encourages another child, this one not his own, to play Fuck/Marry/Kill; the man loves to post—on a social media account that has the words “state representative” on it. But while all that problematic posting is the sort of bizarre unforced error that only a state representative with a cry-laughing emoji where his brain should be and a ludicrously gerrymandered district suffering beneath him could make, this specific ransom attempt fits pretty squarely within the mainstream of government in our broader moment. That it is petty and useless and annoying is less an accident than something like the point itself; it makes a fringy personal grievance into something much bigger, and does so entirely because one deeply repellent person who felt inconvenienced and affronted (correctly) figured out that he was in a position to get away with making that into a problem for everyone else.
A lot of things—a lot of institutions, a lot of workplaces, and a lot of minor day-to-day moments—unfold along that general dynamic. This moment is, for all its many other manifest failures, an extremely good time to be an aggressively unpleasant person whose avocation is to impose their individual unpleasantnesses on others. This is no way to run a government, or really anything else, but credit where it’s due: “Representative” does seem to be the right word for the man behind it.