When the 117th Congress convened for the first time in January, it brought with it a crop of far-right freshmen, perhaps the most prolific being Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene from Georgia’s 14th District. Greene had picked up a seat in the House along with several other Republican newcomers during the 2020 election cycle, slimming the Democratic majority further than expected. She came from an unassuming background in Georgia, owning a construction company with her husband and operating a CrossFit gym before becoming involved in politics. Greene ran a particularly nasty congressional campaign, rife with violent imagery and attacks on Democratic members of “The Squad,” in which she faced no Democratic opposition in one of the most conservative districts in the nation. It didn’t start that way, though: Greene initially had a Democratic opponent, self described “nice guy” Kevin Van Ausdal, who planned to run on a moderate platform in hopes of attracting voters away from Greene’s open support of such conspiracies as QAnon and Pizzagate. Van Ausdal’s time in the race only spanned 31 days, in which he was subject to vicious attacks on his personality and his politics alike. Greene’s public remarks encouraged volatility against her opponent, and Van Ausdal was bombarded with online statements saying that “the only good Democrat is a dead one” and that if a gun was held to his [Van Ausdal] face, “I bet he’d cry like a baby.” The pressure of the campaign became too much, and Van Ausdal later asserted that his already strained marriage was brought to an end by the harsh depletion of his mental health while running against Greene. Within days, he was effectively homeless and forced to quit the race and move in with relatives in Indiana. Van Ausdal maintains that he “lost everything” in his brief fight against Marjorie Taylor Greene. House Republicans and then-President Donald Trump cheered Greene’s effective coronation to the 14th District’s seat, and with that, the darkest depths of conspiracy theory and paranoia had made its way into Congress.
If your introduction to Marjorie Taylor Greene was the first time you’d ever heard of QAnon, or its fun offshoots like the “Clinton Kill List” and the Deep State theory, you’re not alone. Candidates like Greene are bringing theories into the mainstream that had never previously seen the light of the non-internet day: according to the Pew Research Center, Americans’ awareness of the QAnon conspiracy had doubled between March and September of 2020, the key months of the election cycle. Q has seeped into American political discourse in a way that can’t necessarily be compared to anything before it. Most of the response is negative- the same Pew study found that 74% of Americans think QAnon is either “very bad” or “somewhat bad”- and when Greene was elected, many Democrats and Republicans alike brushed off her presence in Congress as a benign annoyance that would be kept on a short leash by GOP leadership. The problem, though, is that congressional Republicans are facing an unprecedented vacuum of an establishment, with the party fractured along the lines of Trumpism and a more measured, moderate tone. So, when January and the House swearing-ins approached, QAnon believers were rejoicing that one of their own was about to be a virtually unchecked mouthpiece for the craziest people in the Republican Party, and she was going to be able to do it from the halls of Congress. So what is QAnon, and how did we get to this point?
The first and most important thing to note about QAnon is that it’s an entirely unfounded conspiracy theory with no credible evidence supporting it. It’s considered a “big tent” theory, one that covers many smaller offshoots and fringe ideologies that mostly only exist in dark corners of the internet. The essential message of Q is mind-boggling: that the world is being run by an elite class of Satan-worshippers who molest children and then eat them, and that Donald Trump was recruited to save everyone from them. As for the child-eating pedophile Satanists? Think the Obamas and the Clintons, Oprah, George Soros, Tom Hanks, and Ellen. Since its inception, QAnon has expanded to include other theories about events like the Kennedy Assassination, UFO sightings, and 9/11. Beyond all that, QAnon theorists believe that an event called “the Storm” will eventually occur, in which Trump will unmask the cabal, ending its nefarious shadow network and restoring American greatness. There has been little indication from members of the movement as to how that will occur now that Trump is out of office, though many lauded the Capitol riots on January 6th as the coming of the Storm. Marjorie Taylor Greene fits into all of this due to her easy-to-track online presence, which spans Facebook comment sections, videos she’s created, and content she’s endorsed, all of which indicates her support for QAnon and other conspiracy theories. QAnon might’ve been an easy target for GOP leadership to dismiss, had President Trump not placidly termed the conspiracy theorists as “people who love our country very much” and shared various posts from QAnon-related accounts on Twitter. As with many touchy subjects in the past four years, Republicans are faced with two options: swiftly denouncing extremism and getting on the bad side of Trump and his base, or keeping quiet and falling into line with domestic terror threats in hopes of winning reelection.
Donald Trump may have left the White House, but his proverbial chickens have come home to roost in the form of Greene and other new GOP House members who embrace the extremist, firebrand populism which delivered the 2016 victory. These new Republicans are younger, scrappier, and unafraid to be aligned with ideas that are more at home on 4chan than in a congressional committee. In addition to Greene, newly elected representatives Lauren Boebert (CO-3) and Madison Cawthorn (NC-11) have joined the ranks of Freedom Caucus members hell-bent on keeping alive the aggressive style of politics that became the norm under Trump. Sure, their bold statements pack very little punch in terms of governance, but they have a unique ability to get people riled up (Boebert went viral on multiple social media platforms after posting a video explaining why she would be bringing her Glock to the House floor and around D.C.) and they make for a fantastically frenzied 24-hour news cycle every time they open their mouths. The fragmented, weakened GOP establishment has very little power over this sort of mob mentality politics, and so Greene and her allies keep talking and making headlines. Less than a day into President Biden’s new term, Greene drafted articles of impeachment against him, posting a video to twitter in which she says “we’ll see how this goes.” Most recently, she’s come under scrutiny for Facebook activity back in 2018 in which she endorses the murder of high-ranking Democrats (Greene liked a comment saying that “a bullet through the head would be quicker” than removing Hoouse Speaker Nancy Pelosi), and videos have resurfaced of her harassing Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg about his views on gun control (Greene is a supporter of “false flag” theories which maintain that mass shootings, including Parkland, Las Vegas, and Sandy Hook are fabricated by Democrats to boost support for gun control). The more radical Greene and her peers get, the more noticeable the silence from congressional Republicans is. An advisor to Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign said that, following the surfacing of Greene’s comments on Democratic leadership, the Republican leadership should “come down on her like a ton of bricks,” but only a handful of Republicans have openly condemned her words or made any sort of statement denouncing her actions. Marjorie Taylor Greene comes with a laundry list of political scandals. But her role in the long run of the collective American psyche is much bigger: does the Republican Party have the guts to cut her off, or will she become its new normal?
Doomsday-prepping aside, we should be somewhat glad that Republicans are finally being forced to reckon with their alt-right demons. People should know that the party they vote for has principles, and right now, the party that still claims Lincoln every chance they get is at a crossroads. Perhaps it’s more popular to simply let extremists be, to allow them an echo chamber and a seat in Congress and keep the extra percentage points that their kooky bases add to a mainstream approval rating. But popular doesn’t answer for acts of domestic terrorism and hate-feuled violence enabled by these figureheads. If the Republican Party wants to stay afloat in a rapidly-shifting political climate where people have more access to their representatives than ever before via the internet, it has to figure out a real strategy to deal with QAnon and the people it produces. Fringe ideas make their way further into the mainstream conscience every day, and that’s not always bad. It’s about time though that people started to differentiate between thinking outside of the box and peddling unfounded, fearmongering ideologies that only serve to spread lies and sow division. If there’s anything Americans learned over the course of the last four years, it’s that lies, drama, and far-fetched theories make for a great headline, but you can’t govern via cable news channels.
There’s a lot of rhetoric going around about unity and healing in the post-Trump era, but nobody has space to heal when the rising stars of a political party have no qualms associating with white supremacy, violent insurrection, and blatant lies. If the numbers of the 2020 popular vote are anything to go off of – and they are, to the tune of 81,283,098 people – the majority of Americans are ready to move past Trump politics. That’s going to be impossible if the future of the Republican Party continues to look the way it does. Donald Trump may never run for office again, but he doesn’t have to, not as long as people like Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, and even (somehow still) Ted Cruz are in positions of power. The people who fell in line under Trumpism have made it clear that they have no intention of straying from the doctrine, and the harsh reality is that many of the infamous Trump apostles are sharper, younger, and more politically savvy than the former President. These are people who know how to run campaigns and raise money, who know how to network and sway public opinion to a far greater degree than Trump ever did. They may not look or speak the part, but if elected to high enough office with enough support, they could hold the power to swiftly and quietly enact one of the most bizarrely based policy platforms this country has ever seen. The worst thing anyone can do is to not take it seriously.
It seems that the GOP as we know it is approaching a sort of political supernova: after the meteoric rise of the Tea Party was parlayed into Trump conservatism, the star looks like it’s about to explode. The measured, level headed mantras of Republicans who once preached austerity and privacy don’t work anymore. The “buckle down and get to work” attitude that built the party’s brand of conservatism in the Reagan years is dead and gone. It has been replaced by an “us vs. them” mentality that pits working class whites against everyone else, even though GOP policies don’t actually address most of the issues faced by that demographic (healthcare deficiencies, drug problems, and generational poverty being a few). Radical populism doesn’t work without a population that feels underserved and left behind, and wealthy establishment Republicans have capitalized off of the frustration felt by white Americans in flyover states to create a system in which a person like Marjorie Taylor Greene gets elected on a platform of saving people from a larger-than-life mythos of power (in this case, socialism). If there was once a rational, restrained version of the GOP, it’s reached its expiration date. We’re witnessing the real-time disintegration of a political juggernaut that’s been years in the making: polite conservatism, the type that most Americans can comfortably ignore, didn’t die with Donald Trump. In fact, the rise of Trump was a symptom, not the disease itself. Polite conservatism went off the rails when it morphed from a collection of financial policies into a socially volatile structure of falsehoods and fearmongering intended to keep those on top at the top, while scaring the crap out of everyone else. John McCain and Sarah Palin exemplify a watered down image of the divide: one an institutional, old school statesman who mostly kept his grievances to himself, the other a hardcore, Bible-thumping birther who blamed her son’s domestic abuse scandal on President Obama. Palin Republicans, who now mostly fall under the umbrella of Trump Republicans, benefit from the structure set up by their more moderate predecessors and are able to use it to fund and run their own rises. The elder statesmen are then left in the dust by the newer, more newsworthy versions of them, and so goes the fall of the GOP as we know it. We see a similar effect happening on the left, too, as younger and largely progressive candidates and activists have started to shape Democratic policy on a larger scale, unafraid to call out the misfires of the older establishment. Some have even gone so far to compare Greene and her extremist colleagues to progressive members of “the Squad,” saying that progressivism is to the Democratic Party what Trumpism is to the Republican Party. It’s important to note, however, that progressive policy is largely centered around building equity, reforming outdated systems, and pursuing justice for marginalized communities, while the conservative counterpart is using social fear tactics (like QAnon or “immigrants are here to take your job”) to try and keep things as they are or, in many cases, to see them regress. The Green New Deal is not tantamount to an economic recession, Joe Biden is not a “radical socialist,” and immigrants and people of color don’t threaten the “American way of life.” So no, Marjorie Taylor Greene isn’t “the AOC of the Republican Party.” What she is, however, is a signifier of its final descent into madness before becoming something else entirely.