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Analysis | The core weakness of the Republican Party, on raw display


Why is Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) in Congress?

The 2020 campaign that brought her to Washington for the first time did not focus on the policy proposals Greene wanted to issue as a legislator. Her campaign instead focused primarily on fringe rhetoric and chastisements from the DC establishment, including members of her own party. This was reinforced after Republican leaders such as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) criticized earlier comments by Greene that were racist or endorsed the QAnon conspiracy theory.

But that didn’t matter. Greene easily won the primary and then the election in a district that supported Donald Trump by a margin of 3 to 1. So now she’s in Congress – and was a key ally of McCarthy’s in his fight to be elected House Speaker. Her willingness to throw bombs at her perceived opponents has made her a force in Republican politics, one McCarthy clearly finds useful to keep close to.

In other words, Greene is in Congress because her style of agitating the Republican base was helpful in winning a primary in a deep red district, winning election in a hugely pro-Trump district, and gaining entry to the core of Republican institutional power. And this is really the central weakness of the Republican Party, as became evident in last year’s midterm elections: it is very, very good at boosting its base and not very good at appealing to everyone else.

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On Tuesday night, President Biden delivered his State of the Union address. This annual event is the ball of Congress, an opportunity to dress up and be fancy with many expectations that people will be on their best behavior. Ahead of this year’s iteration, McCarthy warned his caucus to behave, reportedly reminding them that the country would be watching.

Continuing the prom analogy, this is kind of like the principal telling the jocks that the local news would be filming the dance and not performing. Guess what the jocks are going to do?

And so Biden’s speech was repeatedly interrupted by jeers and jeers from the Republican side of the aisle, with Greene often among the loudest. Biden handled the interruptions skillfully. McCarthy could be seen offering several berating facial contortions – pursed lips shut up, eyebrows raised warnings – to no apparent effect. The crew wanting to be noisy offered noise.

There are probably two reasons why they chose this.

One is explicit: they hoped to draw attention to themselves. When Representative Joe Wilson (RS.C.) loudly accused Barack Obama of lying during a speech to Congress in 2009, he became a center of media attention for days. At the time, of course, this departure from decorum was astonishing and unexpected; the raw, confrontational path to elections that flattened Donald Trump in 2016 had not yet been fully cleared. In the context of the modern Republican approach to politics, Wilson’s interruption seems almost worthy.

So chances were Tuesday night that if you pulled something crazy enough, you could be the jock being interviewed by the Channel 6 reporter. But what happens when all the jocks compete to be the wildest? All that comes up in the air is a bunch of jocks ruining prom. A few people accused Biden of lying last night, it seems; the media barely bothered to find out who did that besides Greene.

The other motivation for interrupting Biden is implicit: Many Republican elected officials are simply used to treating their opponents with open contempt. Greene endorses QAnon theories and muses on executions of prominent Democrats. Given the rare chance to come face-to-face with Biden, should we expect her to observe his speech understated?

It shouldn’t surprise us that McCarthy’s warning to his caucus about behavior went unheeded. It should not surprise us that his attempts to quell the tumult of the moment were ignored. We shouldn’t be surprised to see him excuse the interruptions Wednesday morning as proof that his caucus was “passionate.” After all, the story of McCarthy’s tenure as leader of his party has been largely about his failure to put fences around the fringe of the party from Trump onwards.

There’s just a large portion of his party focused on fighting the left, fighting Democrats or other elites in Fox News hits or racy tweets. They’re doing this for the same reasons some of them interrupted Biden’s speech: they want attention or they’re just behaving the way they’ve become used to. There is a Pavlov element here. Greene and others have succeeded in getting Republican votes by arousing Republican anger. That works fine in districts where Republicans win easily. In the scramble to garner national attention and support from Republicans, extremism is a boon in this regard. But when winning contested races? Fewer.

The 2022 midterms showed the challenge here. Biden was rather unpopular, but the Democrats did a decent job. In part, this was a function of Republican candidates running in swing states and alienating moderate voters: Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, Kari Lake in Arizona, Herschel Walker in Georgia. These were candidates who won party primaries while offering frills, Trumpian rhetoric, and lost overall because, even in a year that should have been good for Republicans, they were considered too toxic.

The State of the Union speech is barely visible in the rearview mirror, so it’s probably premature to draw any far-reaching conclusions about its effects. Most Americans haven’t watched and will rely on later coverage to learn more about it. But those who watched saw a pattern that mirrored the midterms: a president they probably don’t like confronting an unusually disrespectful cadre of Republicans.

McCarthy’s problem is his party’s problem: The grassroots feed on and expect aggressive anti-democratic rhetoric, and the conservative media and many elected officials scramble to deliver it. They – the media and the politicians – are largely insulated against any negative effects. Greene is not going to lose a Republican primary if she gives Republican voters what they want. and no Republican will lose a general election in that district.

Perhaps your assumption is that some Republicans will also find the outbursts distasteful. Maybe. But that’s why you have comments like that one co-host Brian Kilmeade offered on “Fox & Friends” Wednesday morning: Biden stimulated them in that scream. After all, it’s the Democratic president’s fault.

The system runs forward.

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