In February, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell excoriated former President Donald Trump, calling him "practically and morally responsible" for the attack on the US Capitol. Now, McConnell opposes the creation of an independent commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection -- going so far as to ask his fellow Republicans for "a personal favor" to block it.
Despite the fact that there are still so many unanswered questions surrounding the events on January 6, it's likely McConnell is more concerned that a commission will hurt the Republican Party's chances in the upcoming 2022 midterm election. That's mainstream Republicanism in a nutshell: do whatever is necessary to protect the power of the party.
Then there is Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has a track record of spewing anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, racist, and conspiratorial statements. She sunk to a new low this week when she compared the implementation of public health initiatives to steps the Nazis took as they sought to destroy the Jewish population during the Holocaust. When her comments were met with harsh criticism, Greene simply doubled down.
But Greene should not be brushed off as an anomalous fringe figure who will eventually go away. She isn't just fostering a base of supporters through cable television or Twitter -- she represents the direction the Republican Party is headed. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy seems scared to call her out. (It took him five days to condemn her language and say, "Marjorie is wrong and her intentional decision to compare the horrors of the Holocaust with wearing masks is appalling.") And despite her track record, Greene has raised enormous amounts of money ($3 million in the first three months of the year).
What we're seeing this week, with McConnell blocking the commission and Greene stirring up yet another controversy, is familiar to any political junkie. The two stories are interconnected. Greene and other divisive figures are allowed to thrive in the GOP due to leaders like McConnell and McCarthy who are willing to turn a blind eye to this noxious behavior as long as it advances their pursuit of power.
Since the 1980s, the Republican Party has steadily become more radical. The party continues its drift to the right and party members are increasingly willing to go to extreme measures to amass power.
Every time a new figure in the GOP reveals the extent of this partisan extremism, nobody takes them seriously -- until it's impossible to ignore.
Newt Gingrich? Nothing to worry about, the experts said. During the 1980s, Gingrich brought his smash-mouth style to the floor of the House, urging colleagues to ignore the conventions of bipartisanship and civility in pursuit of partisan power. He promoted the idea that Republicans should be willing to say anything, no matter how toxic, for political gain. Initially, Republicans like House Minority Leader Robert Michel were confident that Gingrich could be contained. They were wrong. In 1995, Gingrich became the speaker of the House and his antagonistic style became the new normal.
The Tea Party? Nothing to worry about, according to some experts. The conservatives who gained traction shortly after President Barack Obama entered office made Gingrich look tame. Tea Party Republicans almost sent the nation into default over disputes about the budget. Members trafficked in climate change denialism. They called for draconian cuts to the social safety net. Speaker John Boehner worked with them, believing that people he would later call "legislative terrorists" were useful allies. By 2015, however, the Tea Party's hard-line approach contributed to Boehner's resignation.
Donald Trump? Nothing to worry about, the experts said. In his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump practiced a blistering style that caught many observers by surprise. He insulted his opponents, spread disinformation, and seemed willing to do or say anything to win the election. Once he was in office, Trump only became more unrestrained as he operated with the immense power of the presidency. Throughout his term, Republicans insisted that Trump was an aberration. They spoke about his "base" and acted as if there were deep rifts within the party. But Trump commanded loyal support and each time he was impeached, the vast majority of Republicans in Congress rallied behind him. Even after losing the 2020 election, Trump maintained such a strong grip on the party that it removed Wyoming's Liz Cheney from her leadership role after she repeatedly spoke out against him.
And now comes Greene. Should we be worried? It's true that Iowa Rep. Steve King -- who was widely known for making racist comments and appearing to lament that White nationalist and White supremacist comments were considered offensive -- became a pariah in the Republican Party. But Greene, despite being stripped of her committee assignments, doesn't show signs of letting up anytime soon.
Ultimately, it would be a huge mistake to discount her potential impact. In a party that is growing increasingly extreme, members who are willing to stir up controversy for attention, support and name recognition can quickly rise up the ranks. And with each new inflammatory remark, Greene is testing how far she can go within her caucus. Without serious pushback, Greene is simply embedding herself and her style of politics deeper within the GOP.
Given the recent trajectory of the Republican Party, I wouldn't be surprised to see Greene in the distant future, reflecting on how extreme her party has become. If Republican leaders like McConnell and McCarthy are not willing to keep their members in line, and enough of the Republican electorate thirsts for this kind of politics, then there is really no limit to how far members of the party will be willing to go. We've seen this movie before. The ending hasn't changed.