Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the breakout stars of the newly elected freshman class of Republicans in the House of Representatives:

  • Rep. Madison Cawthorn (N.C), just 25 years old, earned a coveted speaking slot at the 2020 Republican convention. But parts of his history have been exaggerated or falsified. His campaign ads suggested he was on his way to the Naval Academy before the car accident that left him paralyzed (he had already been rejected by the Academy before his accident). And now the Nation reports that while Cawthorn has repeatedly claimed he was “training” for the Paralympics, he appears never to have competed in paralympic competition at all. When Cawthorn won his seat, his response was “Cry more, lib.”
  • Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) was already well known as a onetime QAnon supporter (she says she no longer endorses the deranged conspiracy theory) who has claimed that there’s no evidence a plane crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11. The liberal Media Matters has located Facebook exchanges in which Greene endorses the idea that the Parkland school shooting was staged by actors. On Thursday, Greene filed articles of impeachment against President Biden.
  • Rep. Lauren Boebert (Colo.), who has ties to right-wing militia members and owns a restaurant called Shooters Grill — where waitstaff visibly pack heat — has gotten into confrontations with Capitol Police over recently installed metal detectors members must pass through to enter the House floor. She also came under scrutiny when other members noted that the day before the assault on the Capitol, she was seen leading a tour of the building, leading some to suspect that she may have provided help to insurrectionists, knowingly or otherwise.

One way to look at these characters is that they’re nothing more than walking clickbait for liberal websites. Some politicians become famous because they’re beloved on their own side, and others become famous because the other side loves to hate them.

But if you were a serious-minded Republican who really did want to spend your time carefully studying issues and meticulously crafting legislation to address them, what would you think your party actually values right now?

The answer is pretty clear: What sells in today’s GOP is performative lib-owning. If you can find issues that activate grievance and tribal identification on the right, then put on a show of angrily channeling what the base is feeling, no matter how misinformed or absurd those beliefs, that’s how you draw attention to yourself.

The most ambitious Republicans, even those who are themselves quite smart and well-educated, see their path to success as pandering to the dumbest and most deluded people in their party. Witness Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas (Princeton, Harvard Law) and Josh Hawley of Missouri (Stanford, Yale Law), who made themselves leaders of the effort to overturn the presidential election, promoting what they absolutely, positively know are lies about widespread fraud.

But wait, you may say, aren’t there equivalents on the Democratic side? Don’t they have their own extremists? There’s a profound difference, which is that the people in Congress who are far to the left — especially those who get the most attention — spend more time thinking about policy in a given week than the likes of Cawthorn and Boebert have in their entire lives.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y), for instance, is a social media star, but she also has a lengthy policy agenda, including workers’ rights and the Green New Deal. Rep. Katie Porter (Calif.) has gone viral with videos in which she wields her whiteboard against hapless corporate executives in hearings, but those are confrontations in which she uses her deep understanding of economics and finance to show — with math! — how profiteering hurts consumers and workers.

This is particularly notable given that in the House these days, members who haven’t been around for long usually have very little input on legislation — pretty much everything is up to the leadership and committee chairs. But AOC and Porter found ways to do high-profile policy advocacy anyway, because it’s what Democrats care about.

Think back to the 2020 presidential primaries, where Democrats had a long discussion about whether their policy agenda should expand the welfare state or restructure government and its relationship to business. They spent months arguing vociferously about the merits of single-payer health care versus the public option. Can you even fathom something like that happening in the 2024 Republican primaries?

There are some Republican members of Congress who care a great deal about policy and would love to become media stars by showing off their creative ideas for trade agreements or tax reform. But that’s not going to get you on Fox News, because their voters don’t really care.

Which means that every Republican, no matter their true inclinations, winds up acting like the grifters and nutbars who keep winning seats in deeply red districts. Whatever happens to a party currently grappling with the legacy of Donald Trump, there isn’t much reason to think it will get any more sane or serious.

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