From a purely political standpoint, both paths have dangers. But the latter is the one the GOP is going to follow, even if it runs the risk of alienating moderates and exacerbating its long-term problem of representing a portion of the electorate that gets smaller every year — and only the angriest among them.
At the moment, this concerns Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who has gotten far more attention than anyone could have imagined back when she was just another conspiracy-touting social media nitwit. She is now the most famous member of the freshman class of 2021.
But political celebrity is unpredictable; sometimes a figure with remarkable talent bursts into the national consciousness, like Barack Obama did when he gave the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, and sometimes your crazy aunt winds up in Congress, then the other party makes her into a symbol of her own party’s moral depravity, and she becomes a household name.
On Thursday, the House voted to strip Greene of her committee assignments, with 11 Republicans joining all the Democrats. This occurred despite Greene clarifying that she now believes the 9/11 attacks were real and school shootings are not staged with child actors. But her contrition did not last long:
It’s noteworthy that Greene describes the ordinary status of being in the House minority as living under “this Democrat tyrannical government.” But that’s a key component of the GOP extremist’s ideology: When Democrats get elected, it can only be because elections were stolen and any Democratic governance is inherently illegitimate.
What House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and the rest of the party’s leadership would like is for Greene and others like her not to go away, but to just keep a lower profile. They want the unhinged base’s energy and anger to drive the turnout that could give Republicans back congressional majorities in the 2022 midterms. McCarthy doesn’t really care if you think House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) runs a satanic child-trafficking conspiracy and literally eats babies, as long as your delusions get you to the polling place.
The trouble is that in today’s political world, there are no more dog whistles, messages heard by only one segment of your party but unnoticed by everyone else. Democrats decided to make Greene famous, and so she is.
Now consider the alternative for Republicans. Let’s say they truly broke with the extremists and said they want nothing to do with them. The votes they lost by doing so would have to be made up somewhere, which would mean finding ways to appeal to the moderates who rejected President Donald Trump in 2020. That means developing new policies to improve people’s lives and building a party identity based on something other than anger and resentment.
They could do that, but the ongoing culture war that draws on, and draws in, the loony right is just a lot easier. All the work it requires is symbolic — finding fights to start, shouting angrily on Fox News — and there are plenty of people in the party eager to do it.
Democrats hope that holding moderates and holding the extremists will be mutually exclusive for the GOP. “You can do QAnon, and you can do swing districts, but you can’t do both,” says Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
There are many Republicans who fear that’s true, but there are others — probably including McCarthy — who think they can do both. The controversy around Greene will blow over, and they’ll be able to keep the far right on a low boil while they tell moderate voters that President Biden is a failure and electing Republicans to Congress will solve the practical problems of their lives.
The truth is that no one knows for sure, because this is a novel situation. You can look to the experience of the tea party in the Obama years — which helped Republicans take back Congress despite being plenty extreme itself — but the comparison gets you only so far.
That’s because in the eyes of an ordinary person, there’s a difference between protesters prancing around in tricorn hats while they do their Founding Father cosplay, and a murderous mob storming the Capitol.
Or at least one assumes there would be, and if Republicans don’t reject their extremists, then they’ll bleed votes in key suburban districts, where some will decide they can no longer have anything to do with a party that includes QAnon and violent insurrectionists.
If American politics in recent years had taught us that people and parties inevitably pay a price for their cynicism and morally indefensible choices, we could be more certain about how the GOP’s bet will turn out. But we can’t. So given the alternative, Republicans are willing to roll the dice on placating their extremists.