The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Republicans know exactly how to handle the fanatics in their party

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 25 in Orlando. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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“There’s no place in the Republican Party for white supremacists or anti-Semitism,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), after two House Republicans appeared at a white nationalist conference.

“There’s no place in our party for any of this," agreed House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) chimed in to call them “morons.”

Your response might be that this is akin to the board of directors of Domino’s Pizza saying, “There’s no place in our company for gooey, fattening cheese. Now, who wants pizza?”

But the story is rather more complicated. The question of how to deal with extremists in their ranks is something every party confronts from time to time, but it’s particularly pressing for Republicans, and has been for decades. You could argue that they’ve never been able to figure out how to handle it — or instead, you could look at episodes such as this one and say they’ve figured it out just perfectly.

In this case, it involves Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and her sidekick in zealotry, Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.), a figure so repellent his own siblings regularly warn against returning him to Congress. The two appeared at a conference organized by Nicholas Fuentes, a notorious white supremacist who’s so extreme he was even banned from a pro-Trump social media site.

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The problem figures such as Greene, Gosar, or Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) pose for their party isn’t just their views, it’s that their entire political project is built on provocation. They couldn’t care less about lawmaking; they’re basically social media trolls who happen to have offices in the Capitol. Getting attention is what they do, which means party leaders will have to keep answering for them.

There’s a long history of the Republican Party moving forward and back when it comes to extremism, with the issue never completely settled. The nature of that extremism doesn’t change much: It’s usually some combination of conspiracy theorizing and white racial backlash.

For instance, in the 1950s and 1960s, conservatives struggled with what to do about the John Birch Society, a group of right-wing radicals who believed (among other things) that Dwight D. Eisenhower was a communist agent. The truncated story people remember is that William F. Buckley denounced the Birchers from the pages of the National Review, thereby purging them from the movement and restoring sanity to the GOP.

The truth was much more complicated; Buckley, Barry Goldwater, and other conservative leaders spent years accommodating the Birchers before finally breaking with them. As they are today, Republicans acted when they decided the support they drew from their own side’s radicals was outweighed by the cost those radicals imposed.

Sometimes the change comes because the broader society has shifted. Consider Trent Lott, then the Senate Republican leader, who offered a 2002 tribute to Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.). Referring to Thurmond’s explicitly segregationist 1948 presidential bid, Lott noted that his home state of Mississippi had voted for Thurmond, and said: “If the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years."

Catherine Rampell: Greene wants to be judged by her own words? Challenge accepted.

Lott forgot that it was one thing to welcome a racist such as Thurmond into the party, but by 2002 it was something else to praise his racist presidential campaign. In the ensuing controversy, Lott stepped down from his leadership position.

The lessons Republicans take from such episodes is that extremists have to be handled with care, and pushed back only when they bring too much attention to ideas that threaten the party’s image. They can’t simply be cast out, because for Republicans the optimal result is one where millions of people whom the extremists represent remain committed to the GOP while the party presents a responsible face to independent voters.

Today, they don’t want moderate suburbanites to think they’ve been taken over by QAnon crazies. But they also can’t completely reject the QAnon crazies, because by some measures they constitute a quarter of all Republicans.

And while Democrats might deal with some roughly analogous issues from time to time, the problem is nowhere near as acute for them. Left-wing radicals tend to exist outside the Democratic Party, while right-wing radicals are enmeshed deeply within the Republican Party.

To outward appearances it might look like Republicans are stumbling about, getting defensive when asked uncomfortable questions about people such as Greene. In fact, they have an extremely effective formula for dealing with their fringe.

Leaders such as McConnell and McCarthy will let nuts like Greene and Gosar do their thing most of the time. Then when controversy flares up over something they said, the leaders will deliver a mild rebuke, enough to make it clear they’re displeased, but not so harsh that they alienate the extremists’ supporters.

Then they hope that everyone forgets about it for a while. Rinse and repeat.

In the big picture, it’s working out great for Republicans. They control the Supreme Court, a majority of state legislatures and governorships, and they’ll probably capture Congress in November. Why would they change anything about how they handle their side’s fanatics?