The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The GOP: The new know-nothing party

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on Feb. 3 said Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) apologized privately for her previous remarks. (Video: The Washington Post)
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The descent of a significant portion of the GOP base into the QAnon extremist ideology swamp has dogged House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and his party for months. In August, he issued a firm denunciation, saying: “Let me be very clear: There is no place for QAnon in the Republican Party.” Then Georgia Republicans sent a QAnon supporter to Congress, which prompted McCarthy to falsely claim Marjorie Taylor Greene had denounced it herself. Then came the events of the past month, with revelations about Greene’s promotion of other conspiracy theories and violence against prominent Democrats, just as QAnon played a role in the storming of the U.S. Capitol. Those things forced the GOP into very uncomfortable conversations about what their party should be.

Somehow though, through it all, McCarthy claims he’s still unfamiliar with this thing called QAnon. In fact, he’s not even sure how to pronounce it!

In explaining the House GOP’s decision not to strip Greene of her committee assignments late Monday, McCarthy claimed that she had given a speech to her colleagues “denouncing Q-on.” Then he added: “I don’t know if I say it right. I don’t even know what it is.”

To say this doesn’t pass the smell test would be an insult to the difficulty and efficacy of the smell test. McCarthy is effectively saying that the thing he denounced six months ago isn’t something he has even bothered to look into — then or since. This despite it having cast a pall over his party and playing a major factor in the storming of the U.S. Capitol last month, in scenes that were rife with QAnon fervor and imagery. There’s no conceivable way, period, that he doesn’t know how to say it or what it is.

And even if that’s somehow true, then it’s a complete dereliction of duty — not just from a member of Congress but from a party leader who should probably take a closer look at this thing that has thoroughly infected his party. A poll last year showed 41 percent of Republicans thought QAnon was good for the country, despite it being regarded by the FBI as a domestic terrorism threat. And now it has quite literally contributed to the physical endangerment of both McCarthy and his colleagues. If you were one of McCarthy’s members, wouldn’t you be furious that he doesn’t bother to do a little research?

That said, this has become the M.O. of the Republican Party these days. When confronted with something inconvenient or troublesome in their midst — particularly such conspiracy theories — the stock response is increasingly to shrug it off or claim ignorance, no matter how implausibly. In some ways, it’s become a modern-day Know-Nothing Party.

The Know-Nothings formed a political movement that briefly became a major political party in the United States in the mid-1800s. Similar to QAnon and portions of the Republican Party base today, the movement was marked by nativism and wild conspiracy theories, including that the Catholic Church was preparing a hostile takeover of the U.S. government. (In a scene somewhat reminiscent of the storming of the Capitol last month, adherents in 1854 even waged an attack on the Washington Monument in search of a slab of marble the pope had sent for the monument’s construction.)

The reason the Know-Nothings were called that was because, when asked about their secret society by outsiders, they were instructed to respond, “I know nothing.”

McCarthy’s claim is actually quite reminiscent of how President Donald Trump dealt with the issue. In fact, Trump’s response at an October town hall about QAnon was quite literally, “I know nothing.”

Trump, as he often does with such extreme portions of his base, seemed to give it a wink and a nod then — putting a positive spin on it — while still claiming ignorance.

“I know nothing about it,” he said again. “I do know that they are very much against pedophilia. They fight it very hard, but I know nothing about it.”

To say QAnon is against pedophilia is like saying the Know-Nothings were for the separation of church and state. Technically it’s kind of true — of QAnon’s many facets, its central conspiracy theory involves a global pedophile cabal that Trump was supposed to take down — but that obviates plenty of pretty important details about the truly imaginary nature of the threat supposedly being combated.

As with McCarthy, Trump’s professed ignorance would have been quite willful — to the point were it was either inexplicable or grossly negligent. He and the White House had been getting questions about it for months, in large part because Trump regularly promoted QAnon supporters on Twitter. His former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, also became perhaps its most high-profile adherent.

And that approach has spread.

Around the same time as Trump’s August comment, Vice President Mike Pence echoed the talking point — “I don’t know anything about QAnon,” while adding: “I dismiss it out of hand.”

When asked about Greene this week, Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) claimed that he hadn’t been able to read the news about the situation embroiling his own party because of bad weather.

Republicans often offered a similar response when asked about Trump’s other conspiracy theories, including when he suggested that a man who was pushed to the ground by police and bled from his head might have been a secret antifa provocateur.

The response was the same in many other cases, including when Trump referenced a conspiracy theory about a supposedly inflated death toll from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, when he made several claims about the Russia investigation being a deep-state hoax, and about various times in which he contradicted the U.S. intelligence community.

When Trump made baseless and debunked claims about the 2020 election being stolen from him, most Republicans declined to vouch for them and offered more watered-down claims — focusing on supposed irregularities and arcane legal questions rather than Trump’s claims of massive fraud. Asked about the specifics of what Trump claimed, Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) spoke about him as if he were some backbencher like Greene: “If I was bothered by everything that everyone around here says, I couldn’t come back.” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said, “I don’t know if he’s referring to a specific incident or generally.”

Other Trump allies pretended Trump’s protests about the election weren’t all they were cracked up to be and that we’d just have to go through the motions before he would give up the game. “If He Loses, Trump Will Concede Gracefully,” said Trump’s former acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney. An anonymous senior administration official later assured The Washington Post that there was little “downside for humoring him for this little bit of time.”

It seemed at the time that they were being rather Pollyannaish, and we’ve since found out that was precisely the case. We’ve now seen the very real-world implications of conspiracy theories like this taking root. Regardless of whether Trump is deemed to be culpable for inciting the Capitol riot, it emanated from the conspiracy theories that he promoted and that he and many of his GOP allies, at the very least, declined to rebuke and in many cases pretended weren’t worthy of their time.

Greene’s own potential sanction is also something of a smaller point in the grand scheme of things. The bigger point is what it says about how seriously the national Republican Party is taking this kind of thing. It would be one thing to cite her claimed apology and try to move on, but McCarthy sent a very clear signal about just how much he views this all as being worthy of his time.