The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump isn’t the only example of the risks posed by ignoring aggressive rhetoric

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), seen Jan. 3 at the Capitol. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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One of the first times that Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) attracted national attention was last September, when she posted an image on Facebook promoting her candidacy. There was little question that she was going to win the seat, given the partisan lean of the district. By mid-September, in fact, there was no doubt that she would win, given that her Democratic opponent dropped out of the race.

Despite that likelihood, Greene still shared the Facebook image. It depicted her holding a rifle, standing in front of a digitally altered backdrop with the faces of three members of Congress: Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.).

“Squad’s worst nightmare,” the caption read, referring to a nickname those legislators had given themselves. The prior year, President Donald Trump had repeatedly targeted the Squad using racist rhetoric, telling the group to “go back” to the countries from which they had come. (Only Omar was born outside the United States.)

“America needs fighters who speak the truth,” text accompanying the image read. “We need strong conservative Christians to go on the offense against these socialists who want to rip our country apart. Americans must take our country back. SAVE AMERICA. STOP SOCIALISM. DEFEAT THE DEMOCRATS!”

Facebook removed the image given the obvious undertones of violence. Two months later, Greene won.

Soon after she arrived in Washington, CNN dug up social media activity and speeches in which Greene had advocated or hinted at violence against Democratic officials, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). From the time she won the Republican primary in June last year, it was understood that Greene had embraced and amplified right-wing false claims, including those of the QAnon movement, an extremist ideology based on false claims that has repeatedly inspired violence. But the newly unearthed comments included direct accusations of treason and the suggestion that treason was punishable by death. Democrats, who control the House, moved for Greene to lose her committee assignments, limiting her power as a legislator.

The timing was interesting. Trump was out of office, but his second impeachment trial was about to begin in the Senate. The House Republican caucus was furious at Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), then a member of the caucus’s leadership team, for having voted to impeach Trump. But the optics of defending Greene while punishing Cheney were not ideal, given that the former had used misinformation to argue that Democrats had committed capital crimes and the latter had been critical of Trump’s use of misinformation to foment the violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6. Behind closed doors, Republicans voted to keep Cheney in her position. From the House floor, Democrats, in a near-party-line vote, dumped Greene from her committees.

On Wednesday, these two story lines again overlapped. Early in the morning, Cheney was at last dumped from her leadership position in a quick voice vote. In the evening, Greene — who had publicly supported Cheney’s demotion — confronted Ocasio-Cortez outside the Capitol, prompting the Democrat’s spokeswoman to request that House “leadership and the Sergeant at Arms will take real steps to make Congress a safe, civil place for all Members and staff.”

Greene's interaction with Ocasio-Cortez was witnessed by two Washington Post reporters. Our Marianna Sotomayor described the incident:

“[Greene] shouted ‘Hey Alexandria’ twice in an effort to get her attention. When Ocasio-Cortez did not stop walking, Greene picked up her pace and began shouting at her and asking why she supports antifa, a loosely knit group of far-left activists, and Black Lives Matter, falsely labeling them ‘terrorist’ groups. Greene also shouted that Ocasio-Cortez was failing to defend her 'radical socialist’ beliefs by declining to publicly debate the freshman from Georgia.”

Greene has repeatedly in recent weeks attacked Ocasio-Cortez and other “Squad” members on social media in hyperbolic and misleading terms. She referred to the group as “the jihad squad” and said they “should be expelled [from Congress] for supporting terrorists like Hamas and Antifa/BLM.” She accused them of not only “support[ing] terrorism at home and abroad, they also hate our great law enforcement.”

After confronting Ocasio-Cortez, Greene summarized the incident on Twitter.

It should go without saying that Greene’s rhetoric is dangerous. It’s also starkly dishonest, painting her political opponents as threats to the country. It’s simplistic in the way that her September Facebook post was simplistic, casting Ocasio-Cortez and her allies as enemies in black-and-white terms.

Yet there appears to be no public effort from Republican leadership to challenge Greene on the issue or on any of her other false claims, like those centered on the 2020 election or those about the coronavirus pandemic. When her past comments about treason emerged, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said that he would “have a conversation with the congresswoman about them.” If he did, it doesn’t seem to have done much.

Instead, the caucus focused on Cheney, whose criticisms centered specifically on the injection of dishonesty into the Republican narrative. She focused on what’s been called the “big lie,” claims made by Trump that the 2020 presidential election has somehow been tainted by fraud — demonstrably false claims that Greene has elevated.

“We must speak the truth,” Cheney said in a speech from the House floor Tuesday. “Our election was not stolen, and America has not failed.”

On Wednesday, after the vote to remove her from leadership, she revisited the theme.

“I am absolutely committed, as I said last night, and as I said just now to my colleagues, that we must go forward based on truth,” she said. “We cannot both embrace the big lie and embrace the Constitution. And going forward, the nation needs it.”

For this, Cheney was rebuked. For her consistent pattern of vituperation, Greene has skated.

In 2019, then-Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) was, like Greene two years later, stripped of his committee assignments. That punishment, though, came at the hands of Republican leaders after King had given an interview to the New York Times in which he seemed to express sympathy with white nationalism. It was only the latest in an extensive pattern of similar comments, and it centered on an issue so toxic that there was very little gray area in which to maneuver.

It’s not clear how or if Republicans in Washington will seek to uproot rhetoric or misinformation like that promoted by Greene and others. Asked on Wednesday about the likely elevation of Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) to replace Cheney, McCarthy made the obviously false claim that no one in his party was still asserting that the 2020 election was suspect — something Stefanik has done recently. This does not suggest that McCarthy is eager to tackle the issue; instead, he seems to be actively hoping it somehow goes away. As has been made obvious repeatedly over the past year, that is generally not what happens. Instead, you get attention-hungry members of Congress aggressively accusing their peers of supporting terrorism.

A month after Greene posted that photo of Ocasio-Cortez and her colleagues last year, Trump visited Georgia for a campaign rally. He introduced candidates who were in the audience.

“Somebody that I just think is fantastic — this one I never, ever want to have her as my enemy, Marjorie Taylor Greene,” Trump said. “She is so unbelievable. You are so unbelievable.”

He then went on to repeat the blizzard of claims about purported fraud that would only escalate after he lost the election. McCarthy never confronted Trump on those, either, and Jan. 6 joined the majority of his conference in trying to derail the counting of electoral votes that finalized President Biden’s election.

As this article was being written, Greene again tweeted about her attempt to confront Ocasio-Cortez.

“Any member supporting and fundraising for criminals in Antifa/BLM riots in American cities should be expelled,” she wrote. “That’s the #JihadSquad and the VP.”