The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The core weakness of the Republican Party, on raucous display

Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene reacts during President Biden's State of the Union address at a joint meeting of Congress on Tuesday. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
6 min

Why is Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) in Congress?

The 2020 campaign that first brought her to Washington wasn’t centered on the policy proposals Greene wanted to enact as a legislator. Her campaign was instead centered mostly on fringe rhetoric and chastisements of the D.C. establishment, including members of her own party. This was amplified after Republican leaders like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) criticized past comments of Greene’s that were racist or endorsed the QAnon conspiracy theory.

But that didn’t matter. Greene easily won the primary and then election in a district that backed Donald Trump by a 3 to 1 margin. So now she’s in Congress — and was a key ally of McCarthy in his struggle to be elected House speaker. Her willingness to throw bombs at her perceived opponents has made her a force in Republican politics, one that McCarthy clearly thinks is useful to keep close.

In other words, Greene is in Congress because her style of agitating the Republican base was useful in winning a primary in a deep-red district, winning election in a wildly pro-Trump one and in getting access to the core of Republican institutional power. And this, really, is the Republican Party’s central weakness, as made obvious in last year’s midterm elections: It is very, very good at energizing its base and not very good at appealing to everyone else.

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On Tuesday night, President Biden delivered his State of the Union address. This annual event is Congress’s prom, an opportunity to get dressed up and be fancy with lots of expectations that people will be on their best behavior. Before this year’s iteration, McCarthy cautioned his caucus to behave, reportedly reminding them that the country would be watching.

To continue the prom analogy, this is a bit like the principal telling the jocks that the local news would be filming the dance and not to act up. Guess what the jocks are going to do?

So Biden’s speech was interrupted repeatedly by jeers and catcalls from the Republican side of the aisle, with Greene often among the most vocal. Biden handled the interruptions adroitly. McCarthy could be seen offering various scolding facial contortions — pursed-lip shushes, eyebrow-raised cautions — to no apparent effect. The crew looking to be clamorous offered clamor.

There are probably two reasons they chose to do so.

One is explicit: They hoped to draw attention to themselves. When Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) loudly accused Barack Obama of lying during a 2009 speech to Congress, he became a focus of media attention for days on end. At the time, of course, this deviation from decorum was astonishing and unexpected; the raucous, confrontational path to election that Donald Trump flattened down in 2016 had not yet been fully cleared. In the context of the modern Republican approach to politics, Wilson’s interruption seems almost dignified.

So the odds were good on Tuesday night that if you pulled off something crazy enough, you might be the jock who gets interviewed by the reporter from Channel 6. But what happens when all the jocks compete to be the wildest? All that gets on air is a bunch of jocks ruining prom. A few people accused Biden of lying last night, it seems; the media has barely bothered to figure out who did, besides Greene.

The other motivation for interrupting Biden is implicit: Many Republican elected officials are simply used to treating their opponents with overt disdain. Greene has endorsed QAnon theories and mused about executions of prominent Democrats. Given the rare opportunity to be face-to-face with Biden, we should expect her to demurely observe his speech?

We should not be surprised that McCarthy’s warning to his caucus about behaving went unheeded. We should not be surprised that his efforts to quell the uproar in the moment were ignored. We should not be surprised that on Wednesday morning he excused the interruptions as evidence of his caucus being “passionate.” After all, the story of McCarthy’s tenure as leader of his party has largely been about his failure to erect fences around the party’s fringe, from Trump on down.

There is simply a large element of his party that is focused on combating the left, on fighting Democrats or other elites in Fox News hits or punchy tweets. They do so for the same reasons some of them interrupted Biden’s speech: They want attention or they are simply behaving in the way they’ve become accustomed to behaving. There’s a Pavlovian element here. Greene and others have been successful at getting Republican votes by ginning up Republican anger. In districts where Republicans win easily, that works just fine. In the jostle to get attention and support from Republicans nationally, extremism in this regard is a boon. But in winning contested races? Less so.

The 2022 midterms showed the challenge here. Biden was quite unpopular, but Democrats fared decently. In part, this was a function of Republican candidates running in swing states who alienated moderate voters: Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, Kari Lake in Arizona, Herschel Walker in Georgia. These were candidates who won party primaries while offering fringy, Trumpian rhetoric and who lost in the general because, even in a year that should have been good for Republicans, they were seen as too toxic.

The State of the Union address is barely in the rearview mirror, so it’s probably premature to draw sweeping conclusions about its effects. Most Americans didn’t watch and will rely on subsequent reporting to learn about it. But those who watched saw a pattern that mirrored the midterms: a president who they probably don’t love being confronted by an unusually disrespectful cadre of Republicans.

McCarthy’s problem is his party’s problem: Its base feeds on and expects aggressive anti-Democratic rhetoric, and the conservative media and many elected officials jostle to provide it. They — the media and the politicians — are largely insulated against any negative effects. Greene isn’t going to lose a Republican primary if she gives Republican voters what they want, and no Republican will lose a general election in that district.

Perhaps your assumption is that some Republicans will also find the outbursts distasteful. Perhaps. But this is why you have responses like the one co-host Brian Kilmeade offered on “Fox & Friends” Wednesday morning: Biden goaded them into that outcry. It’s the Democratic president’s fault, after all.

The system churns forward.