The civil war raging inside the GOP may look like a problem for the Republican Party, but it is much more. It is a flashing red light for the entire country, warning America that if it continues on this path, it will become a country without guardrails against extremist ideologies. We have seen how that has played out in other countries and it doesn’t bode well for the US.
The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, and there’s no prohibition against believing crazy ideas. But that does not mean that those who promote offensive notions — some of which have had deadly consequences — should be granted respect, honor and power, certainly not by those who call themselves members of the “Grand Old Party.”
It’s no wonder the venerable former Republican Sen. John Danforth said the GOP has become a “grotesque caricature” of what it used to be. And that was before House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy declined to punish the execrable Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, other than a statement condemning her views. The QAnon follower’s embrace of baseless conspiracy theories, along with violent, racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic statements are repulsive not just to many Americans, but to decent people around the world.
On Wednesday, McCarthy presided over a meeting weighing the fate of Greene and of Rep. Liz Cheney, who committed the grave sin of condemning former President Donald Trump for inciting a mob to attack the Capitol in an assault on American democracy so stunning that even McCarthy briefly found his spine and criticized Trump. But it seemed McCarthy quickly regretted that flash of honesty and integrity. Within days he met with Trump at Mar-a-Lago and promptly reversed course, continuing to steer his party toward infamy.
Cheney survived a vote to remove her from leadership by a vote of 145- 61. And Greene, after apologizing to her colleagues in the closed-door party meeting Wednesday night, was not penalized, but met with a standing ovation.
On Thursday morning, Greene offered what largely amounted to a non-apology, expressing regret for some of her past comments. Hours later, in a dramatic Congressional session, 219 House Democrats, along with 11 Republicans, did what McCarthy should have and stripped Greene of her committee assignments. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she was “profoundly concerned” about Republican leaders’ “acceptance of extreme conspiracy theorists” and their “eagerness to reward a QAnon adherent, a 9/11 truther, a harasser of child survivors of school shootings.”
By embracing Greene, Republicans are moving the Overton window, the range of views that are considered politically acceptable. Unfortunately, that has an impact on the entire country, however much the Democrats try to correct for the moral failings of Republicans.
After the closed-door meeting on Wednesday, McCarthy justified his inaction on Greene by saying, “This Republican Party’s a very big tent, everyone’s invited in.”
But the tent is becoming increasingly comfortable for racists, anti-Semites, conspiracy theorists and reality deniers. It’s not the party of Danforth, Reagan or Bush. It’s the party of the twice impeached Trump, a man who Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham described in 2015 as “a race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot,” who “doesn’t represent my party.”
Graham, as we know, did a 180 on Trump. He, too, found integrity too politically risky, and debased himself by embracing Trump.
The Overton shift accelerated rapidly after Trump’s election. It was the tolerance of Trump’s rhetoric — which was previously considered beyond the pale — that paved the road to Greene’s election and the attack on the Capitol last month.
It’s breathtaking to see how Republicans have gone from rejecting extremism to tolerating it, and now embracing it.
Just two years ago, Republicans stripped Rep. Steve King from all committee assignments. King, who had made countless racist statements, had asked in an interview with the New York Times, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive.” At the time, McCarthy said the words were an affront to the party. “That is not the party of Lincoln,” he declared, “and it’s definitely not American.”
King’s racist words prompted action two years ago, but this time around, Greene’s crackling explosion of prejudice and lies were not enough to produce any real action from Republican leaders in the House. The party has changed.
Like many elected Republicans, Greene rejected the incontrovertible fact that President Joe Biden won the election. But she goes much further. She repeatedly showed support on social media for assassinating prominent Democrats, shared an image of herself holding a gun alongside other congresswomen with a caption that mentioned going “on the offense against these socialists” and claimed the 2018 California wildfires were deliberately set by a Jewish financier using a space laser.
When Greene was still a candidate running for Congress, the Republican Party initially distanced itself from her. McCarthy, through his spokesman, said he found Greene’s utterances, “appalling,” adding that he had “no tolerance for them.” Rep. Steve Scalise, the House Republicans’ number two, went even further, calling her statements “disgusting,” and added they “don’t reflect the values of equality and decency that make our country great.”
But then Trump threw his arms around his fervent admirer, calling her “a real WINNER,” and a “future Republican star.” That was the end of the Republican cold shoulder. It seemed that if Trump backed her, the obedient party would hold its nose and ignore they had a dangerous conspiracy theorist in their midst.
On Wednesday, McCarthy defended Greene and said, “I think it would be helpful if you could hear exactly what she told all of us — denouncing Q-on, I don’t know if I say it right,” McCarthy disingenuously claimed, “I don’t even know what it is.”
With that, McCarthy and the GOP declined to stand up for what is and is not acceptable in American political discourse.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, of all people, seems to be an outlier among Republican leadership in condemning Greene. “Loony lies and conspiracy theories are a cancer for the Republican Party and our country. Somebody who’s suggested that perhaps no airplane hit the Pentagon on 9/11, that horrifying school shootings were pre-staged, and that the Clintons crashed JFK Jr.’s airplane is not living in reality.”
It’s unclear whether Greene, who expressed regret for some of her previous comments on Thursday, really believes in every disturbing statement she’s made, but that is hardly the point.
The GOP welcomed into the fold an extremist, during a time when Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has ordered an urgent examination of extremism in US military ranks; during a time when Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas says the threat of domestic terrorism is “persistent.”
The new domestic terrorist threat comes from the extremist fringes that espouse the same ideas that McCarthy seemed to welcome into the GOP’s “very big tent.” The poisonous ideology is now more acceptable because Republican leaders are making personal political calculations, while ignoring their responsibility to their country.
Extremists and their supporters are winning battles in the Republican civil war, and the entire country is paying a price.