Marjorie Taylor Greene is a newly elected member of Congress with virtually no real legislative power. She doesn’t run a meaningful coalition of lawmakers, she hasn’t shown any understanding of policy or congressional procedure, she isn’t yet a household name.
But she’s undoubtedly everywhere. At the start of the Biden presidency, with Democrats in full control of Congress, you’re as likely to find a story about the new member of Congress as you are about the new president. Greene, a novice politician who conspiracy-vomited her way to Congress, is dominating attention in the vacuum left open by the deplatformed former president.
Democrats seem thrilled to play along. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued a press release Wednesday saying her Republican counterpart Kevin McCarthy had handed Greene the “keys” to the party, as Democrats prepare a vote to test Republican support for their new colleague. Democrats’ congressional campaign arm is reportedly set to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars tying the Republican Party to Greene and QAnon.
Greene has pushed ideas that aren't exactly subtle in their extremism. She's attacked school shooting survivors and suggested they were actors; she's joined calls for Democrats to be executed; she's mocked people with Down syndrome; she's signed on to the deepest levels of QAnon's invented mythology, like "frazzledrip," a violent conspiracy theory that is too much to explain right here. National media has exposed these beliefs and found an eager audience for the reporting. “Jewish Space Laser,” a phrase coined by New York Magazine to sum up her conspiracy about the origins of the 2018 Camp fire in California, spent some time trending on Twitter last week.
Greene is by all accounts what people — including a not-insignificant number of House and Senate Republicans — say she is. Her dangerous and lethal racism, anti-Semitism, and paranoid fantasies are not one-off tweets or half-baked ideas, they’re the backbone of her political ideology. She’s not a novelty, she’s the marriage of old racism and new internet-fueled conspiracy.
But there’s a real risk in how she’s being bandied about right now. Democrats are elevating her in an attempt to take down the Republican Party; national media is covering her conspiracies and actions at a relentless clip to expose how warped US politics has become. Nobody knows how this moment will actually end. We could be in the middle of a short-lived explosion in focus on a fringe character, and the attention could lead to her being deplatformed and the erosion of whatever new power she’s gained. Or we could be in the early days of a new, uniquely dangerous star. There’s a real world where the effect of the heightened attention is that Greene amasses the real, lasting power that right now is only being projected onto her.
She transparently loves the new attention, how “everyone” is talking about her. “They don’t even realize they’re helping me,” Greene told the Washington Examiner in an interview before Democrats announced a vote to strip her of committee assignments. “I’m pretty amazed at how dumb they are.”
This type of thing has happened before. Steve King, the former member of Congress, was a staple of progressive media coverage for most of the last decade because of his extreme anti-Latino racism. He also spent the better part of that time as a singular force in Republican politics in Iowa, largely because of his actual political skill but due in part to his success in becoming The Guy Who Makes Liberals Really Mad.
Amplification doesn’t just find new outrage; it also finds new fans.
A similar logic helped make Donald Trump president. Some Democrats spent months tying Republicans to Trump in 2015 and 2016, assuming he would tank the whole party. It feels like a belief from an ancient time now, but there was a real line of thought in early 2016 that Trump winning the Republican presidential nomination would be an ideal outcome for Democrats, because it would virtually guarantee them the presidency. How could he possibly win, after all, with every sexist and racist thing he’s said and done? With all of the ads Democrats could run? Democrats — and a lot of the national press, especially on cable — effectively made him the star, centering so much attention on him for so many months that they helped create the tools for him to gain true power.
Who’s to say that’s definitely not what’s happening now? Marjorie Taylor Greene is on another level of conspiracy from Trump, and could be out of Congress in two months. Or she could be on her way to becoming the next governor of Georgia, with Trump’s backing and a national following forged in these first weeks in Congress.
It must be gratifying for Democrats to have a clear-cut villain in the absence of Trump, someone with unquestionably odious beliefs to pound and use as a cudgel to embarrass Republicans (Biden’s White House, it’s worth mentioning, has tried to avoid this entirely). Greene merits attention, reporting, and investigation to understand how she got to Congress in the first place, and why the movements she rose up on are still themselves rising. But pretending now like she is already in control of the Republican Party, or dedicating minute-to-minute coverage of what she is up to, could just lead to her materializing the fantasy.
This isn’t to say there’s a correct way to deal with someone like Greene, both for the press and her political opponents. There just isn’t. Political and newsroom leaders are still only just learning what it means to lose their traditional “gatekeeping” powers, to no longer have the definitive voice on who is acceptable, what idea is fair to believe. The powers of attention, of reporting and censure, are just different now. But it does make sense to look back at the last decade and recognize that the bet you may be making now about a demagogue's inevitably doomed future may backfire.