Marjorie Taylor Greene, the freshman congresswoman from Georgia, is a QAnon devotee who has questions about whether or not a plane flew into the Pentagon on 9/11. She believes that Obama is a secret Muslim, that Nancy Pelosi should be executed for treason, and that a secret Jewish space laser caused wildfires in California. There is video of her harassing a school shooting survivor—oh, she thinks those are hoaxes, too—and pointedly telling him that she was carrying a gun.
Condemning Greene should not be hard. And doing so certainly isn’t extraordinary. Yet when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell did so on Monday—without naming Greene directly—it was seen as a major incident. “Loony lies and conspiracy theories are cancer for the Republican Party and our country,” McConnell said. “This has nothing to do with the challenges facing American families or the robust debates on substance that can strengthen our party.”
McConnell’s words were widely applauded. Finally, someone in the GOP was doing a little housekeeping! But this was not, in any way, a salvo in a war for the soul of the GOP. His condemnation of Greene had more to do with short-term intraparty politics than the future of the Republican Party. McConnell is still protecting the members of his caucus who perpetuated Trump’s lies about the election. He is still unlikely to vote to convict Trump when the former president’s impeachment trial begins next week. And he has spent the last five years providing cover for exactly the kind of “loony lies and conspiracy theories” that Greene espouses.
In reality, McConnell is doing just enough to distance the GOP from Greene and distract from his ongoing efforts to obstruct the Biden administration from getting anything done. The party can continue to dog-whistle toward people like Greene and continue to build inroads with QAnon adherents while the Senate minority leader attracts favorable press for doing the bare minimum.
McConnell’s words also suggest that the Democratic Party’s efforts to make Greene the face of the modern GOP—and she is a fitting spokesperson—have been so effective that he has been forced to publicly denounce her. He is attempting both to gain favor with the press and to push the idea that Greene is an outlier. McConnell is, as The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman wrote, “the perfect person” for such a job. Democrats hate him, and the Republican base doesn’t like him, either. He can pretend that most congressional Republicans aren’t lunatics without harming the party’s larger mission: making sure that people like Marjorie Taylor Greene vote for them in 2022.
The fact that Greene is a freshman congresswoman who truly seems to be out of her mind actually helps. Fighting back against the more dangerous enablers of conspiracy theories in the Republican Party would require going up against Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, and Lindsey Graham, something McConnell has no interest in doing. Greene is an easy target: McConnell has nothing to lose by condemning her.
McConnell may also be attempting to bolster House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s position. McCarthy is under pressure to strip Greene of her committee assignments, a subject that is likely to come up at a Wednesday meeting of the House Republican Conference. McConnell’s condemnation gives McCarthy cover to discipline Greene in some way, which means this episode says much more about the weakness of Republican leadership, particularly McCarthy, than anything else: Giving a slap on the wrist to a genuine nutjob requires a lot of political capital in the GOP these days. McConnell has also expressed support for Liz Cheney, who has come under attack after voting to impeach Trump, which should help McCarthy keep the peace.
This is classic McConnell. He gets to cast himself as a moderating force within the Republican Party, even while he continues to block the Senate from adopting an organizing resolution that would allow Democrats to take the gavel in crucial committees. Merrick Garland, Joe Biden’s pick for attorney general, has once again found his nomination sidelined, evidence that McConnell and Senate Republicans are already doing everything they can to hamstring Biden’s administration. All the while, McConnell gets some easy P.R. points from the media, which has conveniently omitted the six weeks he spent defending Trump’s court challenges against the election results and the fact that he has not spoken out against Greene until this moment.
He’s benefiting from just how low the bar has been set for Republicans. McConnell can win a day of good press merely by condemning an extremist. But let’s not pretend he’s doing anything of substance to excise the “cancer” that has been growing in the GOP for years. The GOP is the cancer.