Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., was removed from her committee assignments last week after less than a month in office. It’s embarrassing, to be sure, but something I argued probably wouldn’t have much of an impact on the conspiracy theorist’s behavior.
Greene seemed to confirm this in true online fashion when she posted the equivalent of “I’m not owned,” outdoing The Onion as she celebrated her newfound free time.
But how do Greene’s voters feel? I assumed that they wouldn’t mind how things played out much as long as she kept on owning the Democrats. Well, The Washington Post went to Greene’s congressional district and proved me more right than I’m comfortable with. Particularly unsettling was this quote from Timothy Daniel, a Greene supporter from Dalton, Georgia, who loves her performance so far and thought her “treatment was unfair.”
“She’s crass just like Trump. So what? She gets the job done,” he said. “Even though she might be loud, she still has a right to get up there and scream and holler. That’s her job.”
To repeat: “That’s her job.” I’m going to be thinking about that quote for a long time, not because it’s nonsensical, but because it’s distressingly accurate in terms of what the average American thinks the role of being a politician is these days. And that belief is not a mistake, or the product of a poor education system (though yes, we clearly need to overhaul civics education in this country).
Instead, it’s the end product of roughly four decades of messaging from the right that there’s nothing good that government can do. It’s a message that Democrats still find hard to counter today, even as officials like Greene move closer to becoming the norm.
”Government is not the solution to our problem,” President Ronald Reagan, the patron saint of modern conservatism, said in his inaugural address in 1981. ”Government is the problem.”
The target Reagan aimed for was the social safety net programs and welfare programs that conservatives (incorrectly) convinced white Americans were overly beneficial to minorities. But even as Reagan’s administration saw the government grow in scope and power in the areas Republicans cared about, he stayed on message.
“I think you all know that I’ve always felt the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,’” Reagan quipped in 1986, while advocating for spending more federal money to aid struggling farmers.
It was powerful enough of a sales pitch that centrist New Democrats in the 1990s tried to co-opt it. President Bill Clinton, in pursuit of triangulation that would win him a second term, said in his 1996 State of the Union address, “The era of big government is over.”
It’s only recently, as the challenges facing the U.S. appear bigger than ever, that the allure of that framing is beginning to fade. Emphasis on “beginning,” as the prospect of government action to help working-class and minority Americans — especially action that, heaven forbid, costs money — still carries stigma. Forty years of this conditioning has Americans believing that there’s nothing members of Congress can do to help them personally.
Forty years of this conditioning has Americans believing that there’s nothing members of Congress can do to help them personally.
It’s why Democrats are tinkering with the income cutoff for who receives stimulus checks in the Covid-19 relief bill making its way through Congress, even though the package is polling well nationwide. On the flip side, it’s why former President Donald Trump could almost get re-elected as a fighter against socialism, all while expanding government spending and debt.
Greene’s fellow freshman, Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., gets it. Like her, he knows that passing laws is a sucker’s game, but communication is everything. He managed to commit the gravest sin in Washington — accidentally telling the truth — when he said in an email to Republican colleagues: “I have built my staff around comms rather than legislation.”
New York Times political correspondent Jonathan Martin sees some hope down the line in Greene’s district, wondering what will happen when infrastructure spending is being doled out:
But that requires the Biden agenda to actually be enacted in Congress — over staunch Republican opposition — to start erasing some of the skepticism in places like Dalton. In a world where the only visible presence the federal government has in your life is collecting your taxes and elected members yelling at you on social media, that becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. The only value inherent in elected officials is representing grievances and feelings as loudly as possible, hence those officials are the ones propelled into office.
Enter Marjorie Taylor Greene.