On Feb. 3, 61 Republican members of Congress voted to remove Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming as chair of the House GOP conference because she voted to impeach former President Donald Trump.
You cannot grasp the rise of Greene in the Republican Party without understanding Trump’s role.
The next day, a mere 11 Republicans voted to strip Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., of her committee assignments, despite the fact that she had advocated for the assassination of leading Democrats.
The contrast was stark. For one, the first ballot was secret, the second public. But the votes were also a graphic illustration of how the party of Lincoln has morphed into one of conspiracy theorists, crackpots and bigots.
At the center of that transformation is Trump, the party’s conspiracy theorist-in-chief.
You cannot grasp the rise of Greene in the Republican Party without understanding Trump’s role; and you can’t understand the Capitol riots of Jan. 6 without understanding the way that Trump has normalized conspiracy theories, paranoia and violence on the right.
This did not happen overnight.
Much of Trump’s conspiracy mongering is well known, and has been for years. He certainly didn’t try to hide it. So while it may feel redundant to bring these examples up again, in fact repeating his lies for the public record is imperative.
Because while House managers are unlikely to repeat them during the impeachment trial — constrained as they are by time and impatient Republican senators — these falsehoods repeatedly primed both the public and lawmakers for Trump’s biggest lie of all. By draining the truth of any real meaning and elevating some of America’s most dangerous far-right extremists, he set the stage. Then all he had to do was wait for the lights to go up.
while it may feel redundant to bring these examples up again, in fact repeating his lies for the public record is imperative.
Importantly, Republicans in Congress went along with him, even as his falsehoods became more flagrant and his tactics more extreme. By Jan. 6, they had long since become accustomed to tolerating Trump’s fabulism, looking the other way as he stoked division and flirted with violence.
Remember that Trump effectively launched his hostile takeover of the Republican Party by aggressively pushing “Birtherism” — the false racist conspiracy theory that the nation’s first Black president was not born in the United States.
Early in his presidential campaign Trump told a false story about Muslims in New Jersey celebrating after the 9/11 attacks. “There were people that were cheering on the other side of New Jersey, where you have large Arab populations. They were cheering as the World Trade Center came down,” Trump claimed in 2015. The story was false.
During the campaign, he suggested (again falsely) that the father of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. He spread claims that childhood vaccines cause autism. He passed on rumors about the suicide of Clinton aide Vince Foster and raised questions about the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
“I’m hearing it’s a big topic,” Trump said in one radio interview after Scalia’s death. “It’s a horrible topic but they’re saying they found the pillow on his face, which is a pretty unusual place to find a pillow.” (Scalia died of natural causes.)
Through it all, support for Trump among Republicans grew and hardened.
When Trump was not actively pushing these theories, he was promoting the most extreme theorists. He praised Alex Jones, the Infowars host who had claimed that both the 9/11 attacks and multiple school shootings were “false flag” operations, or had been faked outright. Jones repeatedly suggested that the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School was a hoax, calling it “synthetic, completely fake with actors, in my view, manufactured.”
Republicans support stayed solid.
As president, Trump continued to push toxic conspiracies. He seemed to endorse a false white nationalist claim that there had been “large scale killings” of white farmers in South Africa. Trump falsely suggested that MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough had been involved in the death of one of his congressional interns. The former president would go on to push “Spygate” and allege that Barack Obama had tapped Trump Tower. He helped spread conspiracy theories about the murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich.
Through it all, support for Trump among Republicans grew and hardened.
At one GOP event, Trump suggested that windmills caused cancer and retweeted an unsubstantiated theory about the death of sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. Last year he retweeted a post that claimed that Osama Bin Laden was actually still alive and that “Biden and Obama may have had Seal Team 6 killed!”
Two months before the November election, Trump suggested to Fox News host Laura Ingraham that “people that you’ve never heard of, people that are in the dark shadows” were secretly controlling Joe Biden, his Democratic rival. Even Ingraham seemed momentarily taken aback: “That sounds like a conspiracy theory.”
Notably, Trump refused to distance himself from QAnon, a conspiracy theory that posits that Democrats are part of a vast satanic cult of baby-killers, among other things. “I know nothing about it,” Trump said during an October debate. “I do know they are very much against pedophilia. They fight it very hard, but I know nothing about it.”
But lie after lie after lie, Republicans stuck with him. There was little or no pushback among elected officials. They supported his bid for four more years in power.
By Election Day, Republicans had learned to accept, or least ignore, even the most toxic products of the fever swamps. When Trump began to spread his lies about the election, they had the muscle memory of acquiescence.
By Nov. 19, when Trump’s lawyers held a bizarre news conference at the Republican National Committee headquarters (best remembered for Rudy Giuliani’s melting hair dye), Trump was aggressively pushing out multiple claims. The Venezuelan communists had rigged the machines; there were plots that included George Soros, Cuba, China and antifa. There were wild stories about servers that had been seized in Germany.
Afterward, Chris Krebs, the former director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, called the news conference “the most dangerous 1hr 45 minutes of television in American history. And possibly the craziest.”
But there was no exit of Republicans, who continued to side with Trump in his refusal to concede. Despite clear evidence of his lies as one court after another rejected Trump’s claims as baseless, his party continued to appease him.
Nearly a month later, in December, GOP House whip Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana was still refusing to commit to recognizing Biden’s election, even after the Electoral College formally cast its votes.
Nearly two-thirds of the House Republican caucus, including Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California and Scalise, signed on to a brief supporting a bizarre Texas lawsuit that sought to have the Supreme Court overturn the election based on many of the theories and allegations that had been repeatedly debunked. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., did not announce that he would object to the electoral vote count until more than two weeks after the Electoral College votes had been cast.
And a week later, a mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in an attack that left five dead and dozens wounded.
On Jan. 4, two nights before the Capitol attack and the night before the Senate runoff elections in Georgia, Trump joined the two Republican candidates at a rally where he called on Congress to overturn the election. Standing among them was Greene, who pledged to nullify Biden’s victory on Jan. 6.
There was nothing unusual about Greene’s presence on the stage with the president, because the GOP had long since made its peace with her brand of rhetoric. We are now more surprised by Cheney’s stance against conspiracies than Greene’s support for them.
Perhaps this is Donald Trump’s most lasting legacy: After four years, he has destroyed the GOP’s last remaining antibodies against a culture of violence that almost brought our democracy to its knees.