Two years ago, House Republican Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) had no trouble in doing the right thing when it came to policing extremism in his caucus. But as calls grow for him to do something about Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), McCarthy is failing to respond. That the QAnon supporter with a history of backing a wide variety of lunatic conspiracy theories, including believing that the 9/11 attacks were faked and those with clear anti-Semitic themes like her claim that California wildfires were caused by space lasers linked to the Rothschild bank, stands unrebuked by her party is not only a disgrace. It’s also a gift that will keep on giving to their Democratic foes until McCarthy acts.
His hesitancy to do so isn’t just a profound and indefensible mistake; it’s also a product of a changed political landscape in which both major parties seem neither able nor willing to deal with extremists within their rank. In a tribal culture war in which the goal is to brand all opponents as beyond the pale, the two sides have come to believe that punishing one of their own is giving their opponents an undeserved victory.
In early 2019, things were very different. After tolerating Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) for years, his defense of “white nationalism” and “white supremacy” was finally a bridge too far for the GOP. With the strong support of other Republicans—though not then President Donald Trump—McCarthy removed King from all committee assignments. The following year, the party establishment went all out to support a primary challenge to King that resulted in his defeat, ending the problem that his continued presence in the House posed for Republicans.
At the time, McCarthy’s exemplary discipline of King stood in stark contrast to the way House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was handling the Democrats’ extremism problem.
When freshman House member Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) was exposed for having tweeted anti-Semitic memes about friends of Israel buying the support of Congress (“It’s all about the Benjamins”) and accusing Jewish legislators of dual loyalty, there were calls for Democrats to mete out the same discipline to her. But after criticizing Omar, Pelosi punted on any effort to rein her in. Not only did Omar escape censure for her calumnies, but she was rewarded with a coveted spot on the Foreign Relations Committee. She and the other radical Democratic BDS movement supporter Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) became, along with fellow “Squad” member Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the rock stars of their party, feted by late-night TV comedians and given spots on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine along with their enabler Pelosi.
In the ensuing two years, the ranks of the “Squad” have expanded with their members no less extreme. Tlaib and new addition Jamal Bowman (D-N.Y.) both spread the blood libel about Israel cruelly denying the COVID-19 vaccine to Palestinians, despite the obvious falsity of the charge. But thanks to the U.S. Capitol riot and the way it has helped focus public attention on right-wing extremists, nobody is paying attention to AOC and her friends.
Why then isn’t the GOP House leadership acting quickly to make clear that Taylor Greene does not speak for Republicans and they want nothing to do with her?
Blame it in part on the way the election and its aftermath further polarized American politics. In the wake of the events on Jan. 6, Democrats have seemed intent not just on impeaching Trump for his role in setting the riot in motion. They have also inflated a violent mob egged on by those who told them an election was being stolen into an “insurrection” they now wish to link to everyone who raised questions about the election results. Rather than focus on the actual extremists who took part in the violence or even just on Trump’s dubious efforts to overturn the results even after his legal options for challenging them had been exhausted, the left’s goals have become far more ambitious. They clearly want to make the Capitol violence the seminal event of recent history and to leverage it as a club with which they can beat anyone who dissents from their agenda for the foreseeable future.
With a partisan mainstream media behind them and Big Tech oligarchs also assisting in this effort, Republicans feel besieged and delegitimized. The GOP base is angry about the way Trump and conservatives are being censored by the left’s media allies. Moreover, they point to the Democrats’ hypocrisy with respect to condoning violent extremists, such as those who took part in hundreds of “mostly peaceful” Black Lives Matter demonstrations last year that turned into violent riots in cities throughout America.
Many on the right, even those who are opponents of white supremacists and anti-Semitism, are in no mood to sacrifice one of their own in order to placate opponents who will give them no credit for doing so—just as they got none for what they did to King.
That explains why Taylor Greene is getting support from rank-and-file Republicans that King, who was arguably not nearly as out-of-control or threatening, never received. And with her declaration that Trump, who still retains the sympathy of many of the 74 million people who voted for him three months ago, is backing her, McCarthy seems to be reasoning that getting rid of her will anger Republicans more than it will appease the rest of the country. With Democrats now threatening to vote to expel Taylor Greene from her two committee assignments if the Republicans don’t do it first, the GOP leadership is being put in a position where it will be damned by some of their supporters for meekly acquiescing to Democrat demands if they act against her and damned by everybody else if they don’t. Like the constitutionally questionable effort to impeach Trump, the Democrats’ goal is not so much to punish Taylor Greene as to embarrass and divide the Republican Party.
But to understand the source of Republican reluctance is not to condone it. As a growing number of prominent members of the party, as well as the Republican Jewish Coalition, have said, denouncing Taylor Greene and her wildly extremist stands is an imperative.
Even if Republicans have good reason to feel aggrieved about the way they’ve been treated, all of the efforts to change the subject from Taylor Greene to Omar or the BLM rioters amounts to nothing more than whataboutism. As David Harris, head of the liberal-leaning American Jewish Committee aptly pointed out, anti-Semitic extremism exists on both the left and the right, but the lack of action against the former can never excuse a failure on the part of the GOP to deal with its Marjorie Taylor Greene problem.
The dilemma here is, after all, not merely political. We have already seen what happens when anti-Semitism is normalized with respect to BDS supporters and others on the left. If Republicans were to act in a manner as to allow Taylor Greene to pretend that she has a place in the mainstream of her party, it would send an unmistakable signal that those who peddle similar anti-Semitic, violent and dangerous conspiracy theories that half the country backs them even if it isn’t true.
Trump’s petulant unwillingness to plainly condemn extremists at every opportunity enabled his opponents to portray him as an anti-Semite, even if that was palpably false. But House Republicans are in no position to send equivocal messages when the extremist in question is a member of their own caucus. They must unambiguously ostracize Taylor Greene—and soon. If they don’t, they will be in no position to complain if Democrats and the liberal media make her the face of the GOP in coming years.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathans_tobin.
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