It was September 2018, while Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was testifying before Congress for the first time, when sitting lawmakers had their first confrontation with the wild nature of the online right. Nearly 90 minutes after the hearing began, Laura Loomer, a far-right internet celebrity, stood up from the committee audience. “Please help us Mr. President before it is too late,” Loomer yelled, selfie-stick in hand.
She said something about “censoring” and then something about “shadowbanning,” although it was hard to make out the argument.
“What is she trying to say?” Rep. Billy Long (R-MO) asked, before pretending to lead a live auction, imitating an auctioneer’s call to drown out Loomer’s voice and forcing her out the hearing room.
It was a jarring moment, but as Republicans struggle with the rise of QAnon — and, more specifically, the bizarre conspiracies spread by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) — the moment may have had more to say about the party’s future than anyone realized.
Since 2016, the Republican Party has gone from nearly getting into fist fights with conspiracy posters like Alex Jones to sharing offices next door to them on the Capitol grounds. Republicans have dipped in and out of the conservative internet ecosystem, one concentrated with misinformation and conspiracy, at times that were most politically expedient for them and their party. But Greene’s new spot in Congress is showing how powerful that ecosystem is and how difficult it will be for the party to shed. For a growing portion of the Republican Party, governance is now secondary to content, and the challenges of holding office aren’t so different from the hustle of a popular YouTube channel.
While far-right conspiracy theorists trolled Congress in 2018, Greene was building her own facsimile of a following online. That same year, Greene posted to Facebook suggesting that the Parkland, Florida, school shooting, which left 17 people dead, was a “false flag” operation, a classic falsehood peddled by people like Jones online. It was this post, first reported by Media Matters, paired with a new report from CNN that uncovered messages from Greene supporting the execution of prominent Democrats that forced Republicans to finally address her online history, something broadly known for months.
Greene’s first few weeks in Congress have led to more content than compromise. She’s introduced dead-on-arrival articles of impeachment against President Joe Biden and was already suspended from Twitter for violating the platform’s rules on election misinformation after posting that some races across the country were falsely called for Biden. Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO) announced last week that she would be moving her office farther away from Greene and described an altercation the two had in the hall over masks.
Later that week, Greene put out a video of the incident where she wasn’t wearing a mask properly, mirroring the look and behavior of right-wing provocateurs like Loomer or disgraced former Staten Island congressional candidate and YouTube prankster Joey Salads; the camera was shaky, held vertically, and pointed at her face as she talked about her day in Congress.
To Greene, this content and its consequences are their own kind of success — something far more valuable than a co-sponsored bill or a spot on a powerful committee. After Democrats called to expel her last week, Greene said she raised over $1.6 million. In a statement Friday, Greene said, “I will never back down. I will never give up. Because I am one of you. And I will always represent you.” She continued, “I knew this day would come, it was only a question of when.”
If that sounds like the kind of non-apology you’d hear from a teenage YouTuber, it’s no coincidence. For Greene, governing is posting. Her meteoric rise from Facebook influencer to congressperson is a symptom of the algorithm-based social media feeds of our time. In 2017, Greene first posted about QAnon. “Have you guys been following 4chan? Q? Any of that stuff?” Greene said in a video. “Q is a patriot, we know that for sure.” Greene makes increasingly more outlandish claims for the same reason prank YouTubers and their stunts become even more dangerous: the more controversy she generates, the larger her audience becomes.
Greene has become the face of the Republican Party’s “Poster’s Caucus,” where messaging and content reigns supreme over policy. Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) said in a letter to colleagues last week that he would be focusing on communications over legislation as well — and for good reason. Cawthorn’s biggest wins have been tweets or merch drops. That’s simply what his audience expects.
If Republicans have largely remained silent over Greene’s bizarre approach to politics, it’s because they understand the value of Greene’s connection with her audience. It’s a more extreme version of a game conservative lawmakers have been playing with the online right for years. In an interview with The Verge last year, conservative YouTuber Dave Rubin made a similar observation, saying that lawmakers needed him more than he needed them.
“It was Dan Crenshaw who reached out to me. It was the Ted Cruz people who reached out to me. It was Rand Paul people who reached out to me,” Rubin told The Verge. “They clearly see the seas changing in terms of where people are getting their news, and that they need an opportunity to have their ideas heard.”
Political parties have long struggled with their base, and courting media figures has often been a part of it, from Walter Winchell to Rush Limbaugh. But the novel dynamics of the internet have made the base more extreme and alienated it from the conventional dynamics of government. While lawmakers focus on stimulus checks and a second Trump impeachment, online channels are talking about pedophilia rings and antifa super-soldiers, creating a bizarre alternate reality with no meaningful connection to the actual functions of Congress. Using open platforms and independent companies, the usual moderating forces — like corporate standards departments or advertiser boycotts — just aren’t a factor. For figures like Alex Jones or Laura Loomer, there’s simply no reason to reengage with reality.
With Greene, that kind of logic is now part of the Republican house delegation, and it’s still hard to say how party leaders will respond to this new force. House Democrats are pushing hard to marginalize Greene, pointing to her unhinged and often anti-Semitic statements. While some Senate Republicans like Mitch McConnell (R-KY) condemned Greene, calling her embrace of conspiracy theories a “cancer for the Republican party,” others have been quiet. House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) said he would talk to Greene about her social media posts last week, but it’s not clear when that meeting will take place, as of publication.
It’s easy to see why McConnell is scared. This delay from Republicans and McCarthy is only providing Democrats with more ammo for future elections, tying the GOP with QAnon or any other conspiracy they grab on to before November 2022. That shell game might be good for subscriber numbers, but it’s bad for the GOP — and if leaders aren’t careful, they may end up the party of Alex Jones instead of the party of Marco Rubio.