Last week, the House voted to strip Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of her committee assignments in large part because of what the new Georgia congresswoman posted on social media.
While she was well-known as a QAnon conspiracy theorist before coming to Congress, in recent weeks, we’ve learned Taylor Greene trafficked in an outlandish and anti-Semitic theory that a Jewish-funded space laser started the Camp Fire in 2018. We’ve also learned she said 9/11 was an inside job, school shootings were staged with crisis actors, and that a “bullet to the head would be quicker” than finding another avenue to remove House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
This is the type of stuff seen in the deepest reaches of the online right-wing fever swamp, installed in the halls of power. And you need look no further than the final vote to see that it’s also the future of the Republican Party: 199 of Taylor Greene’s colleagues voted against stripping her assignments, and there’s no signs she faces any consequences beyond having more time to post. It signals a new era of politics, one in which posts echoing the darkest conspiracies for a base poisoned with them is all there is to Republican governance. It may sound hyperbolic, but the rise of the poster-as-politician is one of the greatest threats to democracy, one that could create an unbreakable feedback loop between social media grievances and the highest reaches of power.
Ahead of the House vote to strip her of her assignments, Taylor Greene spoke on the floor in a poorly performed act of contrition.
“School shootings are absolutely real,” she said, going on to note that “I also want to tell you 9/11 absolutely happened” in what will surely put the issue to bed finally. Yet five hours earlier on Twitter, Taylor Greene was busy posting. On a bright red background designed seemingly to catch the eye, she posted a block of all-caps text stating, “The DC swamp and the fake news media are attacking me because I am not one of them. I am one of you. And they hate me for it” along with how to get text alerts from her.
Rather than contrition over spreading lies and threatening violence or learning from the experience of losing committee assignments, and thus reducing her power to advocate for her constituents in Congress, she turned to what she does best: posting online.
Taylor Greene is the most extreme example of the rise of the political poster, but she’s hardly alone. There’s Hitler enthusiast Rep. Madison Cawthorne, gun-wielding Rep. Lauren Boebert, movie-making Rep. Dan Crenshaw, and disingenuous Sen. Ted Cruz. What they all have in common is that posting isn’t just part of the job that comes with governance. It is the job.
Showmanship is, of course, always a part of politics. Whether it’s Sen. James Inhofe bringing a snowball to the Senate floor to “disprove” global warming, Rep. Katie Porter’s whiteboard, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Instagram Live chats and Twitch streams, or Sen. Elizabeth Warren ethering Mike Bloomberg out of existence in a Democratic debate, politicians are after headlines and public opinion. Usually, though, it’s in the service of getting something done (or, in Inhofe’s case, getting nothing done).
The rise of politicians who exist solely to post, though, is something different. Rather than materially improving people’s lives through passing laws and making America a more equitable place, the whole ethos is an endless series of posts, sent like signal flares to the cultural warriors, conspiracy theorists, and white supremacists. To be sure, they do have goals. But effective governance is not one of them.
President Donald Trump pioneered the poster-as-politician template. Before being booted from social media for inciting a seditious riot at the Capitol, Trump’s Twitter feed offered the broad contours of the consummate poster. There were retweets of people pumping the QAnon conspiracy, a whole back catalog of bad tweets from his pre-politics days, and other incendiary statements. Trump tried on occasion, no matter how ineffectively, to do governance by tweet, but those efforts were typically ham-handed, such as yelling about $2,000 stimulus checks and inviting North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un to shake his hand. Weird? Sure. But an attempt was made at governance. (And he did get that handshake.)
The Trump template showed how easily posting can warp reality. Take the election results. Trump baselessly claimed for months they were likely to be stolen, his claims churned through the ranks of regular posters on social media, and then echoed back to him. Trump said he was simply looking out for the online patriots, the media largely covered it as just another story, and another layer of normality evaporated into the ether of stupidity, eventually leading to the deadly riot in January.
In the end, he was undone, in part, by his own posting that inspired a violent insurrection. While there is no shortage of violent tweets even more heinous than stuff Trump said—posts about gassing Jews or killing Democrats, among them—none had Trump’s reach or office. But Trump’s ban from Twitter and other social media platforms showed the theoretical limits of posting (as well as the danger of unregulated large tech companies), which is a huge boon to the posters in Congress. Though none have the reach of Trump nor quite the prestige of the presidency, all still wield considerable power.
And they seem determined to use it to post, make money off posting, and then post some more. Taylor Greene is fundraising off the threat of being expelled for wishing death on the leader of the body she serves in. Or consider Boebert, most famous for posting an ad saying she’d bring her gun to Congress and live tweeting Nancy Pelosi’s exodus from the House floor during the Jan. 6 insurrection. Among her recent tweets are complaining about “fact checkers” refusing to set the record straight about her posts about Pelosi and making a xenophobic “joke” about Rep. Ilhan Omar marrying her brother pulled right from right from right-wing message boards. Pinned to the top of her feed is a post asking for donations pitting her against Democrats and “their radical agenda & unfair attacks.”
Cawthorn is a relatively “normal” politician by Boebert and Taylor Greene standards. His posts try to present him as a plucky can-do politician with discrete goals tied to governance. But his rise has been driven by his posts, including deceitful claims about training for the Paralympics. Cawthorn’s first tweet after winning was “Cry more, lib.” And in an email obtained by Time, he wrote that “I have built my staff around comms rather than legislation.” His merch is also a clear signal to the posters that he’s one of them, including a MAGA-style red hat with “Make Elections Secure Again’’ available for $28.
There’s Crenshaw’s action video of him parachuting into Georgia to battle antifa and Cruz’s disingenuous “I care about Pittsburgh” schtick and grifting for clout. While all of these people may well pass (or have already passed) legislation, their primary commitment is to being online. Success is not measured solely—or even mostly—in serving constituents. It’s about using their platform and power to amplify the message boards and Discord servers into the mainstream, then fundraise off the incendiary rhetoric so they can keep the culture war going.
Trump showed the outer edges of acceptability in posting that can get you banned if you hold enough power. But the intervening month since the insurrection has shown that with the right mix of plausible deniability, the posts and money can continue—and in some cases grow. While Cruz lost some corporate PAC commitments, he remains a member of the Senate in good standing and is considered a front runner for the Republican presidential primary in 2024. Taylor Greene has claimed to have raked in more than $1.6 million since being called out for her violent and conspiracy-addled posts. As long as there are no financial, electoral, or workplace consequences, the posts will continue.
“What we’re seeing now is a rehearsal, where the mechanisms of a toxic and inhumane politics are being tested and improved,” Kyle Wagner wrote in a 2014 Deadspin piece that has proved to be one of the most prescient predictions of our current era.
Those same tactics and bad faith grievances are what animate the Republican Party now. Whereas Gamergate was a sloppy mass of people posting, now the mob is more organized and has leaders in the halls of power. It’s also organizing in state houses, governor’s mansions, and attorneys general offices across the country. The Big Lie that the election was marred by fraud started with Trump, echoed through Facebook posts, and followed a recursive path back to power after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton along with 17 other Republican attorneys general challenged the election results. When the suit was tossed by the Supreme Court, it threw another can of gas on the fire that eventually set off the insurrection. Hell, a Huffpost investigation found at least 21 local lawmakers showed up at the insurrection, thanks in part to a number of them posting about being there.
In another prescient piece in Splinter, Alex Pareene wrote in 2017 of how the Republicans “will continue to field candidates and win elections for the foreseeable future,” but that “the only people entering the Republican party candidate pipeline in the Trump era almost have to be allied with the alt-right, because the alt-right absolutely comprises the only effective and successful youth outreach strategy the GOP currently employs.”
While he was writing about the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville that year, the same premise is true today, except we’ve moved past the alt-right and even further to the fringes with the likes of Taylor Greene taking the party reins. With Republicans set to control redistricting in a number of states and gerrymander in their control further, it’s likely that it will further incentivize fringe internet beliefs to become core parts of the GOP dogma. Remember, no Republicans are showing up in Taylor Greene’s district in an effort to spark a primary challenge, but they are showing up in Rep. Liz Cheney’s because she voted to impeach Trump.
How you shatter the funhouse mirror that connects posters and power is one of the defining issues of our time. Social media has both warped the incentives of politics and pumped a steady stream of poison and lies into our discourse. Democrats and both houses of Congress have signalled democratic reforms are high on the priority list for this session. Among possible fixes are ranked choice voting; Washington, DC; statehood; automatic and same-day voter registration; and other fixes that would bring more people into the political process and reduce the abilities of extremists to hold power.
Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media companies could also face regulation. How to do that without limiting legitimate speech or putting too much power into the hands of Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey is a delicate balancing act. Among suggestions from a report released late last year are slowing the spread of viral content and reducing the ability to microtarget ads to individuals as means to the prevalence of misinformation. Other proposals include making social media publicly owned utilities, though that raises risks about giving too much power to the government to regulate speech and the public square. What is clear, though, is that the current situation is untenable. Continuing down this path will ensure the public square is taken over by mobs again and again, screaming about Jewish space lasers and lusting for blood, marshalled and egged on by a congresswoman from Georgia, a senator from Texas, and an online economy fueled by the worst posts we can dredge up.