June 7, 2021

Nobody can get elected in Georgia without the “nut vote”, the late senator Sam Nunn used to say. He wasn’t talking about pecans and peanuts — though the state is America’s largest producer of both — but kooks and conspiracists. Georgia has always been full of them, and now it is represented by one: Marjorie Taylor Greene, the loudest and Trumpiest member of Congress.

Is she the future of the Republican party? Or has the media fallen into the Trumpy trap of bigging up the most brazen peddler of outrage? Yes, MTG is bonkers, but she is authentically woman-next-door bonkers. Barely 5ft tall in heels, she is a bundle of energy who has tapped into a social media ecosystem that runs on its own hot air.

The big attraction is that Donald Trump thinks the world of his friend “Marjorie”. When she visited his court at Mar-a-Lago in Florida in April, the former president called her “a very special person” who is “out there fighting hard”. While he flirts with standing for re-election in 2024 and dreams of being mysteriously reinstated in the White House, perhaps as early as this August, she has taken to the road to keep his America First agenda alive — and to fill her coffers as the would-be inheritor of his populist mantle.

The politics of “She said WH-A-A-T?” has certainly boosted her brand. Greene’s latest provocation was to compare compulsory mask wearing to Nazis forcing Jews to wear the yellow Star of David, for which she received a gentle, first-name ticking off from the thoroughly cowed Republican House leader, Kevin McCarthy. Not that she cares. She regards him as a creature of the “House of Hypocrites” and calls Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Nancy “Maskhole” and “bitch”.

Greene’s early support for QAnon — she calls its prophet, Q, a “patriot” — has led her to circulate a slew of conspiracy theories, often involving a “global cabal of Satan-worshipping paedophiles” and other claims, including that mass school shootings are “false flag” operations.

But is the rest of America drinking from the same fountain? A recent poll by the Public Religion and Research Institute and the Interfaith Youth Core found that 14% of Americans could be described as “QAnon believers” and that 55% were somewhat susceptible to their views.

Certainly, her eccentric views haven’t been an obstacle for her. Despite being shunned by corporations, Greene managed to raise $3.2m in small donations in the first quarter of the year, an astonishing sum for a political novice who only entered Congress in January — more than any other House Republican. And, as I discovered on a recent trip to “Greeneland”, the 14th congressional district she represents in northwest Georgia, support for her shows little sign of waning.

She is currently on a flag-waving and fundraising “America First” tour with Matt Gaetz, the Florida congressman who is being investigated by the FBI for paid sex with a 17-year-old.

I caught up with the pair in Dalton, Georgia, Greene’s home turf, on the third leg of their tour (next stop: Dallas, Texas). The rally, attended by 500 people in red and blue MAGA regalia, began with Gaetz whipping up the crowd in support of Trump. “The art of the deal is the art of the comeback and I think Donald Trump is coming back in 2024,” he said to chants of “USA! USA!”

Later, Gaetz told the New York Post that if Trump did not stand, he might give the presidency a whirl himself on the grounds that anybody could beat the enfeebled Joe Biden. Gaetz, I suspect, is an exception to that rule. But Greene, who turned 47 on the night of the rally, has something he lacks: a genuine connection with the Republican party base. “You see, I’m one of you,” she told them. “I walk into Congress and I say exactly what we say at the dinner table every night.”

She went on to assert that the election was stolen. “Who won the presidential race in Georgia?” Greene asked. “Trump! Trump! Trump!” the audience obliged.

Frankly, the views of her supporters are even less orthodox than hers. Janice Helton, 67, a lady sitting next to me, asked whether I knew that “George W Bush had a hand in the ‘bombing’ of 9/11” and that his father, Bush Sr, was involved in killing John F Kennedy. “It’s all about the money.” Joe Biden, Helton added, is probably dead. “They say he is not even alive. He’s a clone,” Helton said.

Yet Greene clearly has a wider appeal — and it would be wrong to write her off as just a crank. When she began campaigning for election in 2019, she sounded almost Thatcherite in her commitment to balancing the budget (not something Trump worried about). “If we look at our country as a household, we’re going to go under foreclosure because we’re overspending,” she said at the time. “I look at it that way as a business owner and then I look at it as a mom.”

For years, she helped to run a family-owned construction business and was wealthy enough to pour $1 million of her own money into her political campaign. People admired her for it. She put “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs” at the top of her manifesto and carried 75% of the vote in her staunchly Republican area

In Dalton, Greene was cheered for highlighting the staff shortages crippling small businesses now the pandemic is receding. Republican politicians blame Biden’s $300-a-week unemployment cheques for this, and in fact Georgia is just one of many Republican “red” states to have recently declined the money.

“The stimulus checks are paying people to stay at home,” Greene said. “Nobody wants to go to work because you can sit home in your pyjamas all day scrolling through social media.”

Another of her popular promises was to “secure the border”. In the last three months, half a million undocumented immigrants have crossed into America, drawn by Biden’s relaxation of controls. “Do you think America ought to be a sanctuary country?” Greene asked. “No,” the audience roared.

Economically and culturally, she is also on their wavelength. Even Greene’s previous ownership of a CrossFit gym has made her relatable in a state where working out with weights is a blue-collar obsession. She is big on faith and family, too. A former gym owner, Jim Chambers, told the New Yorker that at one stage Greene had “multiple, blatant, extramarital affairs in front of all of us” — but all has been forgiven.

Tellingly, however, few people at the rally saw Greene as a future president. For although some appear to believe in conspiracy theories, at root they retain a basic belief in experience and competence.

After Trump, the name that excited the most applause was Ron De Santis, the Florida governor, for keeping his state functioning under Covid-19, despite its reliance on tourism and abundance of elderly residents. “We all have governor envy. We all want De Santis in our state,” said Jeremy Counts, 47, who was sitting to my left with his 15-year-old son.

He regarded Greene as a fighter, but not a leader. “We’re going to trip over ourselves to vote for De Santis as president. He’s the boss.” Mickey Reed nodded in agreement. “If he runs in place of Trump, I will get behind him wholeheartedly,” she said.

The American voter remains a rational creature. Will De Santis flourish? Undoubtedly he is the next-gen leader to beat. And MTG? It remains to be seen whether she can get her hands on more levers of power.

Either way, she has mastered the art of addressing two audiences: one that takes her seriously and literally as a fellow conspiracist, and another that takes her seriously, but not literally, as a conservative politician. And as Trump has proved, that is a heady combination.