April 7, 2022

How far is too far? From the Access Hollywood tape that many felt sure had sunk Donald Trump’s presidential hopes to the violent crescendo of January 6, this is the existential question Republican politicians have been forced to ask themselves in recent years. But the antics of two headline-grabbing GOP members of Congress pose a slightly different question, one usually asked out of exasperation rather than curiosity: is there even such a thing as too far?

Marjorie Taylor Greene and Madison Cawthorn have only been members of Congress for a little over a year, but in that short time they have earned themselves reputations as hateful bogeymen for Democrats, embarrassing annoyances, if not worse, to many Republican colleagues and renegade heroes to others in the GOP base. As the midterms near, they are also test cases for the appeal of their extreme style of politics. Might these black holes of political attention collapse on themselves?

Far-Right and far-out, Greene’s latest high-profile indiscretion was to appear at a white supremacist conference hosted by Nick Fuentes. A straightforwardly racist, anti-semitic Holocaust denier, Fuentes introduced Greene by asking the crowd to give “a round of applause to Russia”. The appearance — notwithstanding Greene’s subsequent insistence that it was an innocent mistake and that she had no idea who Nick Fuentes was — lacked the darkly eccentric draw of some of her previous outlandish statements, such as the one about Rothschild-owned space lasers causing Californian wildfires. Greene has been stripped of her committee assignments by the Democratic-led House. She has not, however, been formally censured by her own party, and is proudly endorsed by Donald Trump.

By contrast, Cawthorn’s problem isn’t kooky or noxious views — not that he doesn’t hold them. A few weeks ago, he had called Volodymyr Zelenskyy “a thug” and the Ukrainian government “evil”. But his antics have tended to antagonise fellow Republicans in a way that Greene’s have not. More recently, he embarrassed his colleagues (and amused the rest of us) during a podcast appearance in which he claimed to have encountered rampant cocaine use and orgy invitations among the Washington establishment. Tellingly, it was his characterisation of Washington as a depraved Gomorrah that provoked the sharper reaction from House Leader Kevin McCarthy and other senior Republicans.

But does any of this come at an electoral cost? Or will this pair of outrage-hunting political influencers get re-elected in spite of their fringe beliefs?

For partisan-minded Democrats, justice can only be served by one of their own. And so gullible donors fill the coffers of Democratic would-be opponents of the Greenes and Cawthorns who stand approximately zero chance of winning in their heavily Republican districts. One example of these well-funded knights in shining armour is a black veteran in a cowboy hat. Marcus Flowers wants to “hold Marjorie Taylor Greene accountable” in the south-western corner of Georgia she represents and has raised more than $4.5 million to do so: an absurdly high figure for a House seat which FiveThirtyEight estimates has a 45-point Republican lean. Greene herself has raised similarly silly amounts, exploiting her national anti-hero status to rake in $7.5 million since the last election.

If Greene is to be defeated, it will be in Georgia’s 14th Congressional District Republican primary on 24 May. Here, those lining up to do the deed are less appealing to the terminally online liberals wasting their money on Democrats like Flowers. A donor interested solely in making sure Greene is not re-elected would give not to Flowers, but to Jennifer Strahan. She is the most serious challenger — but, according to the most recent campaign finance disclosure, has just $60,332 in cash to take that opportunity.

As was clear in a recent interview, Strahan, a business owner, is no less conservative than Greene, although her promise of dutiful, low-key representation of her voters in Washington contrasts with Greene’s national celebrity.“Representative Greene does not own conservatism,” Strahan tells me. “A lot of people in our district share similar beliefs, but they also want someone who is fighting for the people…. [Greene] is not usually in the district. She is off fundraising and doing other things that you’d expect to see in a typical politician.”

“The one thing I want to restore to this position is that it is about service, not being a social media celebrity,” she says. A noble goal, but one that, as the fundraising figures suggest, might be misaligned with the incentive systems of 21st-century American politics.

As for Cawthorn, his notoriety has cost him endorsements that matter in North Carolina’s 11th District, a mostly rural western part of the state that includes rural Blue Ridge mountain communities as well as affluent (and Democratic-voting) Asheville. Thom Tillis, a Senator from North Carolina, has endorsed one of Cawthorn’s challengers, a state senator called Chuck Edwards who, like Strahan in Georgia, promises low-key dependability rather than attention-seeking. Yet Cawthorn’s toughest challenger could prove to be Michele Woodhouse, a former district chair who is running as an avowedly “America First” alternative. She describes herself as a former Cawthorn backer exasperated by his reckless style.

Cawthorn’s bigger problem may not be his national infamy, but his lack of political nous. Last year, he toyed with switching seats and seeking election in North Carolina’s newly drawn 13th District, rather than the 11th. When a court ordered the district’s borders be redrawn, Cawthorn changed his mind — more the actions of a career politician than a man-of-the-people outsider.

His amateurishness was also on display as he handled the fallout of his “coke and orgies” claims last week, apologising to colleagues, offering unhelpful clarifications and blaming the liberal media for the whole thing. But Cawthorn still has one big thing going for him: the support of Donald Trump. He will speak alongside the former president at a rally in North Carolina this weekend.

By neat coincidence, the week that started with Cawthorn’s claims about Washington debauchery ended with the return of a familiar face to the political fray: Sarah Palin, who more than a decade ago helped to reignite the culture wars in which the likes of Cawthorn and Greene now do ferocious daily battle. “America is at a tipping point,” she said in a statement announcing a bid for a vacant Alaskan congressional seat. “I knew I had to step up and join the fight.”

Elected office was always incidental to Palin’s celebrity. She was Governor of Alaska for just two and a half years. After her vice-presidential bid made her a conservative star and a global punchline — not that she ever seemed to mind the jokes — the administration of Alaskan government didn’t seem quite so exciting. She resigned in 2009, not even seeing out her first term, let alone seeking re-election.

As many have observed, Palin’s rise was an important waypoint on the journey that brought America to the Trump era, and tribute acts like Greene and Cawthorn. By today’s standards, the “going rogue” brand pushed by the no-nonsense hockey mom from Walisa seems positively wholesome. And to revisit the outrage it generated feels a bit like watching those clips of Fifties prudes panicked about the damage Elvis Presley’s gyrating hips might be doing to teenage girls’ minds.

If Palin was a politician for the reality-TV era, Cawthorn and Greene are built for the Instagram age: political influencers who thrive in a fractured media landscape by delivering a more potent, concentrated product to a segmented audience. But as well as being a trial of that offering’s wider electoral appeal, this year’s midterms could also be a test of whether Cawthorn or Greene need a House seat to remain in the political fray. One suspects that space will be made for either of them in the conservative-entertainment world if they find themselves out of a job.

Palin, for instance, had fame, fortune and influence after 2008 without having to worry about the voters. Of course, a former member of Congress might not have the draw of a former vice-presidential candidate, but Cawthorn and Greene are evidence that notoriety matters more than seniority. The challenge, whether in Congress or not, is to stay relevant. Palin managed it without elected office. For a while. But now here she is, once again seeking the votes of her fellow Alaskans. Rather than serving as a model, perhaps that should be a warning to those fringe Republicans flirting with the electoral defeat in pursuit of political stardom.