Last week, the anniversary of the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, was a profound reminder, for journalists like myself who were there, that history happens slowly and then all at once. I’ve spent years reporting on the rise of the far right, and even longer studying the intersecting conservative moments that gave birth to Donald Trump, and the events of that day represented my absolute worst-case scenario. But one conversation I had that morning confirmed my long-gestating fears: “That building belongs to us,” one protester told me, hours before the riot began, pointing to labor activists’ decade-ago occupation of the Wisconsin State Capitol as inspiration. “They don’t have enough security to stop us.”
I’ve been reflecting on that conversation ever since I wrote about it for Puck. For many people, Trump’s presidency, pandemic response, and election loss were radicalizing. Those events also underscored, again, how quickly politics can change—and just how unpredictable Washington has become now that, with apologies to Bryan Burrough, the barbarians have breached the gates. Many of you wrote to me last week in response, about how the Republican Party is evolving in the post-Trump, post-Covid era; the resurgence of once marginal players and ideas in the G.O.P.; and the candidates who are likely to emerge as rival standard-bearers in the lead-up to 2024. My thoughts, and other observations, below.
Will Marjorie Taylor Greene Survive Life After Twitter?
Last week, Twitter rung in the new year by permanently banning Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s personal account, saying that she’d repeatedly violated their Covid misinformation policies. But unlike Trump’s Twitter ban, I doubt her career is in peril because she lost one megaphone—and the differences extend beyond the obvious benefits that social media cancellation often confers upon conservative provocateurs. Greene is immensely popular back in Georgia and remains the odds-on favorite to win re-election despite this year’s redistricting, which made her home district slightly more Democratic. She decisively beat a more traditional Republican in 2020, and that’s when she was still dabbling, publicly and at times explicitly, in the QAnon cult. (Greene has previously said that she believed “Q” was a real person and a “patriot”, before disavowing the movement once she got to Congress.) She knows how to grab media attention and is a highly effective small-donor fundraiser, with more than $3 million cash on hand.
And while Greene’s personal Twitter account was suspended, her congressional account is still active. Twitter’s new C.E.O., Parag Agrawal, began his tenure with a series of high-profile suspensions of accounts that violated the site’s Covid-19 misinformation policy, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll choose to continue this policy, which willy likely provoke more antagonisms on the right about weaning back protections provided to social media companies by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Greene also still has her Facebook page, unlike Trump, who was simultaneously banned by all the largest tech platforms for promoting mob violence on Jan 6.
A Facebook ban would still sting, given the outsize influence of that network with older users, relegating Greene to lower-tier, MAGA-friendly social platforms. But I don’t imagine that would diminish her pull, especially as a growing number of conservatives experiment with “free speech” alternatives like Parler and Gettr. So far, those companies have failed to take off in a meaningful way—obstacles include the sheer expense and technical complexity of operating a social media network, poor UX, and low consumer awareness of these brands—but it’s likely only a matter of time before one or another of them consolidates the anti-tech crowd. Truth Social, the proposed Trump Media & Technology Group social platform, may be little more than vaporware to hawk shares in Trump’s SPAC, but it speaks to a serious market opportunity.
Greene herself came to prominence as a “digital soldier” QAnon influencer—that world is her grassroots, and she understands how to manipulate the attention economy, whether or not she has the approval of Silicon Valley. Greene, after all, has one credential that Trump does not: she’s a member of Congress, and can therefore command the spotlight simply by walking onto the floor and getting on C-SPAN. She still doesn’t have any committee assignments, which does decrease her political authority, and that has killed the careers of G.O.P. congressmen in the past. (See: the “pariah caucus” of 2018.) But again, Greene’s career was never predicated on actually doing anything in Congress other than using that forum as a continuation of her MAGA fan-service stunts.
Trump vs. Cruz vs. DeSantis: Who Tops the Too-Early 2024 Totem Pole?
It’s never too soon to broach the subject that everyone’s secretly panicking about, but no one wants to openly discuss: the likelies, the not-so-likelies and the wild cards of the 2024 Republican presidential field. A few weeks back, G.O.P. strategist Jeff Roe told me that if Trump did not enter the race—and that’s a big if—then Ron DeSantis and Ted Cruz would likely go head-to-head. Cruz, I imagine, would not survive against Trump, himself. He’s got a long history of spineless backpedalling and high-profile equivocating on specific MAGA issues, from caving to Trump after the man insulted his wife in 2016, to flip-flopping over his condemnation of January 6th. It’s hard to go from calling that day a “violent terrorist attack” to apologizing for his “sloppy and frankly dumb” phrasing to Tucker Carlson without bleeding credibility in the process.
The polling is more favorable for DeSantis, the overwhelming favorite if Trump is content to spend 2024 presiding over Truth Social from the comfort of Mar-a-Lago. That’s the wild card that the DeSantis team, including veteran operative Phil Cox, will be watching closely. In the meantime, neither man is making any moves against the other, because despite all the rumors that Trump hates DeSantis, they’re in a very fragile peace. Neither man wants to say anything bad about the other, save for the occasional moment when Trump says that he “made” DeSantis’s career, or when a DeSantis spox will try to quash rumors of said beef. It’s so fragile that Florida political types have refused to weigh in on a potential matchup, even on background.
And of course, I get a lot of questions about whether Tucker will drop into the race. With the caveat that I’m a former employee of his (and still salty about the time he stole my bike), I’ll offer a controversial opinion: he won’t have much of a chance. That might be counter-intuitive given his immense popularity. He does, after all, have the number-one rated cable news show on television and a killer editorial instinct for turning right-wing grievances into compelling, culture-war spectacles. (Full disclosure: I worked for a short time at the Daily Caller, where Carlson was my boss.) But Carlson barely registers in ‘24 presidential polling when his name comes up. The grassroots activists I speak to place a high premium on those who were committed to their causes since day one, and they remain deeply suspicious of whether Carlson is a true believer or if he is just aping their paranoia about stolen election vaccine side effects to juice his ratings.
Hard as it may be to believe, Fox News itself is treated with considerable suspicion by millions of voters on the far right who have shifted their allegiance to more conspiratorial outlets, including One America News Network, Newsmax, and various YouTube channels. (Fox appears to have loosened its editorial standards in a bid to keep up.) At MyPillow C.E.O. and Trump lackey Mike Lindell’s Cyber Symposium back in August, I heard numerous influential figures in that space accuse Fox of cowardice—implying Tucker was part of the problem—for not boosting their claims of election fraud. That accusation was echoed by Lindell himself; by Phil Waldron—the retired Army colonel who worked with then-President Trump’s outside legal team to claim that the 2020 results were rigged; and most memorably by the anti-vaccine activist Shiva Ayyadurai, the MAGA movement’s vitamin-obsessed answer to Dr. Fauci, who told me, “Tucker sees which way the wind blows.” Unless Tucker calls Lachlan Murdoch a Soros puppet, quits on air, and firebombs the News Corp building on the way out the door, I don’t see him gaining much traction with the voters he needs most. Frankly, his life is already pretty good.
Trump’s Covid Problem
Back at Politico, circa December 2020, I wrote a story about how many Trump supporters were simultaneously refusing to take the vaccine but also demanding that the media give him more credit for developing it under his presidency. So even a year later, when Trump is getting booed at events for promoting the efficacy of vaccines and telling his followers to get boosted, it’s hardly inconceivable that his base may disagree about the importance of vaccination while continuing to believe that Trump is their greatest hope against Bidenism or socialism or some other culture war issue. Even the ex-president’s most vociferous fans understand that they will sometimes have to hold their nose. (Candace Owens, as devout a Trumpist as anyone, recently excused Trump’s pro-vaccine heterodoxy as a symptom of his age and lack of experience conducting “independent research” on the internet.)
That said, it’s impossible to overstate the depth of anti-vaccine militancy within the far right, which has existed ever since the beginning of the pandemic. The more prominent internet conspiracists I track—Alex Jones, Stop the Steal organizer Ali Alexander, Lin Wood, Ron Watkins—have urged their followers to move away from Trump. A leader of the burgeoning Patriot Church movement, pastor Greg Locke, recently led an anti-vaccine protest in front of Trump Tower itself. More loyal allies, including Lindell, say they are opposed to vaccine mandates, rather than the vaccine itself. But regardless of their relative positioning, they reflect an increasingly entrenched anti-vax movement on the right: a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that as recently as November, more than 60 percent of the unvaccinated are Republicans, and 25 percent of all Republicans say they will “definitely not” get vaccinated, even if presented with additional evidence that vaccines are safe. Unfortunately for more moderate lawmakers, a significant portion of the party’s base may decide that heterodoxy on the vaccine issue—even as articulated by Trump—may be beyond the pale. No wonder DeSantis, who is under pressure to distinguish himself from Trump without alienating his voters, looks to be carving out Covid skepticism as a political selling point. The grassroots loves a culture warrior, and Trump, with his now mainstream positioning on vaccine science, sounds like yesterday’s news.