The Dark Squad Rises

“Taliban 20”
Andy Biggs (R-AZ), Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Matt Rosendale (R-MT). The “Taliban 20” are a sort of inverse of The Squad, with a terminally online ideological agenda and a mission to reshape Washington in their own radical image. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images
Tina Nguyen
February 1, 2023

Back in 2018, of course, the political media fixation du jour was The Squad, the group of young Democratic freshmen whose arrival supposedly heralded an age of pinko-progressive, social-media-fueled insurgency. Four years later, with Republicans recapturing the House, there’s a similarly excitable media narrative coalescing around the “Taliban 20”—the mostly early-career far-right members of Congress who nearly derailed Kevin McCarthy’s speakership this month. They are, in fact, a sort of inverse of The Squad, with a terminally online ideological agenda and a mission to reshape Washington in their own radical image. 

Intriguingly, official Washington is already starting to treat them as a distinct power bloc, recognizing that these twenty-or-so members hold the key to McCarthy’s narrow majority. To wit: I’ve recently learned that FreedomWorks and the Heritage Foundation, among other conservative organizations, are scheduled to co-host a private reception for the twenty members on Wednesday night. (It’s unclear whether Rep. Victoria Spartz will be in attendance: I’m told that she was initially not part of the Never Kevins’ plans, and that her decision to throw in with them was a pleasant surprise. “She has been at a bunch of the events even though not fully part of the 20,” a source close to the bloc told me. “She’s still enjoying it.”) 

Both groups are heavy hitters in conservative policy circles, and both have been trending more MAGA in recent years. FreedomWorks, the advocacy shop behind the House Freedom Caucus, was one of the first groups to demand that McCarthy make changes to legislative procedure, including the one-vote “motion to vacate” rule that allows any single member to force a vote of no confidence if he so much as sneezes at them on the wrong day. The Heritage Foundation has also undergone its own Trumpy conversion over the past several years, as I reported back in October. The Reagan-era think tank’s new president, Kevin Roberts, has steered the august institution in a decidedly nationalist-populist direction ever since he took office in 2021. But to see them specifically single out the Taliban 20 for recognition foreshadows the bloc’s growing importance in Washington, even beyond their unique leverage over McCarthy.  

Of course, there isn’t anything revelatory about lobbyists and interest groups wining-and-dining specific political coalitions. These white-glove, backroom courtship rituals are precisely how legislative work really gets done in this town. What is noteworthy, however, is the relative youth and inexperience of this new right-wing bloc. The vast majority of its members are in their first or second term, elected at the heady apex of the Trump presidency, or in its immediate aftermath, as groups like Heritage and the Claremont Institute raced to codify the MAGA agenda. But inexperience does not translate into a lack of will to power: As I reported during the speakership election, the tightly-knit band of 20 are extremely well read on Congress’s arcane legislative procedures, and extracted significant concessions and privileges from McCarthy during their negotiations, including the restoration of the one-member “motion to vacate.”

It’s hard to imagine the Twenty won’t keep that gun firmly pressed to McCarthy’s head. Indeed, they got an early preview of the power they could wield in the new Congress during the speakership battle itself, when, as Yahoo’s Jon Ward observed, only members of the anti-McCarthy faction were invited into the offices of the Conservative Partnership Institute, the new-ish right-wing think tank affiliated with former chief of staff Mark Meadows. To see the We didn’t come here to make friends caucus leapfrog in prominence over other, more established members of the House Freedom Caucus—including Marjorie Taylor Greene, the ostensible queen of MAGAism who supported McCarthy and got into screaming matches with “Never Kevin” cheerleader Lauren Boebert—signals where the ball is moving. After all, if you’re a right-wing interest group with a desire to get something done in the 118th Congress, the smart move would be to win over the people holding the detonator for McCarthy’s suicide vest. 

The Santos Split Personality Strategy

Meanwhile, the embattled serial liar George Santos (R-Long Island) recently stunned Congress watchers by relinquishing the committee assignments he’d received from McCarthy earlier this month. Santos appears to be falling on his sword on behalf of G.O.P. leaders who want to remove Squad antagonist Ilhan Omar from the Foreign Affairs Committee, in retaliation for her past comments about Israel, but don’t want to be charged with hypocrisy. The putative horse trading may be for nought, given the number of Republican members who say they’re uncomfortable with the precedent. (Rep. Nancy Mace called it “unconstitutional” while Matt Gaetz, who said he was unsure how he would vote, warily described the effort as driven by colleagues who “don’t like what she has to say.”)

Regardless, the decision by Santos to step out of the spotlight is significant. As I previously reported, Santos has been toying with contrasting strategies for evading the political (and potentially criminal) consequences of his campaign trail deceptions, alternating between avoiding the media as he walks the halls of the Capitol while simultaneously trolling members of the press by leaving journalists donuts outside of his office and posting combative tweets. 

This split personality could be chalked up to Santos’s seemingly compulsive need to change his identity on a regular basis, from his name to his resume to his sexual orientation. But it also reflects an actual, internal fight over strategy, too. There are two competing theories inside his office, I’m told. One camp is fronted by Santos’s new director of operations, Vish Burra, a former staffer for MAGA acolytes like Gaetz and Steve Bannon, who has advocated a more combative stance towards the press. The other, more cautious strategy is being pushed by Naysa Woomer, an alumna of moderate Republicans like former Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker. “She’s the lay-low strategist,” a source close to Santos’s office told me recently. “She wanted Santos to be completely silent for months and months and hope that this will all just blow over, or essentially that everyone would forget in a few months and move on to their next thing.” (Burra and Woomer did not return requests for comment.)

MAGA Influencer, Inc.

Perhaps the defining feature of the high Trump era on Twitter—back when the president, and not Elon Musk, was the main character online—was the emergent MAGA social media influencer class that flourished in his wake. For more than four years, there was a veritable fortune to be made by commentators and content creators who piggybacked on Trump’s 80 million-follower account to build and monetize their own digital audiences. 

Since then, of course, the president’s former digital army, like the G.O.P. itself, has been divided by the latest intra-party debate: Trump or DeSantis? And, needless to say, as mournful post-Trump unity gives way to pre-primary mudslinging, the MAGA internet has turned into an absolute shitshow. 

A growing number of formerly pro-Trump social media figures are openly declaring their support of DeSantis, calling Trump a man with an “enormous ego,” in the words of Bill Mitchell, one of the earliest, most vocal pro-Trump voices on Twitter. Other prominent-in-MAGA land personalities include former Newsmax host John Cardillo, podcaster Christian Walker (the estranged son of Herschel Walker), and David Reaboi, the former president of the Securities Studies Group and a Very Online person.

Pro-Trump influencers have accused DeSantis’s team of orchestrating a pay-to-play operation—allegations that have not been substantiated—but it’s clear the DeSantis team believes these personalities are key to his eventual strategy to challenge Trump. One influencer described a “Miami mafia” of influencers that DeSantis comms director Christina Pushaw, an extremely online Twitter personality herself, has cultivated over the years via her personal connections and sheer internet MAGA charisma, even before she joined the DeSantis team. 

Of course, as my colleague Peter Hamby is fond of saying, Twitter is not always real life. When Harmeet Dhillon launched her campaign to oust Ronna McDaniel as R.N.C. chair, her allies pointed me towards her support from the MAGA influencer class as central to her broader strategy of positioning herself as the champion of the grassroots. Their support, it turns out, meant little: despite Dhillon telling the press that she stood a chance, McDaniel soundly beat her by a wide margin, 111 votes to 51. 

Many of these internet warriors concede that their digital campaigns are often overhyped by older politicians and breathless media enablers. “We’re only good for one thing: speaking to a specific brand of the Republican Party,” said a MAGA influencer who has yet to throw in with either Trump or DeSantis. “Which is fine. That’s what I want to be… But that’s why the influencer thing is way overhyped. Average Republicans who are like my mom and my dad are not watching this. They don’t care. They’re not engaged.” But the influencers, he said, are “trying to change the narrative by speaking to so few people on the internet and battling each other.”

Still, “speaking to a specific brand of the Republican Party” can indeed shape party agendas and voter priorities, especially given the tendency of G.O.P. talking points to percolate upward from internet communities to influencers to, eventually, elected officials. DeSantis has frequently taken his cues from conservative digital warriors in his prosecution of various “woke” institutions, including his aggressive push to reshape Florida’s educational curricula. (On Wednesday, the College Board announced that it was eliminating scholars and figures associated with critical race theory from its Advanced Placement course in African American studies, in the wake of DeSantis criticizing a draft copy of the curriculum.) And there’s no doubt that many Fox News plotlines, particularly on Tucker Carlson Tonight, trace their origins to stories that go viral on the internet before finding their way to an older, less digitally-native audience.

If the ’24 primary race is ultimately fought online, the battle will surely be generational, too. Trump’s original social media strategy, after all, mostly relied on original content and his own unmistakable style—a tradition he has carried on from his self-imposed exile on Truth Social. DeSantis, who is 32 years younger, mostly encourages surrogates to fight his digital battles for him. “DeSantis’s people are chronically online,” a pro-Trump influencer told me. “And Trump was very active on social media, but he didn’t scroll constantly, you know? He’s an older man.”