Just when we thought it was behind us, 1861 is back.
It might not have been cannon shots on Fort Sumter, but Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), widely known as MTG, is firing away at our “united” states, in a series of declarations endorsing the separation of blue and red states. She then doubled down with a tweet this past week that was viewed more than 2.9 million times (approximately 2.9 million more views than it deserved).
At almost any other time in our nation’s history, she’d be marginalized as the raving conspiracy theorist standing on a corner, compelling us to walk briskly across the street. But the recent convergence of social media and performative politics has made her a social-media star. She’s the modern-day incarnation of Abbott and Costello — except that, in this case, we’re the vaudeville “straight men” and her lunacy gets all the attention.
There’s nothing novel about her act. It’s well-worn and discredited, stretching as far back as Father Coughlin, who mastered the early growth of radio to spread fascist and anti-Semitic rhetoric to mass audiences in the 1930s.
What is different — and what makes her so dangerous — is social media, where the vile becomes viral.
Democratic consultant Paul Begala once said that “politics is show business for ugly people.” Statecraft has always required stagecraft; politics has always relied on performance. To that end, Abraham Lincoln used the debate stage with Stephen Douglas; FDR had radio fireside chats; John Kennedy mastered television, and Ronald Reagan perfected it.
But today’s brand of performative politics is different, employed to increase one’s social media and fundraising capital rather than to enlighten an electorate. Politics used to be about selling an idea; now it’s about monetizing one’s brand. You post something outrageous, people click on it, then the money rolls in. The new national anthem goes like this: “Tweet, click, cha-ching.”
President Trump brought performative politics to new heights (or depths) during his 2016 campaign, when he tweeted and trolled his way to the Oval Office. And, like any successful reality television show, he spawned a dozen spin-offs. These new political characters campaign not for a seat on the House or Senate floor but a place on the stage. They judge success not by the number of bills they’ve passed but by the number of retweets they’ve gained. They are in D.C. not to lead, but to be “liked.”
The lies of Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) were so effective because he took this playbook of performative politics to its logical extreme: If the lifeblood of our digital-age politics is outrage fueled by misinformation, then why not contort your own backstory into whatever will help summon the most attention? Why not falsely claim that your mother died on 9/11? Why not pretend you have Jewish heritage? Why not play the role of Member of Congress as if you’re a fictional character on House of Cards? And keep the drama going — wear an AR-15 lapel pin when you represent a district where the vast majority of constituents support sensible gun safety (I know, because I represented most of the same district). Don’t engage, enrage!
Congress has a job approval rating of 21 percent, partially because it isn’t defined by the many composed, constructive members legislating under the congressional rules of “regular order” but by a few celebrity wannabes whose fame depends on adrenalin-pumping disorder. (The passage of last summer’s CHIPS Act may be one of the most consequential policies to strengthen American manufacturing; yet, instead of heralding the 24 House Republicans who supported it, we are transfixed by the latest social media assault by MTG. No one pays attention to the normal characters in a “Three Stooges” pie fight.)
There’s hope, but it will take time. We know that in any genre of performative politics, tastes and technologies change. Newspapers yielded to radio, which was overcome by television networks, which then struggled against tablets. Performers must adapt. Audiences wear thin, tune out, click to something else.
I’ve watched it from the inside. My own electoral career began in the 1980s, when a disruptive new television program called “The Morton Downey Jr. Show” pioneered the genre of “trash television.” It featured political screaming matches, Downey’s signature phrase — “pablum-puking liberal” — and the jeering of followers who called themselves “Loudmouths.” They projected today’s MAGA rage before Trump commoditized it. As David Letterman said, “I’m always amazed at what people will fall for. We see this every 10 or 12 years, an attempt at this, and I guess from that standpoint I don’t quite understand why everybody’s falling over backwards over the guy.” Tom Shales, then The Washington Post’s TV critic, wrote of Downey: “Suppose a maniac got hold of a talk show. Or need we suppose?”
The show started strong: 78 stations and a nationwide audience. But the ratings slipped, the audiences waned, and Downey’s show was cancelled after two years. He went from a commanding perch in performative politics to a not-so-Oscar-worthy performance in “Revenge of the Nerds: III.” (Full disclosure: One of Downey’s costars in the film was my brother, Richard Israel.)
Like any novelty in performative politics, Rep. Greene’s act will fade or combust. Like the line-up on one of those nostalgia television networks, she’ll become a cringe-worthy flicker of another time. (I actually enjoy those networks. I just don’t want someone who believes in the plot elements of a space-laser episode of “My Favorite Martian” sitting on the House Homeland Security Committee.)
Meanwhile, we are stuck with her tweets. To paraphrase the Post’s Tom Shales: “Suppose a maniac got hold of Congress. Or need we suppose?”
Steve Israel represented New York in the U.S. House of Representatives over eight terms and was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now director of the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy Institute of Politics and Global Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.