The United States has never seen an elected politician quite like Marjorie Taylor Greene, who takes the word ‘controversial’ to new extremes. Pulitzer prize-winner and fellow Georgian ALBERT SCARDINO reports on where the conspiracy theorist congresswoman has emerged from.
The northern part of Georgia is a land that has folded itself into a series of granite waves that run away to the horizon and disappear into the Smokey Mountains at the borders of North Carolina and Tennessee.
The narrow valleys between these ridges hold little land flat enough for industrial scale farms or for cities of any significance. The state’s newest congressional district, the 14th, tucked into the far northwest corner, claims as its largest town Rome, Georgia, with a population of 36,000.
A further 700,000 constituents, almost all of them white, are spread across the small bottomland farms, towns and rural settlements of 12 counties. It isn’t as poor as it used to be before federal economic development programmes in the 1930s and again in the 1970s brought electricity, roads, food, sanitation systems and other social welfare schemes, but incomes still rank well below the national average.
Rome lies more than 700 miles from the nearest border of a foreign country, Cuba. An hour or so down the highway sits Atlanta, the capital of Georgia. Atlanta is also the social, educational and financial capital of black America, a metropolis of six million people, with America’s busiest airport and perhaps the strongest links in the US to Africa.
Of America’s 435 congressional districts, this one is among the 10 most Republican. Only seven other districts in the nation voted more heavily in favour of Donald Trump in 2016.
Shortly before last year’s election, Marjorie Taylor Greene moved there from an adjacent area in the Atlanta suburbs that was trending Democratic. She moved specifically to meet residency requirements to run for a vacant congressional seat.
Unlike in the UK and other European countries, most US elective offices require candidates to reside in the jurisdiction they intend to serve. Greene had no roots in her new district, none of the usual local foundation for winning a place in national politics in the US: no family, business or historical connection to the area, no history of working with other elected officials in the region, no experience at all in north Georgia’s public or community life.
The seat she was seeking had been held since 2012 by Tom Graves, an ambitious right-winger who had expected a quick rise to a leadership position in a Republican-majority congress. After winning election part way through the Obama presidency, Graves earned a reputation as something of a freelance slash-and-burn budget cutter, an anti-government crusader who voted his extreme position in committee and on the House floor no matter what his party’s leaders negotiated.
Graves’s impatient disregard of the leadership gave them an excuse to deny him the committee appointments he felt he deserved. When Democrats won back the majority in 2018, ensuring that Graves would have even less influence, he announced he would not seek re-election. With months still to run in his two-year term, he walked off the job, declaring his work was done, wearing his ineffectiveness as a badge of honour, as if he had graduated with distinction.
Five local Republicans quickly declared their candidacy to succeed him. All five pledged allegiance to the right wing platform of the national party: anti-immigrant, anti-privacy choices on abortion, pro-guns, small government, low taxes.
They all claimed to be Christian, a brand identifier worn by most American politicians that provides no more distinction than a Nike swish on a pair of shoes. They had pockets of support, financially and politically, both regionally and from other Republican state officials.
Greene had something much more valuable, links she had cultivated for two years to the far-right media world. She blogged, she moderated chat rooms, she videoed herself trolling young people who had been terrorised by mass school shootings.
She demanded they debate her and declared the shootings they had witnessed had been staged to justify new laws to take away guns. She posted these videos to her own YouTube account to gain a following and to enhance her own reputation as a warrior.
She monitored some of the trashy, right wing news aggregator sites, skimming the slimiest items from their cesspool of ‘news’ to aggregate onto her own sites, via Facebook and other social media channels. She picked up waste linking George Soros to left wing Jewish socialism and, at the same time, to re-born Nazi plots to seize Christian babies and sell them to the paedophiles running the Democratic Party.
She promoted claims that a slippery gang of Jewish financiers had created a fleet of outer space vehicles that had fired lasers at California in order to set off a chain of wildfires.
The fires would provide propaganda cover for a socialist plot to seize control of the economy in the name of mitigating climate change. She opposed some restraints – on guns, on a woman’s personal health care decisions, on her own right to spout conspiracy theories on social media – and insisted on others – against immigrants, Democrats, black people, Jewish financiers, gay people. She also claimed to be a Christian.
As a whole political philosophy, it wasn’t. It made sense only as a kaleidoscopic image of fear and hate.
As a declared candidate, she didn’t need to conduct public opinion polls. She knew from the donations flowing into her campaign how she was doing. With each reporting deadline, she could see that she was racing ahead of the other Republican candidates. She took in almost as much as all five of her opponents put together. She had national Republican media support and advice, even if few of her future constituents had ever met her.
Greene swore allegiance to Trump and his authoritarian agenda while her Republican opponents touted their local credentials and promised that, as natives of their north Georgia districts, they would work for their neighbours.
By the time of the election in November, she had hauled in $3 million, so much that she couldn’t spend it all, even though her district was caught between two expensive television markets, Atlanta on the southwest and Chattanooga, Tennessee, on the north. She embraced violent threats against Democrats. She once liked a Facebook post calling for Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House and the highest ranking official in the party, to get “a bullet to the head” and replied to another calling for Barack Obama to be hanged: “Stage is being set”.
Her rhetoric so alarmed the only Democrat in the race that he ended his campaign, fearing for the safety of himself and his family, he said.
With her overwhelming campaign advertising budget and her willingness to terrorise her opponents, Greene operated in a parallel universe. Having swept away her five Republican rivals in their September primary election, and her Democratic general election opponent having been driven into hiding, Greene strutted into Washington in November as one of several newly elected, gun-totting Republican women ready to bully both Democrats and her own party’s leadership. She quickly became a poster child for the secessionists who seized the Capitol on January 6.
She’s now seated in the building. She won’t go away anytime soon.
The web-based nature of Greene’s rise to fame and political fortune may be new, at least in their technology. The conspiracy theories that have fueled her success are not. Some of them are rooted in the isolationism of the 1930s, the anti-United Nations campaigns that claimed president Truman had sold out America to an international cabal that wanted to merge the US into a One World socialist utopia.
Others go back further, to the emergence of communism 100 years ago and to the claims that adherents of the red menace had infiltrated the highest levels of American government.
Some of the sites she passed through adhere to the teachings of the John Birch Society, a group of business operators who helped spew the venom of the Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy during his witch hunts of the 1950s.
These anti-internationalists campaigned in the 1950s and 1960s to impeach Earl Warren, the chief justice of the supreme court who had led the judiciary to order desegregation of schools and the implementation of various legislative acts that formed the Civil Rights revolution of the 1960s. They tried to brand him a communist sympathiser.
One of the more extreme health care conspiracies they signed on to involved the fluoridation of local water supplies to help reduce tooth decay in children. Many in the John Birch Society believed that water fluoridation was a conspiracy designed to weaken US willpower and make the country susceptible to a communist takeover. They denied that it was a coordinated effort by public health authorities to lower the excessive rate of tooth decay.
Greene’s district had almost nothing to do with creating any of these crank notions or bringing them into the arena of local and regional politics. Her constituents may be geographically isolated, racially homogenous and somewhat less well-to-do and, on average, have a lower education level than those in some more urban congressional districts, but the ground in northwest Georgia isn’t fertile enough to germinate these ideas.
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The colony of Georgia was the last of the 13 Britain created on the Atlantic coast of North America. It was also by far the largest. The first land grants from the crown created coastal plantations of thousands of acres, converted by the excruciating labour of black people into rice fields and cotton farms owned by sons of English aristocrats. Settlement moved inland relatively slowly.
By the mid-18th century, the crown grants had shrunk to the size of family farms, often dispensed to officers of the British army for service in the continental wars of the 1700s. As the end of the colonial era approached, the only land left to sell was often either of such poor quality, so firmly controlled by native nations or so remote as to be worth little more than a reward to men in the ordinary ranks for re-enlistment.
This bonus land was often within the boundaries of sovereign native nations that controlled about half of Georgia’s territory. Many of the foothills and mountain ridges of north Georgia ceded by the Cherokee Nation by treaty fell into this category, so many of the frontier settlers who came to the region were Scots and Scots-Irish veterans who made up a disproportionate amount of the ordinary ranks of the British army. Their re-enlistment bonuses for extending their service against France in the Seven Years War often became their retirement homes.
These former soldiers expected little from government and received even less. They revelled in their self-reliance, common sense and toughness. They survived as frontier traders and marginal farmers.
Soon after Georgia became a state, gold was discovered in the streams of the North Georgia mountains, setting off an invasion of the remaining Cherokee lands by a horde of adventurers and impoverished immigrants desperate for a stake.
The mix of miners and former soldiers stealing land and resources from the natives made for a lawless environment. The only government presence they asked for was the army, to remove the remaining natives.
Greene does not come from this tradition. She exploits it. She uses their on-line living habits to harvest their multi-generational suspicion of authority and their resentment of rich, educated urbanites, and of outsiders, even though she herself could qualify as a rich, educated, urbanite outsider.
She earned a degree in marketing at the University of Georgia, inherited a successful construction business from her father, and settled into the prosperous suburbs of Atlanta.
Having now been stripped of any committee assignments because of her radical, violent public pronouncements and behaviour, she prowls the halls of the Capitol as a lone wolf searching for a pack to join. She may not last the full two years of her term. Like her predecessor, Graves, she may find the life of a junior member of the minority party in Congress to be pointless.
She may instead seek to regain the rage spotlight by launching a campaign next year against the Republican governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, who refused to buy into Trump’s demented explosion about a “stolen” election.
Under Georgia law, no public office holder may retain one seat while seeking election to another, so she would have to resign from Congress. Her colleagues wouldn’t miss her. Neither would her constituents, who still wouldn’t have got to know her. It could cost Trump one of his strongest allies still in Congress, if he has survived impeachment and multiple lawsuits that may come his way for fraud, election law violation and extortion.
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