The Capitol insurrection isn't moderating the GOP. It's making them more extreme.
Probably the most wrong thing I have ever written was an article speculating about whether a reform movement would take hold in the Republican Party after they badly lost the 2012 election. Just thinking about it makes me cringe.
On first blush, one might think that right now would be a much riper time for conservative reformers than eight years ago. After all, Donald Trump lost a clearly winnable election, and now has saddled the entire party with responsibility for an attempt to overthrow the government — and getting five people killed in the process. If ever there was a time for soul-searching among Republicans, now is that time.
But that is so obviously not happening that nobody, not even the most willfully blind American exceptionalists, is speculating about the possibility. Republicans are going to double down on Trump, culture war grievance politics, violent insurrection, and conspiratorial insanity for the indefinite future.
Perhaps the clearest evidence comes in the form of freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), best known as a believer in the lunatic QAnon conspiracy theory. It turns out that before she ran for office, she posted likes and comments on Facebook indicating support for murdering several Democratic politicians, including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. She also endorsed yet more conspiracy theories: one that Clinton had cut off the face of a baby, worn it, and drank its blood as part of a Satanic ritual, another that the 2018 California wildfires were started by a space laser, and another that the Parkland mass shooting was a false flag hoax. Video emerged of her chasing down one of the survivors of the attack, David Hogg, on Capitol Hill in 2019, yelling at him that she was carrying a gun and pelting him with crackpot accusations as he walks away.
At least for the moment, this is as deranged as it gets in American conspiracy land. Older stories about Area 51 and lizard people seem like quaintly charming fables by comparison. If I were a member of Congress in either party I would be quite worried she would harm me or my colleagues (and many reportedly are). A gun fanatic who is completely out of her gourd should not be allowed in the Capitol building.
Yet so far Greene has received no sanction whatsoever from the Republican House leadership, save for an apparent talking-to from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Nor has Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), another conspiracy theorist who was recently found to be very friendly with members of the Three Percenters, an extremist anti-government militia, and insists on carrying a pistol with her at all times. Both were involved in whipping up the insurrectionist mob before January 6.
There is a similar story going on with Trump's hold over the GOP. After a brief moment when it seemed like Republican elites might turn on him for almost getting them killed, almost all the Senate GOP has found an excuse to vote to acquit him on the impeachment charge passed in the House. The Republican base is returning to his side as well. And while Greene is probably going to skate on all her unhinged Facebook posts, there is a growing Republican movement to censure Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wy.) and kick her out of the leadership for voting to impeach Trump.
A key reason for this is just how far Republicans have already gone. The level of extremism they've accepted, like believing that Barack Obama is a secret Kenyan Muslim, or that Democrats and shadowy voting machine companies stole the 2020 election, creates a huge incentive to produce and believe still more extreme stances, so the party faithful does not have to reckon with steadily more-uncomfortable truths — that a majority of Americans do not agree with them, that their party dogma is deranged, and it is conservatives who have tried to overturn the 2020 election. The moral-political framework espoused by the conservative movement is basically similar to liberals' — that democracy and the Constitution are good, elections should be decided by the voters, and so on — but their actual agenda, imposing their will on the country by whatever means necessary, amounts to violent authoritarianism. Thus they must camouflage these intentions with crackpot justifications, and ideally come to actually believe them. Unlike the Nazis, who were openly against democracy, the Capitol putschists claimed that they were trying to stop Biden and the Democrats from stealing the election.
This explains the instant consensus on parts of the right that the Capitol putsch was actually an antifa conspiracy. New Yorker writer Luke Mogelson, who has been reporting on conservatives for a long time and accompanied the insurrectionists when they stormed the Capitol, saw this firsthand. One rank-and-file conservative called him afterward, wanting to know what had happened. "She was upset — she did not believe that 'Trump people' could have done what the media were alleging," he writes. He spoke with her and others on speakerphone, relating his alarming experience. But soon the woman had soothed her cognitive dissonance with clumsily forged agitprop. "Less than an hour after we got off the phone, the woman texted me a screenshot of a CNN broadcast with a news bulletin that read, 'ANTIFA HAS TAKEN RESPONSIBLITLY FOR STORMING CAPITAL HILL.'" But then on the other hand, a small portion of the Republican base thinks the putsch was actually good.
It would be a mistake to say Republicans are lying about all this. They are more accurately BSing, in the sense meant by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt. Reality is entirely instrumental to the BSer: "His eye is not on the facts at all … except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose." Today, not only do conservatives say whatever is most politically convenient regardless of the truth, they themselves no longer understand that is what they are doing. The very best BSer is someone who can gin up a genuine belief in absolutely anything on cue.
There can be little doubt that had the Capitol putsch ended with multiple members of Congress or even Mike Pence being lynched (as very nearly happened), Republican behavior would not be any different than it is now. They would be quiet for a time while the conservative media desperately searched around for some excuse or misdirection, and once they found one, both base voters and the leadership would dose up on the excuse through Tucker Carlson and photoshopped screenshots on Facebook, and decide everything was fine.
Until the conservative movement pays a real and repeated price for accommodating violent lunacy, it is only going to keep going around in a self-perpetuating cycle of madness. (God help us when someone cruises to power calling Rep. Greene a RINO sellout.) Should they win national power before that happens, that will likely be the end of American democracy. The most common precursor to a successful putsch is an unsuccessful one.