Over the past four years, many members of the Republican Party have gotten extremely good at doing a little dance with extremism. It’s a cute ritual. They flirt with a transgressive policy, make sure it has every possibility of becoming part of our lives, and then publicly express grave concern and disappointment when that policy becomes widespread. The best recent example of this has been the GOP’s reaction to the Jan. 6 insurrection and the Big Lie conspiracy theories that fuel the far-right’s desire to overturn President Biden’s election win.
Politico reported Tuesday morning that Senate Republicans are “furious” with RNC National Chair Ronna McDaniel (who is, if you remember, Mitt Romney’s niece), for her role in enabling the RNC to formally label the Jan. 6 insurrection as “legitimate political discourse,” while censuring Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for serving on the House committee investigating the attack.
The gist of the beef is that internally, GOP leaders think that the focus on Jan. 6 will be detrimental to the party in the midterms. “The focus right now needs to be forward, not backward. If we want to get our majorities in the fall, it’s better to turn our fire on Democrats, not each other,” said Senate Minority Whip and potential Mitch McConnell successor John Thune, according to Politico. Big names lined up to distance themselves from the RNC’s decision — John Cornyn, Lindsey Graham, Rick Scott — it’s not just the Mitt Romenys of the GOP doing their little throat clearing when the national party does something abhorrent.
But the problem is that all of this is so clearly for show. Almost every voice now protesting the RNC’s overreach had no problem playing into Big Lie themes when the Jan. 6 committee was first being debated, or weaponizing skepticism toward the 2020 election results when it suited them.
Look: Here’s John Cornyn first supporting, then opposing a Jan. 6 committee out of fears that Nancy Pelosi would “politicize” the issue (the issue being that supporters of a party’s sitting president tried to stage a coup to keep him in power). McConnell is always a moderating voice in the GOP’s fervent nationalism, but when push came to shove, he led the effort to lock down Senate Republican votes against the commission. Here’s Lindsey Graham decrying the “politicization” of Biden’s speech on anniversary of the attack. Of the aforementioned names, Rick Scott walked the finest line – backing away from the RNC’s “legitimate discourse” classification but respecting the committee’s right to make such a statement. That tracks, as Scott was one of the biggest-name backers of the vote to block Biden’s electoral college win, but then had to temper his position to do his job as head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
This dance is obviously meant to be confusing so that the GOP’s “big tent” can read whatever it likes into their representatives’ actions. If you’re a suburban Connecticut private school Lacrosse Dad Republican, you can nod sagely at party bosses’ condemnation of the RNC’s little overstep and have faith that McConnell and his team will keep a steady hand at the wheel. But if you’re an Orlando-area, house-foreclosure-flipping fascist firebrand Republican, or a conspiracy-obsessed Facebook conservative, you can look at the GOP’s actions to smack down members working with the Democrats, as well as your senators’ disavowal of the Jan. 6 committee as a whole, as indicators that the party isn’t going to give in to the left wing’s Big Lie.
Either way, the people in power cement their power. If voters start to care more about the 2020 election en route to the midterms, McConnell and the party puppet masters will have no problem dialing up the tension. The little dance keeps everyone happy, and makes it so even the stupid infighting that comes from having people like Marjorie Taylor Greene in your party can’t break the group’s grip on power. That’s politics, baby, and the GOP is as good at it as any party we’ve ever seen.