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The Very Online House Majority Logs On
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The Very Online House Majority Logs On

Is politics about fan service or persuasion?

Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz discuss a resolution requesting information from the Biden administration on Ukraine funding. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images.)

Yesterday in the sanctum of the Dispatch Slack channel, a colleague flagged this tweet with the comment, “imagine seeing this if you aren’t terminally online.”

A normie voter, even a normie right-winger, would scratch their heads and wonder what it could mean. Was the official House Republican Twitter account praising Joe Biden? “BIG GUY” sounds like they’re calling him an alpha male. In isolation the tweet has an “O Captain, My Captain” vibe.

In context, less so.

Chances are you knew what “BIG GUY” meant when you read the first tweet because, being a devoted political news junkie, you too are terminally online. Or perhaps you’re an avid consumer of populist conservative media, a devotee of what liberals disdainfully describe as the “Fox News Cinematic Universe.” But the average Joe who pays only passing attention to politics was probably mystified.

And since that sort of voter tends to decide elections in our 50/50 country, we’re left with a question. Why is the new House majority tweeting out comparatively esoteric Very Online content the day after its majority was secured instead of sticking to the meat-and-potatoes policy concerns of the voters who elected them?

The GOP owes its control of the House to anxiety about inflation and crime. Unhappiness about Biden’s energy policy and indifference to the border doubtless contributed too. And here they were on what amounts to day one crowing about … Hunter Biden’s laptop.

If they had their hearts set on promoting investigations rather than policy, they had more appetizing choices than Huntergate. Republicans “want to examine the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the origins of COVID-19 and decisions about shutdowns, border policies, the leak of the Dobbs decision draft, and Department of Justice ‘politicization,’ including investigations of parents threatening school boards and the decision to retrieve documents from former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort,” The Morning Dispatch reported. Why not highlight one of those probes instead?

It has to do with persuasion, and the futility thereof.

A basic rule of retail politics after you win is to reward the voters who delivered you to power. The complicating factor for the Trump-era GOP is that it’s two parties under one banner and each party owes its power to a different group. Normie Republicans who won battleground races last week owe theirs to swing voters in the general election, but populist radicals in ruby-red districts like Marjorie Taylor Greene owe theirs to MAGA primary voters.

Because the new Republican House majority is so narrow, its ability to govern depends on keeping the radicals happy and committed to playing nice with the rest of the team.

Erick Erickson calls those radicals “poo flinging monkeys,” I think of them as the Very Online caucus. Whichever term you prefer, the populist wing of the House GOP understands that partisan warfare, not policy, preoccupies the imagination of its fan base, so that’s what they play to. There’ll always be time later to chitchat about how to control the border, but the urgent need to signal resolve in pursuing Hunter Biden and the “BIG GUY” simply can’t wait.

The New York Times went behind the scenes of the inchoate majority a few days ago to see what other important priorities are vexing the Trumpist faction and found them concerned about how the goons who tried to overthrow the government are being treated in jail.

The only results that interest many in the House majority are those that inflict political pain on Mr. Biden and congressional Democrats, as demanded by their MAGA constituents. In a closed-door meeting of Republicans on Monday, right-wing lawmakers including Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia extracted a promise that their leaders would investigate Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Justice Department for their treatment of defendants jailed in connection with the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

The incarceration of the January 6 defendants seems to be the one and only case in which authoritarian populists believe the federal government is too hard on crime. I wouldn’t rule out an official House resolution at some point at the Very Online caucus’ behest proposing that the Congressional Gold Medal be awarded to Ashli Babbitt posthumously.

And maybe to this guy too?

Kyle Rittenhouse was in town to meet with members of the House GOP’s Second Amendment Caucus, a guest of honor because he lived the dream of killing left-wing rioters and getting off scot-free in court. Later he posed for a photo in front of the Capitol and captioned it “T-minus 5 years until I call this place my office?” There’s no doubt his claim to fame would win him a seat in Congress in a red district if he were of age constitutionally, probably by a landslide. And no doubt which wing of the House GOP conference he’d join if he did. 

In fairness, the Very Online caucus did touch on policy yesterday. Greene, its unofficial leader, continued her crusade to help Vladimir Putin win the war by pressing her argument that it’s time to defund Ukraine.

At last check, 73 percent of Americans supported continuing to help Zelensky’s forces despite Russian threats of using nuclear weapons. The MAGA wing is picking a fight with a supermajority of voters. On day one.

Erickson watched all of it aghast, particularly the press conference held by Jim Jordan and James Comer about their looming Hunter Biden investigation.

What a bunch of idiots. The American people just rejected the GOP “own the libs” strategy. They signaled they’d love to have responsible adult Republicans in charge. In fact, from NEW YORK STATE !!!! to Arizona, voters elected Republicans who ran on local issues tied to the economy and crime.

All of you mad at me for ridiculing this already love this and if they did not do this, you’d still vote for them. There’s not a single damn independent voter in America who is going to look at this and think, “Oh my gosh, I so regret voting Democrat in November.” In fact, most independent voters think both parties are already corrupt and play the system to their advantage. In 2016, Donald Trump pointed it all out and voters loved him for it. This is just more of that and won’t accomplish anything.

A few days ago Morning Consult polled Americans on which issues they thought should be a top priority for the new Congress. Fentanyl trafficking topped the list with 57 percent. Next came the border crisis, the infant formula shortage, the misuse of COVID relief money, the effect of COVID lockdowns, and Homeland Security’s disinformation board. Only then did investigating Hunter Biden’s finances register, tied at 28 percent with impeaching Joe Biden—less than half the share that wants action on fentanyl.

Impeaching Biden scored much higher with Republicans, though, at 55 percent. Investigating Hunter was right behind at 52. By prioritizing as they did, Jordan, Comer, and the Very Online caucus were merely heeding the wishes of their Very Online base within the GOP.

The cherry on the sundae is the growing possibility that speaker-in-waiting Kevin McCarthy will explode on the launch pad as he prepares to take the gavel. When Mitch McConnell was asked recently why the party underperformed in the midterms, he said he thought swing voters believed Republicans “were spending too much time on negativity and attacks and chaos.” If so, a smooth transition in the House might go a long way toward signaling that the era of chaos is over. Instead, as of Friday morning, there were already three and possibly four members of the Very Online caucus poised to block McCarthy’s speaker bid in January, placing him on the brink of a humiliating failure that would leave the caucus in leaderless disarray.

That’s not an outcome that will reassure swing voters that they’re in good hands with the party to whom they just handed power. But it will please Very Online populists, who spend their days gorging on invective against weaselly holdovers from the pre-Trump establishment like McCarthy. Seeing Matt Gaetz toss him out a window politically would gratify them as a flex, proving that MAGA has the muscle to impose its will on the new majority.

It would gratify me too, frankly. McCarthy deserves to have his dream cruelly snatched away from him just as it’s finally within reach as his reward for accommodating himself to these cretins. He thought he could ride the Leopards Eating People’s Faces Party to power. It’s high time he was on the business end of how that party operates.

He’s Ellis from Die Hard, basically. Hans Gruber will deal with him appropriately when the time comes.

Anyway, watching the Very Online caucus respond to a reckoning at the polls by plowing ahead with their hobby horses anyway seems irrational if you believe, as Erickson seems to, that politics is still about persuasion.

But what if politics now is mostly just fan service for one’s base paired with the hope that swing voters will find the other party a tiny bit more off-putting than they find yours?

It’s not just Republicans who are prone to fan service.

A few days ago Yuval Levin argued that Democrats had lost the midterms too, notwithstanding their overperformance. Both parties need to change course, he allowed, but the course correction for Republicans is relatively simple. Just ditch Trump and steer away from Very Online populism.

The task for Democrats is no less obvious but it’s harder, and they’ve been conspicuously reluctant to undertake it. “Democrats are generally farther from the median voter than they were a decade ago, particularly on cultural issues, education, crime and immigration,” Levin wrote. “The party increasingly represents an unpopular cultural elite, and the agenda required to hold its coalition together makes for poor general-election strategy in many places.” The fact that a GOP led by Trump and saddled with high-profile loons like Greene remains competitive enough to wrest control of the House from their party should be a red alert to the left to make adjustments before the right makes them first.

Instead, asked last week what he’ll do differently going forward, a cheery Joe Biden replied, “Nothing.” Democratic voters were happy enough with the way things are going to have held the Senate and nearly held the House, weren’t they? Why would Biden disappoint his fans by doing something different with the rest of his term?

That’s not to suggest that the two parties are equivalent, though. Republicans are especially prone to fan service in the age of Trump.

Partly it’s because they lack the sort of affirmative policy agenda that Democrats have successfully enacted—or dictated—over the last two years. That policy vacuum has to be filled with something, but lingering divisions between classically liberal conservatives and MAGA nationalists have left the broader right unable to settle on a coherent philosophy. The biggest legislative achievement of the populist Trump presidency was a Ryan/McConnell tax cut for the rich, remember.

If you can’t offer your voters policies that you’re sure most of them will like, you can offer them lib-owning grandstanding about Hunter Biden’s laptop at least.

There are structural reasons too for the drift from persuasion toward fan service. The Internet lets voters sequester themselves within partisan media tailor-made to affirm their beliefs. As their worldviews become more totalizing, that influence drifts upward toward their political leaders. The internet also makes it easy for those totalized voters to donate to campaigns, giving those political leaders an additional financial incentive to pander to them nonstop about their hobby horses.

The ubiquity of political media in 2022 also selects for, and elevates, skilled performance artists within the political class. Marjorie Taylor Greene is still a freshman member of Congress. Matt Gaetz has all of six years in the chamber. Twenty years ago they’d be nobodies in the House, backbenchers from red districts whom no one ever heard of and who could be safely ignored by Kevin McCarthy. Now they have national constituencies as regulars on Newsmax, Steve Bannon’s podcast, and less savory populist media. That’s given Gaetz enough political security to openly oppose McCarthy’s elevation as speaker. What can McCarthy do to punish him, realistically?

Gerrymandering and geographical self-sorting by the electorate make matters worse. The fewer battleground districts there are, the fewer members there are who need to care what voters from the other party think. For legislators like Gaetz and Greene, reelection is purely a matter of surviving a primary. And populist Republican incumbents are almost never successfully primaried from the left by center-right candidates, giving those incumbents every reason to tack further and further right. More safe seats in the House means more fan service and less persuasion, on both sides. Americans don’t seem to care.

There’s also the small matter of the Republican Party being led by a politician who’s Very Online himself and who practices a politics of dominance, not compromise. Trump doesn’t just condone primary challenges to Republicans who’ve crossed him, he participates in them. He and the party he’s remade in his image believe the key to victory is mobilizing their base against their enemies on the left (and right) and counting on organic dissatisfaction with the Democrats to deliver swing voters. That calls for extreme amounts of fan service, lib-owning at full tilt. 

Trump is so widely disliked by the rest of the electorate that trying to persuade swing voters to support his party while he remains in charge is probably impossible for Republicans. But even if he were more popular, the logic of Trumpism would still point toward fan service. It views the culture war as a matter of national life or death, and in war you don’t aim to persuade. You aim to conquer, by demonizing and ultimately crushing your enemy.

There’s one more structural pressure that incentivizes fan service, and it’s a paradox. Namely, we live in a 50/50 country where elections have been closely run for years.

That’s a paradox because one might think the case for persuasion is never stronger than when peeling off just a few points from the other side might mean total control of government. Play to the middle! In reality, though, the ongoing stalemate makes both parties risk-averse and paranoid about disappointing their bases, knowing that a small dip in turnout among otherwise reliable voters could be catastrophic. Persuasion is something you do when you have to, because you’re losing national elections by 10 points and see no path to victory going forward unless you change your ways and meet centrists where they are.

Fan service is what you do when each new election is a coin flip that can potentially be decided by turning out a few more of your own voters than the other party turns out of theirs.

The 50/50 dynamic also means that Democrats and Republicans are in a rush to ram through big, often unpopular legislation whenever they’re fortunate enough to control the government. It’s been almost 20 years since either party held the White House and both chambers of Congress for more than a two-year stretch. So if you find yourself with that trifecta, the smart move is to do as much as you can to pass major bills as quickly as you can and accept your beating in the next election as the cost of doing government business.

Biden was criticized often before the midterms for trying to govern like FDR despite enjoying only the narrowest majorities in the House and Senate. Theoretically the moment called for a go-slow approach focused on persuading swing voters to expand Democratic power in the midterms so that they could then begin to enact their agenda in earnest, with a mandate. Instead Biden went full fan service, spending months trying to pass Build Back Better and ultimately delivering student debt forgiveness via royal decree. Given the reality of a permanent 50/50 country, that was unfortunately the rational play. Get as much as you can when you can because you’re apt to lose power anyway before you know it.

So, you tell me: In light of all that, what’s the rational move for Jim Jordan and the Very Online caucus? They could blow off the Very Online populist right by putting Hunter Biden on the backburner and pivoting to the fentanyl crisis, but that’s risky business. The number of disappointed MAGA voters who are starving for partisan warfare may well exceed the number of swing voters who are willing to switch their votes from D to R to reward the GOP for prioritizing correctly. The safer bet is to do what Jordan did and fling poo. It won’t persuade anyone who isn’t already sold on the GOP, but it’ll keep the donations, the Fox News hits, and the base turnout coming.

Who cares if the walls of the House are left covered in poo when it’s all over?

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.