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Opinion | Marjorie Taylor Greene Is Not as Powerful as She Thinks She Is

BusinessOpinion | Marjorie Taylor Greene Is Not as Powerful as She Thinks She Is

In an interview last week, NewsNation’s Blake Burman asked Speaker Mike Johnson about Marjorie Taylor Greene, and before Burman could finish his question, Johnson responded with classic Southern scorn. “Bless her heart,” he said, and then he told Burman that Greene wasn’t proving to be a serious lawmaker and that he didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about her.

Strangely enough, Johnson’s dismissal of Greene — on the eve of her potential effort to oust him from the office he won in October — spoke as loudly as his decision to put a vote for Ukraine aid on the floor in the first place. In spite of the Republican Party’s narrow majority in the House and the constant threat of a motion to vacate the chair, he will not let MAGA’s most extreme lawmaker run the place.

To understand the significance of this moment, it’s necessary to understand the changing culture of the MAGAfied Republican Party. After eight years of Donald Trump’s dominance, we know the fate of any Republican politician who directly challenges him — the confrontation typically ends his or her political career in the most miserable way possible, with dissenters chased out of office amid a hail of threats and insults. Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney are but a few of the many Republicans who dared to defy Trump and paid a high political price.

But there’s an open question: Does the MAGA movement have the same control over the Republican Party when Trump isn’t directly in the fray? Can it use the same tactics to impose party discipline and end political careers? If the likes of Greene or Steve Bannon or Matt Gaetz or Charlie Kirk can wield the same power, then the transformation of the party will be complete. It won’t be simply in thrall to Trump; it will be in thrall to his imitators and heirs and perhaps lost to the reactionary right for a generation or more.

I don’t want to overstate the case, but Johnson’s stand — together with the Democrats’ response — gives me hope. Consider the chain of events. On April 12, Johnson appeared at Mar-a-Lago and received enough of a blessing from Trump to make it clear that Trump didn’t want him removed. Days before a vote on Ukraine aid that directly defied the MAGA movement, Trump said Johnson was doing a “very good job.”

Days later, Johnson got aid to Ukraine passed with more Democratic votes than Republican — a violation of the so-called Hastert Rule, an informal practice that says the speaker shouldn’t bring a vote unless the measure is supported by a majority within his own party. Greene and the rest of MAGA exploded, especially when Democratic lawmakers waved Ukrainian flags on the House floor. Greene vowed to force a vote on her motion to end Johnson’s speakership. She filed the motion in March as a “warning” to Johnson, and now she’s following through — directly testing her ability to transform the House.

But what happened after the Ukraine vote was truly fascinating. First, Republicans who voted for Ukraine aid found their actual constituents were generally fine with the vote. Many supported Ukraine. There was little to no backlash back home.

Second, Democrats came to Johnson’s aid. Last Tuesday, the top three Democrats in the House — Hakeem Jeffries, Katherine Clark and Pete Aguilar — issued a statement supporting Johnson and opposing Greene’s motion to vacate. “If she invokes the motion,” they said, “it will not succeed.”

Next, the Republican Party’s human weather vane, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, blasted Greene in an interview with RealClearPolitics’s Phil Wegmann, telling him that “what’s she’s doing is really unhelpful to the country.” Of course, Cruz will pivot on a dime if Trump turns on Johnson, but at the moment the power dynamic is clear, and MAGA without Trump is much more bark than bite.

In fact, if you take a step back and look at Biden’s term so far, one can see the outlines of healthy government — at least so long as Trump stays out of the fray. There is a rough governing consensus on a number of fronts. In 2021, for example, Congress passed a bipartisan infrastructure bill. In December 2022, it passed the Respect for Marriage Act, a bipartisan compromise bill that protects both gay marriage and religious liberty, and that same month it passed bipartisan reforms to the Electoral Count Act that will make it much more difficult for a losing candidate to sow chaos after a presidential election.

Combine those measures with the immensely important foreign aid package passed last month, and you can see the outlines of a functioning Congress, one in which compromise and persuasion are still tools of the trade.

But that infuriates MAGA, which scorns compromise and persuasion as weakness. It derides bipartisan legislation as a product of a corrupt Washington “uniparty.” And so Greene is pushing ahead with her motion to vacate. If Johnson survives the vote with Democratic support, she’ll label him the “Democrat speaker” and continue her relentless political guerrilla war.

It has been nine years since Trump came down the escalator, and since that time MAGA has become a movement that hopes to outlive Trump himself. It’s systematically dismantling the old G.O.P. and attempting to recreate the party in its own image. But it has never been clear to me that MAGA can survive without Trump, and Johnson’s battle with Greene tells us why.

To paraphrase Senator Lloyd Bentsen’s devastating takedown of Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice-presidential debate, we know Donald Trump. He’s been a megawatt celebrity for more than four decades. He built an entire brand around the false notion that he was one of the world’s greatest businessmen. He has an uncanny ability to reach his core audience. And you, Representative Greene, are no Donald Trump.

Neither is the rest of MAGA. The clown car collection of MAGA personalities who orbit Trump is often both profoundly weird and remarkably inept. They suffered a collective humiliation in the 2022 midterm elections. Mainstream Republicans coasted to victory in key elections in Georgia, Ohio and Florida, while the election-denying MAGA conspiracy theorists suffered a string of losses in battleground states.

The scandals and conspiracies that don’t seem to touch Trump at all can still bring down other Republicans, including the MAGA candidates who hug Trump the hardest. It turns out that the vaunted ideological change of the Republican Party from Reaganite conservatism to America First and working-class populism may well be overblown.

This makes the 2024 election all the more crucial. If Trump wins, MAGA has four more years to consolidate its hold on the Republican Party and transform the conservative movement from the inside out. But if Trump loses, the battle is joined once again.

And if the mismatch between Speaker Johnson and Greene is any indication, I would not presume that MAGA will win the day.

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