Welcome to the ‘Which’ Trials.
Spasms of devotional fervour last week left Republicans and Democrats in the US Congress accusing, defending and generally freaking out over heretic women in their midst.
This being 2021, talk of witches seems— even for the GOP —a bit medieval. The “which” is not about the Devil but Direction – as in which way will the parties now head in the post-Trump era?
Unlike 1690s Massachusetts, no one’s been hanged in the town square or crushed by stones. But the apocalyptic vibe, with talk of heresy and retribution, is not unlike the mood that engulfed the God-fearing colonists that bleak winter in Salem.
The most colourful alleged sorceress is Marjorie Taylor Greene, a newly minted GOP congresswoman for Georgia.
Ms Greene is/was a far-right follower of QAnon, the wacky right-wing conspiracy grab bag that believes Democrats are led by pedophiles and the Clintons killed JFK Jr.
Her social media history has been dusted like a crime scene, revealing anti-Semitism, harassment of school shooting victims, doubts about 9/11 and the tacit approval of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s assassination.
A Trump acolyte remarkable for her lack of polish or shame, Greene is an easy target, and GOP House Leader Kevin McCarthy found himself under pressure to scold her, thereby demonstrating the party’s return to sanity.
At the same time and from the other direction, Mr McCarthy was confronting calls to censure Liz Cheney, a high-ranking party leader and mainstream Republican, for her scalding criticism of President Trump and his role in the January 6 uprising at the Capitol.
The blasphemous Ms Cheney, daughter of former vice president Dick Cheney, is now facing fury from her Wyoming constituents and almost certainly faces a primary challenge in 2022.
In a dramatic showdown meeting with GOP congressional members last Wednesday night, McCarthy presided over a collective kicking of the can. ms Cheney was re-elected to her party post, while Ms Greene escaped any discipline after a tepid mea culpa over a few of her past positions.
(Unlike another McCarthy, who pioneered “witch hunts” for imagined Communist agents in the 1950s, this McCarthy has no taste for intra-party conflict, even if he risks looking weak or intolerably tolerant.)
For Democrats – who will begin their second impeachment case against Donald Trump this week in the Senate – that should have been enough.
They could keep baiting the GOP to police their members while delighting in the civil war everyone had predicted. With the Republicans split between disciples awaiting Trump’s resurrection and those eager to move on, the GOP is just the kind of wounded animal the Democrats need to prevail early in the Biden presidency.
But unable to stay out of the way while their enemy was self-destructing, House Dems had to get in on the action.
In a move of performative indignation, they voted to strip Greene of her Congressional committee posts, an unprecedented act of hostility by an opposition party.
Greene is odious and an embarrassment to the GOP, and shouldn’t be in Congress. But she is also cartoonish, powerless – and potentially gone in two years.
Training such heavy artillery on a freshman Congress person already in the minority is overkill. And it will surely invite retribution if the Republicans manage to regain the House of Representatives at the midterms in 2024.
Should that happen, one possible GOP target is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 31, of New York, who is to the GOP what Greene is to Democrats. Her brand of savvy progressivism and witty social media polemics has enraged the right – so much so that she was explicitly targeted for execution by some mob members during the January 6 insurrection violence.
Last week, Ms Oscasio-Cortez recounted her terror during those hours, and in the telling revealed her own struggle with sexual abuse. Instead of sympathy – or at least silence – right-wing pundits tried to dispute her account, suggesting she exaggerated her trauma and fibbed about her location.
The GOP would need little prodding to go after the likes of Ms Oscasio-Cortez – depriving New York and Democrats of a voice far more important than Ms Greene’s could ever hope to be from the other side.
Five years of Trump have left both parties over-caffeinated, unable to focus on policy solutions when you can fight about personalities instead.
Democrats missed a good chance to show what’s important, and score political points, by not leaving well enough alone when it comes to Ms Greene and her nuttiness.