MARJORIE TAYLOR GREENE, a first-term Republican congresswoman from north-west Georgia, was in high spirits. She was celebrating her 47th birthday at an America First rally in her district, on the third stop of a roadshow through Republican heartlands with Matt Gaetz, an equally Trumpy congressman from Florida best known for his check suits, 1950s quiff and burgeoning sex scandal. “This is the best birthday I could have had,” she beamed from the stage—and the crowd loved her back. Linda Arnold, a 67-year-old who had travelled up from Atlanta, approvingly called Ms Greene “a fire-breather”.
All the elements of a MAGA rally were there: red hats, American flag T-shirts, not a mask in sight. “This is the Donald Trump Republican Party,” Mr Gaetz roared. He is not wrong. A majority of Republican voters believe that Joe Biden stole the election from Mr Trump. And one day after the rally, Senate Republicans blocked the creation of a bipartisan commission to investigate the storming of the Capitol on January 6th by disaffected Trump supporters. Political parties tend to slough off losers, but Mr Trump retains a firm grip over Republicans. Were he to run for president again, he might well win. But he is 74 years old and embroiled in legal trouble, including a criminal investigation in New York. Mr Gaetz and Ms Greene are positioning themselves to be the inheritors of his base.
Both have followed Mr Trump’s recipe for political success. They are light on substantive policy proposals, heavy on theatrics and outrage. Even fellow Republicans have scorned some of Ms Greene’s antics, such as the equivalence she drew between making congressmen wear masks and forcing Jews to wear yellow stars in 1930s Germany, and her suggestion that a laser beam controlled by a corporate cabal that includes the Rothschild family caused the California wildfires.
But she has put herself on a permanent campaign footing since being sworn into office five months ago. Her taunts, provocative behaviour and QAnon kookery have already made her one of the best-known names in American politics, and she has proven a skilled fundraiser. In the first quarter of this year she raised $3.2m—more than any other House Republican—mostly from small donors paying an average of $32.
The America First tour is adding to her coffers, and those of Mr Gaetz. Five hundred people turned up to hear the pair speak, with VIP guests paying $100 to meet them. The custodian of their joint fundraising committee is Rick Thompson, who runs RTA Strategy, a Georgia-based consultancy with the slogan “You don’t know what you can get away with until you try.”
In Dalton, a camera crew was on hand to record the night’s events, which included Ms Greene asking the crowd, “Do you think the election was stolen?”, and the crowd whooping its agreement. “It is about raising money, but there are secondary benefits,” says Tom Edmonds, a Republican consultant in Washington. “It’s a very Trumpish thing to do, and they will cut the film into a commercial and make 500 people look like 5,000.”
The pumped-up audience was only too willing to boost the cause. “I’m going to send them $50 each when I get home,” said Ms Arnold. “A lot of people think that we are cultish. That we follow one man. They are wrong. I love Donald Trump, but we follow his policies.”
And indeed, both Mr Gaetz and Ms Greene talked about immigrants swarming the southern border, jobs lost because of Joe Biden’s stimulus package and unfair trade deals—all greatest hits from the Trump songbook, though precisely what they want to do about any of them remains unclear. “America First policies are the only way to save America and stop socialism,”Ms Greene insisted. “It’s our job to do it. It is our generation’s turn.”
This sort of red meat thrilled attendees—but inspiring a crowd of 500 while turning off hundreds of thousands does not a victory make. As Ms Greene and Mr Gaetz held the stage in Dalton, Paul Ryan, a Republican former House speaker and the party’s vice-presidential candidate in 2012, soberly addressed guests at the Reagan Library in California. “If the conservative cause depends on the populist appeal of one personality, or on second-rate imitations, then we’re not going anywhere. Voters looking for Republican leaders want to see independence and mettle,” he warned. “They will not be impressed by the sight of yes-men and flatterers flocking to Mar-a-Lago.”
Mr Gaetz derided Mr Ryan’s comments (although his own visits to Mr Trump’s Florida resort have dried up while he is under investigation for paying a 17-year-old for sex—an allegation he denies). “Taking advice on party-building from Paul Ryan would be like taking advice on how to interact with your in-laws from Meghan Markle,” he said. Ms Greene has also defied current party leaders, suggesting that Kevin McCarthy, the top House Republican, should not have condemned her remarks comparing mask mandates to Nazi-era Jewish-star laws (which he waited days to do).
Yet whether the pair can be more than attention-grabbing irritants remains to be seen. On one hand, Mr Trump’s unlikely rise in 2016 cautions against quickly dismissing their political prospects. But that lesson may be overlearned. Mr Trump was already a celebrity when he entered politics; indeed, much of his hold over his base may stem from the appeal of a famous person pandering to those who feel overlooked. Mr Gaetz and Ms Greene can mimic Mr Trump’s style all they like, but they will never have his star power, which he cultivated for decades before running for office.
And Mr Gaetz’s legal troubles may imperil his future. Joel Greenberg, his former “wingman”, has pled guilty to several charges, including sex-trafficking of a minor. He is reportedly co-operating with federal investigators. Mr Gaetz’s Republican colleagues have not exactly rushed to his defence. Ms Greene also has few defenders; perhaps one reason she and Mr Gaetz are headlining their tour together is that nobody else wants to appear with them.
But because personal fealty to Mr Trump, and his lies about the election being stolen, is now the core tenet of Republicanism, party leaders cannot easily bring them to heel. To condemn them is to invite the wrath of Mr Trump and his base. They are, after all, among the most vociferous practitioners of Trumpism, in that they anger liberals, stoke grievances and want power. That is probably not enough to win a general election, and, as 2022 and 2024 draw nearer, they may find themselves shunted to the side by equally ambitious but savvier Republicans.