One of the biggest ongoing issues I face as an adult from growing up in sheltered, fundamentalist Christian circles is how much I take for granted that the rest of the world knows about extremism. Things that seemed perfectly normal to me as a child elicit shocked reactions from others when I talk about them.
It occurred to me today that Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert don’t surprise me — at all. Right now, it sure seems like there is a large swath of Americans, both conservative and liberal, that are shocked that people who embrace their kind of ideology and attitude could make it into the halls of Congress. Maybe they blame it on Trumpism or the recent worldwide rise of populism, but I know better. I can tell you with complete confidence that the rise of more and more voices like Boebert and Greene has been ascendant on the Right for a very long time, at least as long as my lifetime.
I know because I grew up with them.
I grew up in a world where leaders like Bob Dole and John McCain were routinely derided because they weren’t conservative enough. I grew up where voices like James Dobson, Phyllis Schlafly, and Jerry Falwell were on the family radio almost every day, and they seemed to be the reasonable ones. We weren’t so much the Fox News and Rush Limbaugh family — that was my more “liberal” Lutheran cousins — my parents and community were the ones that voted or strongly considered voting for people like Howard Phillips and the Constitution party because of how “liberal” the GOP had become.
And it wasn’t just my family. It was a whole loose movement of people consisting of everything from Mennonites to Quiverfull families to Pentecostal to conservative holiness to home churching groups to Independent Fundamentalist Baptists, groups that had very little in common besides their shared commitment to Separatism, and were joined in their political outlook by the belief that the GOP had gone far too mainstream.
Of course, these conversations would inevitably spiral into the “wasted vote” conversation. Only the most diehard idealists (like my mom) would end up voting for the Pat Buchanans, Alan Keyes’, or Howard Phillips’ of the political world. Most of them (like my dad) would inevitably cast their vote for the “lesser of two evils.” But make no mistake — the difficulty was never in choosing between an evil Democrat and a less evil Republican, as if the ideal candidate would have been somewhere in the middle — I think this is what most people mean when they use this phrase, though I can’t be sure. The dilemma for people in my circle was that the Democratic candidate was so evil that you might as well be voting for Satan, and the Republican candidate was simply far too liberal.
There is a whole fringe movement on the edges of conservative politics that has been alive and well for decades. My earliest memories are from the elections in the 1990s, but I know now from study of history that the loonies invaded the GOP long before then. Traditional, moderate Republican politics held on in the form of Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, but only barely, and even these leaders couldn’t help but pander hard to where they knew the energy of the base was — in the far right, and even so, they couldn’t win re-election.
Voices like Bob Dole and John McCain prevailed in the GOP primaries, but they never stood a chance in the general election. It’s why they picked running mates like Jack Kemp and Sarah Palin. Those were the kinds of voices that could appeal to the extremist wing of the party, people like the folks I went to church with. And you’d better believe that over the years, that energy has won a lot of seats in the House of Representatives and even the Senate, even while more moderate voices (mostly) won out in the presidential primaries (up until 2016, of course).
I grew up with the kinds of folks who stocked pantries for the end of the world and massive Christian persecution that would happen in Y2K, that obsessed about being persecuted every time the ACLU or the Clinton administration made the smallest move against any faith-based organization. Preachers that openly advocated beating your children until they could not cry anymore, or advised parents to slap an infant’s hand when reaching for something forbidden (intentionally placed there by the parent) as methods of discipline. Newspapers advocating for a return to the gold standard, or constant surmising about which global leaders were in the Illuminati, or which political names added up in some way to the number “666,” or fulfilled some other “prophecy” in the Bible that would lead us to the end of the world. QAnon and birther conspiracy theories are just the first ones that finally made it to the national stage for the whole world to take notice. This kind of rhetoric has circulated for years in conservative circles.
And I wish I could say this kind of rhetoric was confined only to the extreme circles I grew up in. But the more time I spent in more “mainstream” evangelical circles in my college and young adult years, the more I realized that this common energy ran through most conservative circles. Mitt Romney, Bob Dole, and Gerald Ford have never been the center of the Republican Party, not for a long time. The energy going back all the way to at least Eisenhower has always been in the extremist, racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, anti-socialist wing of the conservative movement, evidenced even way back then by Ike’s pick of virulently anti-Communist, racist and anti-Semite Richard Nixon as his running mate.
And that’s why Republicans cannot be permitted to hold power in our country ever again. They have showed their hand in no uncertain terms with Trump and now Hawley, Cruz, Cotton, Steve King, and most recently, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert.
No, Reps. Greene and Boebert are not some surprise out of nowhere, or an accidental quirk of our democracy. They are the folk heroes of the Republican Party, and establishment Republicans are only just starting to wake up and realize it.