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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
David Smith in Rome, Georgia

Marjorie Taylor Greene: can Democrats unseat the far-right extremist?

Representative Marjorie Taylor Green addresses the crowd before former President Donald Trump.
A longshot Democratic candidate is trying to unseat Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene in a deep red district in Georgia. Composite: Guardian Design/EPA

In cowboy hat and square-toed boots, Marcus Flowers steps on to another porch, knocks on another front door and introduces himself as the Democrat trying to unseat Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene. But Chip Freeman will take some persuading. He usually votes Republican and admires Greene’s “backbone”.

“She puts her foot down and stands on a situation,” says Freeman, 51, a self-employed delivery man and handyman in suburban Rome, Georgia. “Not backbone because she’s accomplished anything but backbone because she’ll stand up face to face with people.”

Flowers understands but is not ready to give up. “I’m not one that pulls punches either,” he says. “I’ll talk about what’s important. I’m standing on principle as well. The principle that we are a community and we’re better than the vision of those who have us be divided. There’s no us, and them, there’s only we here.”

Democratic candidate Marcus Flowers (left) making his pitch to voter Chip Freeman (right) in Rome, Georgia.
Democratic candidate Marcus Flowers, left, making his pitch to voter Chip Freeman, right, in Rome, Georgia. Photograph: David Smith/The Guardian

Freeman takes the candidate’s campaign leaflet and promises to read it. It is a micro victory for Flowers, a 47-year-old African American who, door by door, vote by vote, is attempting to turn back a tide that swept Georgia’s 14th congressional district two years ago.

There is no better example of the rise of far-right conspiracy theory politics in the US than Greene, a provocateur who has made racist, antisemitic and Islamophobic statements, signalled support for political violence – including the execution of Democrats – and promoted bizarre claims. One of them is that a Jewish-controlled space laser started a California wildfire.

Despite it all, Greene, 48, looks set to retain her north-western Georgia seat in the House of Representatives against Flowers next month. Her ascent here illustrates the Republican party’s drift to the right, the tendency of primary elections to reward the loudest, wealthiest and Trumpiest candidate and what happens when good men and women do nothing.

The 14th district sprawls across 11 counties and is mostly blue-collar. Three in four people are white and three in four voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election. Trump signs and Confederate flags can be spotted in rural areas. Despite a wild start to her career in the House of Representatives that saw her ejected from committees for spreading ugly conspiracy theories, many Republicans here intend to stick with Greene.

Cookie Wozniak, 77, said: “She’s a fighter. I believe in her, I have a lot of respect for her. She’s a real bulldog and a true patriot. I worry about our country being so divisive and they’re using the race card on everything. People want to destroy our history.”

Carla McFarland, 65, an air force veteran and retired nurse practitioner, added: I have always been impressed from the first that I heard she was running. Nothing has changed my core belief in not only Marjorie Taylor Greene but the Maga [Make America great again] America First thought process.”

Carla McFarland (left) and Cookie Wozniak (right) standing in front of a US flag in Rome, Georgia.
Carla McFarland, left, and Cookie Wozniak, right, standing in front of a US flag in Rome, Georgia. Photograph: David Smith/The Guardian

The district’s biggest city, Rome (population 36,000), was founded in 1834 in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains and named after the Italian capital because it was also built on seven hills. The city played its part for the slave-owning south in the civil war; last year a statue of the Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest was removed to a local museum that still uses the outdated term “war between the states”.

Rome has a pretty main street with Italian, Mexican, sushi and Thai restaurants, baby clothing boutiques, wine bars and a cinema built in 1929 to show the talkies. It is reminiscent of main streets all over small-town America – an ominous sign that what happened here can happen anywhere.

The street also features a Republican campaign office in a former furniture shop. A sign in the window says: “Flood the polls! Marjorie Taylor Greene. Save America, stop communism!”

But Rome did not produce Greene. She grew up near Atlanta and planned to run for election in the 6th congressional district in Atlanta’s northern suburbs, where her chances would have been slim. When Republican congressman Tom Graves suddenly announced his retirement, however, she switched to the ruby red 14th district in what critics saw as carpetbagging.

Vehicles pass through an intersection in downtown Rome, one of the two largest towns in Georgia’s 14th congressional district.
Vehicles pass through an intersection in downtown Rome, one of the two largest towns in Georgia’s 14th congressional district. Photograph: Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters

For local party officials and voters, there should have warning signs flashing red. In 2017, Greene had posted a video praising the QAnon conspiracy movement, which baselessly asserts that Democrats are a cabal of Satan worshippers who traffic children for sex (last year she expressed regret and sought to distance herself from QAnon).

A year later, in another video, she asserted that President Barack Obama was Muslim, suggested that the September 11, 2001 terror attacks were a hoax and sought to blame Hillary Clinton for the death of John F Kennedy Jr in a 1999 plane crash.

Yet in a crowded Republican primary in which she was the only woman, Greene stood out and gained the most votes. She brought “all the authority, anger and everything of a metro Atlanta soccer mom”, recalled one local political observer, who did not wish to be named.

Having become wealthy from a construction business and CrossFit gym, she was also able to outspend her rivals. Flowers, her Democratic challenger this time, recalled: “She ran against a field of guys who hadn’t really raised any money and couldn’t do the same things she was doing: just blanket the airwaves, put out a lot of mail. So I look at it as she bought the primary.”

There was one more chance for Republicans to stop her. Greene faced a runoff against John Cowan, a neurosurgeon. While a handful of party leaders and conservative groups intervened to endorse Cowan, many remained neutral. Greene earned national support from members of the rightwing House Freedom Caucus, including congressman Jim Jordan, the group’s founder.

Wendy Davis, 57, a political consultant and two-term city commissioner, said: “The runoff was basically who loves Trump more? Although the media and some people had dug into this QAnon mess that she was a part of, none of the other Republicans made that an issue in their primary. Nobody had said, ‘She’s a little out there.’ Nobody had said, ‘What do you mean September 11 was a fake inside job?’

“Nobody challenged her on that and so she was able to win. If you’ve got eight people saying the same thing, who are you going to pick? You’re going to pick the person who says what you feel like is most authentically. She was very believable. Like I sleep with my dog, I think she sleeps with her gun. She gives you this feeling that gun is very important to her.”

Greene won the runoff then beat her Democratic opponent, IT specialist Kevin Van Ausdal, who stopped campaigning early for “personal and family reasons”, by nearly 50 percentage points in the general election. In short, Davis contends, Greene represents the 14th district because of arbitrary circumstance rather than an abrupt outbreak of mass delusion among the electorate.

“How we get here wasn’t because everybody around here went QAnon cuckoo. We got here because she loved Trump, she loved guns, she hated socialism, she hated abortion and that won that primary and it’s a Republican district.

Local Republican officials here are said to be privately dismayed by Greene’s antics since she took her seat in Congress, which have included calling for Joe Biden’s impeachment and prison visits to rioters arrested after the January 6 insurrection. Mirroring their national counterparts’ deference to Trump, however, they mostly remain silent in public.

As for the people, some turn a blind eye or take little interest in politics. Others are appalled by Greene’s conduct and want to be rid of her.

Julie Svardh, 49, an insurance agent, said: “I’m embarrassed to be from her district. She’s a national laughingstock. The things that she says, she doesn’t know basic words. She couples off with the worst people in Washington and is very annoying. She’s not bright and she’s a bully. She’s definitely not somebody you want representing where you live.”

How did Greene get elected in the first place? Svardh replied: “People blindly supported Trump in this area and so anyone who supported that person just got lumped in. People didn’t read a lot or really look at the details and see what people stand for.

Like many districts all over the country, a significant chunk of voters here consume a diet of Fox News, the conservative cable network, and social media where conspiracy theories such as QAnon thrive. The daily Rome News-Tribune newspaper, which covers Floyd county, a market of about 100,000 people, now has about 7,000 print and 2,000 digital subscribers – a steep decline from its heyday.

John Bailey, 49, its executive editor, shares Davis’s view that the district did not become a hotbed of extremism overnight. “Do you have that? Yes. Is that the minority? I think so. Do you have reasonable people who don’t consume good information? A lot. I’m not saying these are dumb people, I’m just saying their information consumption is habitually bad.

“I have friends who are intelligent people but their information consumption habits have been bad for a long time. They don’t intelligently consume media. Top that on decades of ‘those politicians don’t care about us’, top that on ‘the media is looking for an angle’.”

A woman walks near an American flag made of lights on a bridge in Rome, Georgia.
A woman walks near an American flag made of lights on a bridge in Rome, Georgia. Photograph: Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters

Like Trump, Greene taps into white grievance, anger among the “left behind” and desire for an outsider to “drain the swamp” of Washington. Her lack of polish and frequent gaffes – in February she referred to “gazpacho police” when she meant “Gestapo” – merely add to supporters’ perception that she is “one of them” rather than a manufactured politician.

Bailey added: “They’re very forgiving of gaffes and other things that they may not like because this person kind of speaks for them. The problem that you’re dealing with is rooted in apathy and rooted in this feeling of not being connected or not being important or not being represented.”

Like Trump, Greene exploits a social media ecosystem in which outrageous behaviour aimed at “owning the libs” is rewarded, and breaking taboos offers her followers a vicarious thrill of transgression. This has enabled her to build a national profile and raise money way beyond what a freshman member of Congress could have managed in the pre-digital era. In a recent campaign ad, she is seen flying in a helicopter and shooting a wild hog in Texas while comparing the animals’ destruction of farmers’ crops to Democrats’ destructive policies.

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor defeated five Republican challengers in May’s primary in her bid for a second term in Georgia’s 14th congressional district.
Marjorie Taylor Greene defeated five Republican challengers in May’s primary in her bid for a second term in Georgia’s 14th congressional district. Photograph: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

Peter Montgomery, a senior fellow at the non-profit group Right Wing Watch, said via email: “In the social media age, someone like Marjorie Taylor Greene can become a folk hero to, and raise money from, extremists from around the country. So she has a national constituency, not just a local one.”

Greene remains a prominent Republican figure on Capitol Hill. When Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, last month unveiled a “Commitment to America” policy agenda at an event near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, she could be seen sitting beyond his shoulder in the audience.

It was a clue that Greene, Lauren Boebert of Colorado, Matt Gaetz of Florida and Paul Gosar of Arizona, all of whom would have been extreme fringe figures in the old Republican party, now find its centre of gravity moving towards them and could wield huge influence over McCarthy if he becomes House speaker. In a sense, they are all Trump’s children.

Tara Setmayer, a senior adviser to the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump group, said: “It’s clear that there is a large contingent of voters in places like Georgia who have felt ignored for a long time, who may have had political views that were not considered mainstream, that were now given a voice because of the extremist and unconventional viewpoints of Donald Trump.

“He’s emboldened the underbelly of American politics. We cannot underestimate what the QAnon election-denying, rightwing extremist, white Christian nationalist wing of the Republican party has become and how many people subscribe to this. We should be very alarmed because what they stand for is antithetical to our constitutional and democratic norms and institutions.”

Congressional Candidate Marcus Flowers (D-GA) attends The Democratic Party of Georgia’s State Convention in Columbus, Georgia, U.S., August 27, 2022.
Marcus Flowers is the Democratic challenger in Georgia’s 14th district. Photograph: Reuters

Back on the campaign trail last week, Flowers, an army veteran and defence contractor who decided to run for office after the January 6 insurrection, was beating the streets of suburban Rome. Running against Greene has ensured a fundraising windfall of $10.8m from Democratic donors across the country who are disturbed by her rise. Even then, he remains a very long shot.

He still has faith in the people of the 14th district: “I get why people think, ‘They voted her in office and that’s got to be who they are.’ Why wouldn’t people think that? We did send her to Congress. That ain’t who we are. People were misled, misinformed.

“The way she ran that campaign and didn’t have any pushback because no one else could afford to do the same things she did led some people to vote for her. A lot of those people come to me now and say, ‘I voted for her last time but she’s embarrassed us. I’m not voting for her again.’”

Flowers’ last house call of the day was to Jose Herran, 67, whose dogs barked loudly in a scrappy front garden and whose first question was sharp: “Do you believe in killing unborn babies?” But Flowers listened to him patiently and emphasized his career of service and religious faith while describing Greene as an absent voice who has left her own constituents in the lurch.

By the end of the lengthy and meandering conversation, which Flowers described as a job interview, Herran had been won over. He told the candidate: “I’d give you the job. If you’re going to take care of veterans, that’s it for me.” Herran added: “You’ve got my vote. You talked me into it.”

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