Washington rewards bizarre behavior

CNN's John Avlon breaks down the large amount of political funds raised by a handful of controversial figures in US Congress.

Posted: Apr 13, 2021 8:41 AM
Updated: Apr 13, 2021 8:41 AM

I have not spent much time in this newsletter on the antics of Marjorie Taylor Greene or the scandal surrounding Matt Gaetz, two of the more controversial pushers of conspiracy theories currently serving in Congress.

This is supposed to be about "What Matters," and after the Trump years we all spent struggling over whether the importance of exposing dark lies to the sunlight is neutralized by the oxygen they get in exposure, it has been refreshing to pay more attention to other things.

But ignoring things doesn't make them go away, and I wanted today to share a Reality Check by CNN's John Avlon that aired on "New Day."

You can watch it here.

Or read it below:

The sickness in our politics is the result of a screwed-up incentive structure that rewards irresponsibility and conspiracy theories with fame and cash.

That's just not my opinion, that's the view of former GOP Speaker John Boehner. Here's what he has to say (in his new book) about what he calls "the chaos caucus":

"They didn't really want legislative victories. They wanted wedge issues and conspiracies and crusades ... [They] built up their own power base thanks to fawning right-wing media and outrage-driven fundraising cash."

And as if on cue, we learned that QAnon conspiracy-peddling, mass shooting-denying Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene says she raised $3.2 million in the first quarter of the year, despite being stripped of her committee assignments.

That's a lot of lucre for someone who is into grandstanding rather than governing.

Her reported 100,000 donors represent just 0.03% of Americans, but it shows that crazy has a constituency.

And she's a symptom of the trend toward politician as professional troll.

Take Matt Gaetz, the Trump loyalist Florida congressman being investigated for a whole host of shady and possibly illegal weaselry, including serious sex-trafficking allegations.

He denies it, but we all know the playbook by now, right?

  • Say or do something outrageous.
  • Demonize the opposition.
  • And then play the victim to raise cash.

Folks fall for it. Gaetz raised more than $6 million last cycle, more than twice the typical representative.

Or how about one of Gaetz's very few defenders in Congress, Jim Jordan, who Boehner calls a "political terrorist."

He raised more than $18 million last cycle.

(I'll add another example to Avlon's: Sen. Josh Hawley, the Missouri Republican who tried to block election results and fist-pumped at Trump supporters standing outside the Capitol on January 6, raised more than $3 million in the first three months of the year.)

This is the rinse and repeat that's come to dominate Republican politics.

This is where Donald Trump's big lie and his thousands of smaller ones have gotten us: defining deviancy down while elevating political grift, offering not just alternative facts but an alternative reality reinforced by right-wing media obsessed with negative partisanship.

So some good people don't want to serve anymore, because the system seems to reward the worst in us.

It's one reason why so many Republicans have refused to run for reelection in the Trump years through today.

Listen to what a longtime adviser to Sen. Rob Portman, a guy named Corry Bliss, told the National Journal:

"If you want to spend all your time going on Fox and being an a-hole, there's never been a better time to serve. ... But if you want to spend all your time being thoughtful and getting [stuff] done, there's never been a worse time to serve."

That's a cry for help that cuts to the heart of our democracy.

Because we're living in a time when autocracies are trying to overtake democracy as the world's leading form of government.

And every unhinged, obstructionist conspiracy theorist who gets elected is an exhibit in their case.

Republicans will try to deflect away from this political gangrene with all kinds of whataboutism.

But unless they clearly condemn it, they will own the rot that is consuming their party and our republic.

Rewriting the reward structure in Washington

I'll add some of my own thoughts to Avlon's here. I share his frustration at the growth in profile of what should be fringe lawmakers, but I think there's also a counterpoint working right now that we should consider.

While it is clear from these fundraising totals that there is a reward structure for creating and then pushing a perception of persecution by these out-there politicians, and that campaign coin gives them power to organize and push their ideas even more, it's also true that the increased national profile from causing chaos comes at a cost.

Yes, Greene has raised money. But she's also been stripped of committee assignments, so her ability to actually generate laws is quite limited.

President Joe Biden could be the antipode to the Trump/Greene type of outrage politics. His first few months have seen some real legislative success in his ability to get a massive Covid relief bill passed. He's set and met goals for vaccines and moving kids toward getting back into school.

The country may have already been on pace to achieve those goals, but the lesson from these early months is that Biden hopes to find success simply by being much quieter than Trump, tamping down on drama rather than creating it and getting out of the way of the machine of government he believes can work. (And I understand that he faces a growing border crisis and tough decisions on other subjects in the near future).

Quiet compromise is in office. Loud chaos is not.

Biden has more reason to be frustrated with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnnell, who is forming a GOP blockage against Biden's agenda, than Trump, who blames McConnell for not buying in to his imagined election fraud.

And yet it's Trump who was bad-mouthing McConnell from Florida over the weekend, at an event for donors, naturally.

Biden's got a real headache in Joe Manchin, the Democratic senator from West Virginia, who won't agree to change Senate rules and do an end-run around Republican obstruction.

But rather than trying to browbeat Manchin into submission, Biden appears, according to The New York Times, to be making a go of crafting infrastructure legislation that 10 Republicans could support. Then, if they follow McConnell's orders and reject it anyway, Manchin may have new reason to join Democrats in moving forward in a less partisan way.

This will be the test of Biden's administration that could change the reward structure Avlon writes about: He must prove that either the bipartisanship he promised in his inaugural address is possible or convince voters that Republicans are so focused on defeating him that legislating is impossible.

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