The GOP lawmakers, who have spent years becoming far-right influencers, are poised to hold a concerning amount of control over the new Congress.
The day after Election Day, Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, a far-right Republican, appeared on a television network owned by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell for an interview with Emerald Robinson, a former Newsmax TV host who was benched from that channel after warning Christians that COVID-19 vaccines “contain a bioluminescent marker called LUCIFERASE so that you can be tracked.”
It was there that Biggs first hinted at a substantial piece of news: He was planning to challenge House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in his bid to become speaker.
“I would say maybe not so fast, maybe we should have a good discussion within the confines of our internal body,” Biggs told Robinson and the LindellTV audience, referring to McCarthy’s leadership. “We were told we were going to have an incredible wave, and if that would have been the case … You would say Kevin is the presumptive nominee for speaker. But I think we need to have a serious discussion.”
The surprise comment from Biggs, who now leads a substantial challenge to McCarthy’s leadership even if he may not become speaker himself, pointed to a larger trend: Republicans’ less-than-stellar performance in November’s midterm elections has widened the rift between the party’s establishment and its far right. And the far right has spent years building up a parallel power structure based in large part on a media strategy that has aligned them with fringe figures and ethno-nationalists.
With House Republicans holding just a four-vote majority, the influence of the party’s far right will only grow in the new Congress as each GOP vote holds sway. As Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute observed to The New Yorker recently, “When your margin is small, the problem is you’re held hostage.”
The hostage takers, in this case — a far-right coterie that includes Biggs as well as Reps. Matt Gaetz (Fla.), Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.), Lauren Boebert (Colo.) and Paul Gosar (Ariz.) — don’t all necessarily oppose McCarthy’s speakership. Greene has endorsed him and received significant concessions.
But taken together, the group has a real opportunity to shift the debate to the right on key issues: Laws they’ve sponsored include the criminalization of doctors who provide gender-affirming surgery to trans kids and a change in a statute to allow the government to jail families seeking asylum, including children, as their cases proceed through immigration court.
They’ll be able to push this cruel agenda in part by leveraging their millions of followers on various social media platforms. As much as they are politicians and members of Congress, they are also something perhaps more powerful: influencers.
A Vast Audience
The gang is active on alternative social media networks, such as former President Donald Trump’s Truth Social platform, though that hasn’t stopped their general domination of right-wing Twitter: Greene has 1.7 million Twitter followers on her official account. Boebert has 2 million on her campaign account. Gaetz has comparable numbers on both his campaign and government accounts. Those figures rival even McCarthy, who tweets to 1.9 million followers from @GOPLeader. McCarthy’s second in command, Steve Scalise, reaches just 561,000 on his most popular page ― behind even Biggs.
Moreover, these members of Congress have become darlings of a sprawling far-right media ecosystem, and regular guests on TV shows, live-streams and podcasts
The congressional far right frequently appears on programs that promote themselves as being to the right of Fox News. Biggs, Boebert, Gates and Greene made a combined 96 appearances on prime-time One America News Network (OANN) programs in 2022, according to a tally that Media Matters, a media watchdog group, provided to HuffPost. OANN is a deeply disreputable media outlet that promoted some of the most pernicious conspiracy theories of the Trump era, including those about LGBTQ people, the COVID pandemic and the 2020 presidential election.
Biggs was a guest on the network 49 times over the last year, according to Media Matters. His most recent appearances focused on his speakership bid.
Despite its popularity with these members of Congress, OANN is in disarray. Dominion Voting Systems filed a $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against the network for allegedly pushing “verifiably false yet devastating lies” about the company’s voting machines in the 2020 election. Meanwhile DirecTV and Verizon recently decided to drop the network, severely depleting its viewership.
But Biggs and his cohort already have well-established relationships with other popular far-right online and even cable outlets, including “The Charlie Kirk Show,” Steve Bannon’s “War Room,” Newsmax and LindellTV.
Greene has appeared frequently on “The Charlie Kirk Show,” which regularly ranks among the top 50 most-listened-to news podcasts on Apple and Spotify. During an appearance in August, Greene, while promoting an anti-trans bill, falsely called gender-affirming care “genital mutilation” and “absolute child abuse.”
Boebert has been a regular on Newsmax, once inexplicably arguing to host Sebastian Gorka, a former Trump adviser, that an assault weapon ban in the United States would lead to Americans eating their pets. “You know here in America, we have gourmet treats for puppies, we have these amazing groomers for dogs,” Boebert said. “Well, in Venezuela they eat the dogs, and it started because they don’t have firearms… They do not have a way to protect themselves, to defend themselves against a tyrannical government.”
Gaetz, meanwhile, has appeared multiple times on Steve Bannon’s “War Room” podcast, which is routinely among the top five most-listened-to political podcasts on Apple. In an August episode, he told Bannon, a former chief strategist in the Trump White House, that the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol was a “fedsurrection” — parroting baseless conspiracy theories that the riot was actually incited by government officials.
Self-Made Media Stars
When Congress’s far right can’t find a platform to push their agenda, they make their own.
Gaetz, for example, records his “Firebrand” podcast from his congressional office in Washington. A section of Gaetz’s official House website is devoted to the show, linking to its live-stream on Rumble, where Gaetz has 250,000 subscribers, and on YouTube, where he has nearly 70,000.
It’s slickly produced, filmed with multiple cameras and features Gaetz holding forth on the news of the day, reacting to clips from Fox or MSNBC, or recycling clips from Gaetz’s own appearances on other programs. Audio-only versions of “Firebrand” are on Spotify and Apple, where, according to Chartable, it often cracks the top 100 most-listened-to U.S. politics podcasts, reaching the rank of 89 in December.
In a December 2021 episode, Gaetz interviewed Gosar just weeks after the Arizona congressman had been censured and stripped of his committee assignments as punishment for posting an anime video depicting him murdering a Democratic colleague, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.).
The pair were thrilled by all the attention Gosar had received during the media uproar over his video, and they weren’t bothered by his removal from congressional committees. Greene had faced a similar punishment for, among other extreme statements, advocating executing prominent Democratic lawmakers.
“Do you think that not being on committees and being able to survey the body at large and engage the body at large will give you a greater opportunity to influence the membership of the body?” Gaetz asked Gosar.
“It does,” Gosar responded. “Because the other thing we do, Matt, we explore different ways of communication.”
“You can say that again, Paul,” Gaetz interjected.
“You know, from my standpoint,” Gosar continued, “we noticed that people got a lot more out of a video or a picture in a written piece. And so we’ve been trying to engage people differently.”
Gosar then bragged about the reach of his social media posts. The anime video of him slitting the throat of Ocasio-Cortez with a sword? “Three million in less than 24 hours,” Gosar said. A series of acrostic tweets spelling out “Epstein didn’t kill himself”?
“Thirty-three million hits,” Gosar said.
Gaetz has hosted multiple extreme figures on “Firebrand.” His guests have included Florida state Rep. Anthony Sabatini, a Republican who once tweeted a quote from fascist Spanish dictator Francisco Franco and called President Joe Biden’s pledge to nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court “anti-white racist exclusion.”
Gaetz also hosted Gavin Wax, president of the New York Young Republican Club, who is an admirer of the violent neo-fascist gang the Proud Boys and who once appeared on a white supremacist podcast. Wax also recently organized a black-tie gala in Manhattan where he told the invited guests, including some prominent white supremacists, that it’s time for “total war” against their perceived enemies.
Also on the guest list 10 times over the past year was Darren Beattie, a former speechwriter in the Trump administration who was pushed out of the White House after it emerged that he’d spoken at a white supremacist conference. He has since aligned himself with white supremacist leader Nick Fuentes.
Beattie has been Gaetz’s most frequent guest on “Firebrand.” Greene has appeared five times.
Beattie and Greene appeared together on “Firebrand” on Jan. 6, 2022 — the anniversary of the attack on the Capitol — where they promoted conspiracy theories about the insurrection.
“Firebrand’s” most recent episodes, however, posted in December, have focused on Gaetz and his caucus’s ability to throw a wrench in McCarthy’s bid to be speaker of the House.
In one episode, titled “Never Kevin,” Gaetz updated his viewers on the caucus’s “latest negotiations” with McCarthy. In another episode, featuring a long interview with Biggs, the pair listed a series of demands they had for McCarthy in order for them to support him.
Biggs is a content creator in his own right: In late September, he released a 30-minute documentary called “Alien Invasion” on his government website, with a physical premiere at the Heritage Foundation. The film, which credits Biggs staffers for production and editing and was narrated by the congressman, essentially accuses Democrats of allowing families and drug smugglers to flow freely over the southern U.S. border.
“It’s not a coincidence we’re seeing near-historic illegal immigration and historic overdose deaths,” Tom Homan, the acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement director for part of the Trump presidency, who appeared at a white supremacist conference earlier this year, says in the film’s early minutes. (As you might expect, it’s not that simple: While it’s true most hard drugs seized by authorities are discovered at the southwest border, it’s also the case that the vast majority came through ports of entry, according to John Mennell, a spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Protection ― not from migrants or cartels sneaking across the border in between ports.)
Appearing on Bannon’s “War Room” program last month, Biggs put the argument in civilizational terms.
“We are in an existential crisis in this country,” he said, referring to McCarthy as “a creature of the establishment.” The Biden administration, Biggs added, was “trying to “emasculate this country and take us over the edge so it is irrevocably Marxist and tyrannical.”
‘1,200 Young Conservatives’
Members of Congress’s far right are willing to go basically anywhere to reach an audience of supporters, and in-person speeches are a particularly potent organizing tool during the COVID-19 era, as gathering in large numbers has become a sign of rebellion and anti-authority cachet on the right.
With the rise of speaking tours centered on anti-vaccine diatribes and 2020 presidential election fraud conspiracy theories, the congressional far right has had ample opportunity to tour the country and cultivate a base of support outside of GOP leadership.
At Mike Lindell’s “Moment of Truth Summit” in Springfield, Missouri, in August, Greene said she’d decided to attend because “recently I’ve gotten really tired of being told, ‘Marjorie, don’t talk about the election.’” With the midterm elections coming up, she said, “they don’t want Republicans ― they don’t want you all ― they don’t want us to talk about the elections, they just people to show up and vote.” Separately, in a panel with Lindell and Bannon, where Bannon cheered on a hypothetical bid from Greene to be the House speaker, Greene pledged: “I promise you, I will be there holding our party accountable to get the job done for all of you.”
A year prior, Greene and Gaetz had carried out a speaking tour of their own, with stops in Florida, Arizona and Georgia ― dubbed “America First” rallies, they were broadcast online by Right Side Broadcasting, which got its start as the go-to YouTube broadcaster for Trump rallies as far back as 2015.
The tour had the same name as a proposed congressional caucus that was reported to include Greene, Gosar and Gaetz. A draft platform for the group included an immigration plank extolling “uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions.” Gosar and Greene distanced themselves from the caucus after mainstream GOP pushback; Gaetz tweeted that he was “proud” to join Greene in the effort.
The rallies, featuring speeches by Greene and Gaetz, as well as Gosar, Biggs and Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) in their respective states, were a clear effort to build up political capital outside the mainstream. They highlighted recriminations aimed at Republican congressional leaders for not repealing the Affordable Care Act when they had the chance. They pushed forward-looking campaigns focused on the “invasion” of asylum seekers at the border. And they boosted hysteria about gender nonconforming people, or, as Gaetz said, “the genderless blue-haired woke-topians of the CHAZ,” referring to the short-lived Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone protest site in Seattle.
The Florida Republican repeated variations of the same phrase at every stop: “Marjorie and I are not powerful by typical measurements in Washington. … But we have a power that they can never take away, and it is tied to our connection to the people in this great country. You know who the fighters are. You can distinguish the phonies and the fakes from the real deal.”
The speaking circuit often includes a heavy dose of Christian nationalism.
In a speech in September to the Truth and Liberty Coalition, a conservative Christian group that seeks to influence politics and public opinion, Boebert relayed a story she’d heard from a man whose son got in trouble in school “because he stepped on a furry’s tail.” (A widely circulated false rumor last year asserted that some schools were providing litter boxes for kids who identified as cats. It turned out to be a single report about emergency active-shooter lockdown supplies.)
“I said, dear Lord, that sounds like an identity crisis! I think your son needs to go to school and identify as a trapper!” she cracked to laughter and applause. By the end of the speech, Boebert had turned serious, citing lines from the biblical book of Romans: “They keep inventing new ways of wrecking lives. … They know perfectly well they’re spitting in God’s face. And they don’t care.”
Then Boebert addressed the crowd: “This is why I need you positioned. This is why the church, the people of the body of Christ, need to rise up and take their God-given authority and use it.”
Two months later, when a gunman attacked a gay nightclub in Boebert’s state, killing five people and leaving 25 injured, Boebert said she was praying for the victims and their families ― drawing criticism for her years of anti-LGBTQ bigotry. The congresswoman then hit the familiar media circuit. In an interview on OANN, Boebert attacked “the sexualization of children,” which she said included “comprehensive sex education that’s in our schools.” Speaking to Denver’s Fox network affiliate, she referred to LGBTQ people and said she was concerned with “pushing this ideology on children.”
In-person events have also shown the congressional far right’s extremist alliances.
Greene spoke in February to a packed conference hosted by Nick Fuentes, referring to the crowd as “canceled Americans” and to Democrats as communists. (Her fellow speakers then praised Adolf Hitler and called for Dr. Anthony Fauci to be hanged.)
For months, Greene prevaricated about the speech. After reporters flagged that she’d spoken to an explicitly racist group, Greene referred to the crowd as “1,200 young conservatives who feel cast aside and marginalized by society” and “1,200 people gathered to declare that Christ is King.”
Fuentes, for his part, has credited far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos for setting up Greene’s speech. Months after the event, Greene brought Yiannopoulos into her office as an intern. Fuentes and Yiannopoulos both went on to work for the openly antisemitic rapper Ye.
Greene isn’t alone in her Fuentes connections: Gosar spoke at the same conference in 2021 and spoke via a pre-recorded video message this year, though he later claimed the video was meant for another group. That didn’t stop Gosar from briefly promoting a documentary from Fuentes in September, linking to the film on Twitter and condemning “the persecution against Christians and Conservatives by the Biden Regime” before deleting the tweet.
Greene finally condemned Fuentes fully in November ― notably after GOP leadership agreed to committee investigations of then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s handling of security at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
One Jan. 6 defendant in particular cheered the prospect of more investigation.
“They need to have their own Jan. 6 investigation where they actually go and seek out the truth,” said Derrick Evans, a former state legislator in West Virginia who pleaded guilty to a felony charge of civil disorder in March after live-streaming his entry into the Capitol that day. Evans, who has hinted at his own potential run for Congress, spoke to HuffPost in December, two months after his release from federal prison.
“Kevin McCarthy, or anyone else who wants to be the speaker, needs to have a backbone and actually stand up and start fighting to get these answers and release them to the public,” Evans said, adding that he hoped to be in touch with Greene and other members of Congress.
Evans might be heartened to hear that Greene, in a display of her newfound power, has reportedly extracted a promise from Republican leadership that the new Congress will investigate the treatment of defendants jailed for their alleged role in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.