Call it the Conspiracy Theory Congress: Things are about to get dangerously weird on Capitol Hill

With Kevin McCarthy as Speaker, House Republicans gear up to wage a two year war on reality itself

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published January 9, 2023 6:00AM (EST)

Marjorie Taylor Greene and Jim Jordan (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Marjorie Taylor Greene and Jim Jordan (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Well, Ol' Ironbutt finally did it: After 14 humiliating votes, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. sucked all the humor out of the Capitol and squeaked into the Speakership on the 15th try, in the dead of night, the proper hour for all shameful moments. Just to make this denouement even more depressing, Republican members of Congress made the disappointing choice to stop Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., in what was the only useful urge he's had in his life, from issuing a beatdown to Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla.

While the clown show has been highly entertaining to anyone not named Kevin McCarthy, in all the ways that truly matter, it's been irrelevant. As Heather "Digby" Parton noted Friday at Salon, the members of the insurrectionist caucus "already run everything." That was true long before Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida decided to head up the "Humiliate Kevin" fund-raising scheme. It was true last year, when McCarthy cozied up to Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, cementing the QAnon-loving congresswoman as one of the most powerful people on Capitol Hill. It was true when McCarthy tried to get Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, on the January 6 committee because he thought Jordan possessed the necessary lying skills to cover for Trump's guilt. It was true even on January 6, 2021, when McCarthy joined 146 other House Republicans to vote to de-certify the 2020 election, even after Donald Trump sent a murderous mob to the Capitol. The media covered the Speaker fight as one between McCarthy and "election deniers," but in truth, McCarthy should be considered an election denier himself. 

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In a very real sense, the silly drama over the Speaker election has distracted from a larger, more disturbing truth: House Republicans are going to spend the next two years using taxpayer money to wage war on not just democracy, but truth itself. The antics of various House committees, as they work hand-in-glove with Fox News to create and disseminate right wing conspiracy theories, will make an epsiode of Infowars seem downright sober-minded. 

As Crooked editor Brian Beutler noted in his latest "Big Tent" newsletter, the insurrectionist caucus differs from the radical right wingers of GOP caucuses past, whose goals were to "gut Medicare, defund the Affordable Care Act, etc." Instead, these new Republican radicals "want to steal elections. They want to sabotage criminal investigations that implicate themselves, Donald Trump, and January 6 defendants, current and future." Having realized that they'll likely never get their desired ends through democratic means, they've determined democracy itself must go. And make no mistake: McCarthy and other GOP leaders are only too happy to go along with the program. 

A crucial part of the war on democracy is a war on facts and reason. Democracy, it's worth remembering, emerged as an Enlightenment ideal, and cannot be separated from other Enlightenment values, such as the importance of empiricism and the value of critical thinking. As I noted last week, the current iteration of the GOP is functionally a fascist party and adheres to the knee-jerk fascist distaste for thinking, rational debate, and above all, letting facts guide your decision-making. 

Because of this, there's little doubt that, over the next two years, the Republican-run House will be structured not around legislative goals, but propagandistic ones. Namely, they will use the immense power and resources of the U.S. Congress to be a bullshit-generating machine. Committee hearings will be built around elevating defamatory accusations against perceived political opponents and spawning Fox News and social media-friendly clips that fuel truly unhinged conspiracy theories. 

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As I noted last week at Salon, document requests and public statements from House Republicans give us a good idea of what fever swamp stories the Republicans wish to propagate: False accusations that retired head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, somehow caused the COVID-19 virus. Lurid nonsense about President Joe Biden's son, Hunter Biden. Claims that the January 6 insurrectionists and other right wing terrorists are innocent victims of a Biden smear campaign. 

The hearings publicizing the conspiracy theories will be framed as "investigations," but no one should be fooled. The Republicans behind these lies, much less the right wing "journalists" who will elevate them, know full well it's all nonsense. Indeed, as I've long argued, I don't think most of the audience for the conspiracy theory circus believe it, either. The idea is not to actually fool anyone into thinking Biden is actually corrupt or that the Capitol rioters were actually innocent.

The purpose of these exercises in fantastical story-telling is, if anything, more diabolical than an old-fashioned desire to fool people. It's about a larger assault on truth itself, or more specifically, on the value that truth has in our society. The goal of the "alternative facts" crowd is to make truth no more relevant than lies. To assert that "reality" can be whatever they want it to be. After all, as Stephen Colbert once famously noted, "Reality has a well-known liberal bias." If the facts aren't on their side, Republicans have come to believe, then facts should have no power. 

Trump is the master of asserting that his preferred lies should take precedence over truth, of course, but this tendency of Republicans predates him. (Colbert's famous quote comes from a 2006 speech in which he excoriated the George W. Bush administration for lying their way into the Iraq War.) But Trump's innovation, which is now widely adopted by the GOP, was in this practiced indifference to truth. The liar wants others to believe their falsehoods. The gaslighting Republicans of the Trump era want to evacuate the concept of "truth" itself. Gone are the days when the Bush administration put real effort into falsifying evidence to support false claims about WMDs in Iraq. Nowadays, we have Trump barely putting effort into filling the Big Lie with even fake evidence.

The next two years of "hearings" will be much of the same: Lots of insinuations and false accusations, as well as incoherent ramblings that only make sense to those who are already well-versed in right wing conspiracy theories. Little, if any, effort will be put toward making any of these outlandish stories or conspiracy theories convincing. They aren't really meant to be believed. They are meant to alter the American relationship with reality so people lose all faith that the difference between true and false matters at all. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Commentary House Hearings Joe Biden Kevin Mccarthy