Senate Republicans grow more radical in the minority

Mitch McConnell may soon have a Freedom Caucus of his own to contend with

By Heather Digby Parton


Published July 12, 2023 9:00AM (EDT)

J.D. Vance, Tommy Tuberville and Markwayne Mullin (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
J.D. Vance, Tommy Tuberville and Markwayne Mullin (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

There have always been eccentric, senile and downright simple-minded members of Congress. That's democracy in action. But there is an unusually high number of them these days — and they are all right-wing Republicans.

Of course, we're accustomed to the MAGA chaos agents in the House of Representatives and their preposterous escapades. Like this one, for instance:

It's hard to know if Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene still doesn't understand how the government works or how the world works, but she does have a way of getting attention. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., couldn't be more happy with her. He told Axios, "I think Marjorie Taylor Greene is one of the best members we have, I think she's the one of the most conservative members and one of the strongest legislators. I support Marjorie Greene very strongly." (That was in response to a question about her ouster from the Freedom Caucus which is reportedly because she can't be trusted not to share their strategies with McCarthy.)

The House has always been the more fractious of the two chambers of Congress. Traditionally more partisan and subject to volatility. The idea has long been that the Senate, with its lengthier terms and larger constituencies, would be the "saucer that cools the tea." With the slower processes and the advantage of not having to run for re-election constantly it was assumed that senators could be more deliberate in their actions and temper any radical shifts in policy that could be dangerously destabilizing.

I'm not sure that's ever been entirely true — there have always been eccentric or radical senators. This latest crop of Republicans, however, seems to be intent on giving the House a run for their extremist money.

This week's MAGA Senate star is Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville, the former college football coach who replaced Democrat Doug Jones in 2020. He doesn't seem to know a whole lot about how Congress works in any case but he certainly hasn't signed on to any role as a "cooling" agent.

Whatever pretensions the Senate may have once had as the more staid chamber of Congress, a place where the business of government gets done among sober statesmen, are gone now.

Despite his very brief time in politics, he has not taken the opportunity to keep his head down and learn the ropes in the first couple of years, as most novice senators do. He has, presumably at the prodding of a far-right ideological staff, thrown a monkey wrench into the U.S. military. As the New York Times put it, Tuberville is single-handedly obstructing the "smooth transfer of power at the highest echelons of the armed forces, including in the ranks of the Joint Chiefs of Staff."

If that isn't "Ultra-MAGA," I don't know what is.

Tuberville is objecting to military policy that allows time off and travel reimbursement to servicemembers who must go out of state to receive abortion care now that the Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade and many states with military installations have pretty much banned it. The policy does not pay for abortions but Tuberville apparently insists that the military forces its personnel to go AWOL if they need one. (I would imagine he is in favor of throwing anyone who does that into the brig as well.) In order to force the military to do his bidding, he is holding up the promotions of all officers and blocking the confirmations of successors to the Joint Chiefs of Staff who are scheduled to depart over the next few months. Just this week the Marine commandant retired and no one can be confirmed to take his place while Tuberville insists on his hold. 

Back in May, Tuberville told a local news reporter that he calls white nationalists "Americans" and elaborated by saying that he considers a white nationalist a Trump Republican because "that's what we're called all the time." He seemed to be completely clueless about what he was admitting. His staff tried to walk all that back but they apparently forgot to tell the boss because he said it again on TV this week.

After the media went into a frenzy on Tuesday, he did finally relent and admit that that white nationalism is racist but it's pretty clear that he doesn't believe that. Like his brethren in the House Freedom Caucus, Tommy Tuberville is a MAGA performance artist and he put on quite a show. Whether he's dim or whether he's calculated, it really doesn't matter.

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But Tuberville is hardly alone. The Senate GOP caucus has quite a few showboaters playing for the right-wing media. The granddaddy, of course, is Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who paved the way a decade ago when he strategized with the Tea Party Caucus in the House to help shut down the federal government during budget negotiations with the Obama administration. He's still at it, joined by another old-timer, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who's given Oscar-worthy performances in the last few years defending Donald Trump.

This latest crop of Republicans seems to be intent on giving the House a run for their extremist money.

Third-term Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin has also made a name for himself pushing snake oil cures for COVID, among other thingsJust this week Johnson said that while he feels for the families of 9/11, he loves golf even more. The guy is always good for a laugh:

Last week, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, who infamously raised a fist pump salute in front of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, drew Twitter dunks by posting a fake Patrick Henry quote that was actually a quote from a 1956 article in a white supremacist magazine.

And then we have Rand Paul of Kentucky who may be the most obnoxious of all:

I'll say one thing for these men. They aren't subtle.

A couple of newbies deserve to be mentioned as well because I think they are going to be the heart and soul of the Senate MAGA caucus. The first is the newly elected J.D. Vance of Ohio who has hit the ground running by responding to Trump's indictment on 37 federal charges with a vow to put a hold on all Justice Department nominees. He also took it upon himself to pen a letter to several colleges issuing a demand that they comply with the recent Supreme Court ruling outlawing Affirmative Action or there would be hell to pay.

And then there is the freshman senator from Oklahoma, Markwayne Mullin, an election denier and former cage fighter who told a labor leader to "shut your mouth" during a testy hearing and proclaimed "I don't want reality" during a committee meeting about teaching children about race. He suggested that they teach "Jesus loves the little children" instead. And then this happened:

Whatever pretensions the Senate may have once had as the more staid chamber of Congress, a place where the business of government gets done among sober statesmen, are gone now. More and more Republican senators are unserious people putting on a show to entertain their base and keep the Fox News hits coming. Marjorie Taylor Greene would feel right at home among them. 

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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