Insurrections aren’t everyday, casual affairs. That should go without saying, but somehow, perhaps as a symptom of our current political dysfunction, anti-democratic developments feel almost normal. Or perhaps we’re just numb. But either way, there are a number of candidates running for office in the 2022 midterms who, like Georgia’s Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, were engaged in peddling Trump’s big lie that voter fraud, not the will of the voters, was responsible for his loss in 2020. The resulting effort to prevent the Senate from confirming Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory, of course, culminated in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
Somehow, perhaps as a symptom of our current political dysfunction, anti-democratic developments feel almost normalized. Or perhaps we’re just numb.
Some of Greene’s constituents don’t believes she deserves a spot on the ballot this year. In a hearing the stretched on for hours on Friday, lawyers for a coalition suing Greene, called Free Speech for the People, pointed out that the Constitution doesn’t normalize insurrection. In fact, Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, enacted following the Civil War, explicitly prohibits people who engage in an insurrection, after taking an oath to support the Constitution, from holding office in the future:
No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress … who, having previously taken an oath … to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof.
Reading this text, it might seem like Greene should have been drummed out of the Republican Party for her brazen conduct. Instead, she has become one of the many faces of a party controlled by Trump. And while some of her constituents are appalled by her behavior, it’s unlikely that this challenge to her candidacy will have any teeth.
Not that the hearing wasn’t illuminating. Greene smirked her way through hours of examination, dodging questions with claims of memory lapses. When lawyers for Free Speech for the People asked whether she’d advocated for imposing martial law on the country in conversations at the White House, she responded that she couldn’t recall. It was a strikingly casual response for a hypothetical conversation most living, breathing human beings would presumably remember for the rest of their lives.
Nevertheless, attorneys for the voters seemed to fall short of establishing — their burden in this proceeding according to the administrative law judge’s order — Greene’s participation in a violent insurrection. It was far from a clean bill of health for the first term Georgia congresswoman. But there’s plenty of “play in the joints” for a decision-maker who is looking to avoid throwing Greene off the ballot. Without getting too deep in the legal weeds, Georgia Republicans eager to avoid intra-party conflict should be able to argue her challengers failed to meet their evidentiary burden.
The judge promised to have a ruling out by next week. After that, a final decision will be made by Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (who Trump infamously pressured to reverse his state’s election results). It’s hard to imagine that Raffensperger, who is running for re-election without Trump’s endorsement in the primary, wants to draw more ire by ending the candidacy of one of the former president’s favorite lawmakers. Even if he goes out on a limb and removes Greene, Raffensperger’s decision can be appealed up through Georgia’s state courts. With the primary slated for May 24, it’s hard to see how a decision against Greene could be final in time.
Georgia’s Republican officials might be happier without Greene and the unseemly controversies she promotes in their conference. But, having lacked the courage to separate themselves from Trump at the height of his excesses, it’s unlikely they’ll deal with Greene themselves. They’re far more likely to leave the political fate of Trump’s local stand in to the voters. Those voters, who reside in Greene’s northwest Georgia district along the Alabama border, haven’t been bothered by her behavior, including her support for baseless QAnon conspiracy theories, in the past. She won with 74.6 percent of the vote in 2020.
Greene has remained popular despite stunts like calling House Speaker Nancy Pelosi a traitor: a statement she first denied (under oath) on the witness stand on Friday, only to quickly back peddle once it became clear the lawyer had her exact statement to that effect in front of him. It would have been a funny sound bite if it wasn’t so wildly dishonest. As her questioner was easily able to prove, Greene had indeed said in 2019 that Pelosi was guilty of treason, additionally suggesting that the crime of treason was punishable by death. Not the least of the entire sad affair was the utter shamelessness of a woman who occupies a position of trust on Capitol Hill.
Do we really need the courts to tell us people who participate in insurrections against the government don’t belong in office? Is that the sad state of our politics in 2022? The answer to those questions highlights the real challenge presented at Marjorie Taylor Greene’s hearing. Because Greene’s conduct isn’t really in question — no matter how many times she rolls her eyes and tries to will her own words away. Her testimony presented a stark picture of someone who seems intent on turning democracy into cosplay, engaging in a mockery of what public service is supposed to be about.
Using this particular Civil War-era constitutional amendment to hold Greene accountable is fraught. Even if it happens, there will be lengthy delays as issues of first impression are litigated in the courts. Some scholars have gone so far as to suggest the states lack the ability to enforce Section 3 without congressional action. Ultimately, lawsuits like this may not be enough to keep people who sought to undo one of the most sacred traditions of our government, the peaceful transfer of power, out of positions where they can do still more damage to democracy.
Do we really need the courts to tell us people who participate in insurrections against the government don’t belong in office?
There is (some) good news. Democratic institutions that were stress tested by the four years of the Trump presidency can’t come all the way back overnight. But increasingly, we’re seeing the tools of government being used, from congressional investigations that promote civic education and uncover the truth to prosecutions that build accountability.
One of the key challenges we face is giving people whose occupations and interests haven’t led them to hang on every new development in the January 6 investigation access to the facts. Even if the challenge to Greene’s candidacy is unsuccessful, it has played a role in exposing more Americans to painful truths about the times we live in. Every step toward ensuring Americans don’t think of an insurrection as an event to move on from without holding those responsible accountable is a step in the right direction. There may be a lot of steps along a frustratingly long path. But it’s important to continue moving in the right direction.