But these decisions also share a common thread. That common thread concerns political violence.
In an important sense, both dilemmas are fundamentally about whether Republicans will unambiguously stand for the proposition that the temptation to resort to political violence is wholly intolerable in a democracy and has no place whatsoever in their party.
The game that Republicans will play in coming days will be largely about obscuring the true nature of this choice.
Politico reports that McCarthy is now reportedly leaning toward punishment for Greene. He privately prodded her to apologize for her comments and/or remove herself from her committees. House Democrats are set to force a vote to strip her of those slots, McCarthy said, and Republicans fear having to vote on this themselves.
Republicans occasionally mention this, but not that often. Here’s a widely discussed quote from Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 in GOP leadership:
“Do they want to be the party of limited government and fiscal responsibility, free markets, peace through strength and pro life, or do they want to be the party of conspiracy theories and QAnon?”
The QAnon reference hints at violent intent toward Democrats, but the basic framing is that the GOP can either be the conservative party or the party of nutballery. Similarly, McConnell called out Greene’s “loony lies.” Sen. Todd Young (Ind.) called her “nutty.”
But Greene also approved of the execution of her political opponents. The current context should force a much greater focus on that aspect of Greene’s offenses. But the current context is almost surely the reason Republicans don’t want to focus on it.
Trump incited political violence
As Republican senators prepare to acquit Trump at his impeachment trial, they are going to extraordinary lengths to bury what Trump is actually accused of doing, that is, inciting a violent insurrectionist assault on lawmakers themselves.
A Republican leadership aide described a “palpable sense of relief” within the party that the GOP had coalesced around the constitutionality question. That allows members to acquit Trump on a process argument rather than judge the merits of whether Trump incited an insurrection.
Republicans don’t want to confront Trump’s lies about the election being stolen, or confront the question of whether Trump did or did not incite the assault, because they cannot condemn these things without condemning themselves.
Republicans spent many weeks propping up Trump’s lies about the election for the instrumental purpose of keeping the Trump base energized in the Georgia Senate runoffs. And those lies are what inspired the violent assault on the Capitol.
What’s becoming unmistakably clear is that the assault was unambiguously an effort to nullify the election through violent intimidation at best and violent attacks on lawmakers at worst. And this was done at Trump’s direction.
The attack on the Capitol was unmistakably an act of political violence, not merely an exercise in vandalism or trespassing amid a disorderly protest that had spiraled out of control. The overwhelming reason for action, cited again and again in court documents, was that arrestees were following Trump’s orders to keep Congress from certifying Joe Biden as the presidential-election winner.
They concluded that the riot revealed the existence of a “broader mass political movement that has violence at its core.”
As Tim Miller puts it, Republicans want to pretend they “weren’t on board for the particulars,” but the “awkward” fact of the matter is that “Trump was serious and literal about the coup.” Evading this truth is why GOP senators want to acquit Trump based on bad-faith constitutional parsing.
Which leads us back to Greene’s fate.
Why Trump and Greene are allies
It is often said that Republicans can’t condemn Greene because she’s allied with Trump. But what’s left unexamined is the real nature of this alliance. What binds them, exactly?
Among other things, it’s that both genuinely believe the Trump movement should be fully prepared to resort to political violence against their political opponents.
And Greene has endorsed political violence in other ways. Mother Jones reports that just before the election, she declared that if Democrats defeated Trump and Republicans, it would “end America as we know it” and do away with “freedom,” and that once freedom is gone, the only way to get it back will be “with the price of blood.”
Greene’s endorsement of the executions of Democrats was not a one-off. It revealed what she really believes. Trump does, too.
Republicans may very well discipline Greene. But in so doing, they’ll be sacrificing one extremist in order to mitigate the political damage from acquitting another, much bigger one. And whatever happens to Greene, the truth is unavoidable: Republicans have yet to offer a clear and unambiguous declaration that political violence is unacceptable and has no place in their ranks.