Larry McDonald preceded Marjorie Taylor Greene 2023

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) has been polarizing since her 2020 political debut. In 2021, the Democratic-led House barred her from committees due to her social media posts praising QAnon and threatening Democrats with violence. As they sought reelection, some Republicans distanced themselves from Greene.

Greene is not an outcast a few years later. Instead, she’s a Republican powerbroker. Greene supported Kevin McCarthy’s speakership campaign in January. Former president Donald Trump called Greene on the House floor during a crucial vote, proving her relevance. Her fundraising benefits even moderate Republicans.

House Republicans gave Greene seats on the Homeland Security and Oversight committees, where she can criticize the Biden family and administration as corrupt and soft on immigration. McCarthy told a buddy, “I will never leave that woman.”

Greene’s influence shows how much politics has evolved since Rep. Larry McDonald (D-Ga.) represented much of her territory in the late 1970s and early 1980s. McDonald liked Greene’s bogus claims of perfidy, isolationism, cultural warfare, intolerance, and violent, apocalyptic politics.

McDonald wasn’t a celebrity, but the contrast shows the far right’s rising power.

McDonald, unlike Greene, was politically isolated during his almost decade-long legislative career. Their heights show how powerful the far right is in American politics.

McDonald was mainstream for a political extreme. His father and brother ran a successful urology practice after he graduated from Emory University medical school.

McDonald was an ultraconservative Southern Democrat. He was a spokesman for the John Birch Society, a covert far-right organization founded in 1958 that swept across the country at the grassroots level but lost acceptability in mainstream politics due to its baseless charges of plots against America.

McDonald’s politics reached a crossroads in the 1970s. The Birch Society weakened. During the civil rights revolution, several White southerners left the Democratic Party for the more conservative, anti-big-government GOP.

He sought Congress in 1972. McDonald received support from 100 Birchers, with one society leader calling his campaign a protest against “the phony national campaign [Nixon-McGovern], both sides of which are controlled, as usual, by the conspiracy.”

McDonald lost that race.

Two years later, he ran on an anti-busing, pro-prayer-in-schools ticket. “Even a messy dispute over alimony that briefly landed McDonald in jail” didn’t stop him this time, according to author John Lawrence.

McDonald was “a loner” in a liberalizing party. He was the only first-term politician to apply for the House Internal Security Committee, which was known for “red-baiting” and was soon dissolved. He lost committee assignments in 1982 after opposing Democrat Tip O’Neill’s reelection as speaker.

McDonald had “little influence in either party” due to his fanaticism and iconoclasm, according to The Washington Post. McDonald owned over 200 guns and fetishized gun rights. He wrongly labeled Martin Luther King Jr. a communist who was “wedded to violence” and posted a portrait of Francisco Franco on his office wall.

McDonald told a Birch Society meeting in the 1980s that gay men should pay a “user fee” to fund medical research. HIV/AIDS was a public health emergency. The House overwhelmingly rejected McDonald’s motion to restrict all trade with the Soviet Union. The Georgian was one of two members to vote against federal funding for a flu vaccination.

McDonald incorrectly claimed that “an elitist core” that “has seen value in subsidizing communism” and desired “the dissolution of national sovereignty on the road to world government” had “dominated the State Department for 40 years” on an early CNN “Crossfire” in 1983.

McDonald rejected Republican icon Ronald Reagan. “A man who campaigned against elitism,” Reagan promised “that he would not be having the Council on Foreign Relations, trilateral types dominating his Cabinet.” “[Reagan’s] got about 250 members of such in his administration,” the Georgia representative lamented.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when pragmatism ruled politics and policymaking, McDonald presented a radical alternative to both main parties.

There was bipartisan support for legalizing undocumented immigrants, accepting civil rights and voting rights as settled law, supporting international alliances and military intervention, free trade, and the U.S. obligation to spread democracy abroad.

Both parties avoided outrageous claims about opponents. Culture wars and partisanship were weaker. Reagan, a conservative, supported several of these.

McDonald was on a Seoul-bound plane that unintentionally entered Soviet airspace a few months after his “Crossfire” interview. McDonald and 268 civilians died when a Soviet fighter jet shot it down.

McDonald died a communist martyr to his admirers. McDonald’s allies, including his widow, said Reagan’s reluctance to punish the Soviet Union’s mass murder was “typical” of his weakness. Hustler magazine published a ludicrous claim that Reagan assassinated McDonald because he had dirt on the president.

Complex combination of forces has brought McDonald’s ideas to the forefront of the GOP.

Several political savvy Bircher successors have woven their ideas and style into the Republican Party. Presidential candidates like the Rev. Pat Robertson in 1988, Pat Buchanan in 1992, 1996, and 2000, and Ron Paul in 2008 advocated isolationism, nativism, and seeing intentional sabotage everywhere, assuring that the GOP paid attention to far-right views, principles, and people.

The NRA, Conservative Political Action Coalition, and Charles and David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity have pushed extremist beliefs into the Republican conservative mainstream.

Republican leaders often promised to implement some of the far right’s agenda but failed to do so in office.

Reagan never banned abortion, reinstated school prayer, or drastically cut government. Instead, he signed compromise immigration and Voting Rights Act extensions and negotiated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union. These perceived betrayals left McDonald’s far-right ideological descendants dissatisfied and determined to move the party rightward.

After President George W. Bush’s second-term popularity plummeted, a more militant conservative coalition overtook the GOP. First Sarah Palin, then the tea party, and eventually Trump’s MAGA support rose. McDonald’s viewpoint, once marginalized 50 years ago, is now popular in the GOP.

This political environment has benefited Greene and her friends. McDonald’s anti-American conspiracies, in-your-face methods, culture-war politics, and skepticism of international institutions have shaped Greene’s political career.

Ideas and tactics permeate a society, creating a blueprint that future generations might modify. McDonald is more influential in 2023 than he was in Congress.

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