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There’s a standing convention that actors typically don’t acknowledge their audience. It’s a stance designed to elevate realism, whether their observers are sitting in the velvet seats of the theater or lying in bed. Only occasionally does the wall between performer and spectator get pierced; Shakespeare did it masterfully to convey his character’s inner-most thoughts. For D.C. nerds, think Frank—and then Claire—Underwood on House of Cards, when they spoke directly to the camera and the audience streaming the ruthless power couple’s ambitions from their home couches.
Well, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene yesterday seemed to pull her own Underwoodery in the subterranean office complex connected to the U.S. Capitol. The Georgia Republican, whom we’ve covered previously for her visceral understanding of how to capture Washington’s angst with her Trumpian antagonism, invited reporters to hear about her visit to the D.C. jail—a site similarly due a critical look for its defiance of American norms.
Greene’s report is perhaps the most official of the public reports from the government to detail the conditions at the notorious jail about two miles from the Capitol. It’s worth a full read here. This newsletter has been pretty clear in our frustration with how Greene has conducted herself in D.C., but she is absolutely right in her worry about what is happening to pretrial detainees in the capital of the world’s leading democracy.
“I would just like to ask all of you, as members of the press, to please read this report and share it with America. You have such a wonderful gift, the freedom of press. Americans need to know,” Greene said. Then, signaling a rare moment of self-awareness that she had earned little credibility among the reporters assembled in the room since her arrival in Washington in January, she added, “Whatever your political bias is, I ask you to please overlook it.”
The direct-to-camera appeal carried a whiff of authenticity that is usually absent from Greene’s political performance art. For a brief moment, she ceased to be the figure who chased the Parkland survivors with shouted questions about false flags and confronted Democratic colleagues with taunts about abortion on the steps of the Capitol, all while being filmed for her social media stans. Benched were suggestions that Jewish space lasers were to blame for wildfires, various endorsements of QAnon nuttiness and calls for the death of Democratic officials that have already led her to be marginalized in the House and booted from committees.
Despite the fact that Greene’s interest to in the issue was sparked by the Jan. 6 would-be insurrectionists who have been detained in the D.C. jail, there was, for a fleeting moment, a sincerity in her concern over the conditions there, which has already drawn an admission from (at least some in) the city that it is coming up way short on what is expected. She raised legitimate worries about the jail that have already prompted officials to plan the move of 400 prisoners to Pennsylvania to ease the overcrowding and poor conditions. (As of yesterday, just 135 had made the move even as the city’s chief of prisons insisted all was well.)
And then Greene and her comrades in conspiracy squandered that goodwill. They started to float concerns that perhaps the FBI or others in the U.S. government were actually responsible for the violent insurrection at the Capitol that sought to set aside the results of the 2020 presidential election. They suggested the Department of Justice was helping to conceal that truth and that public defenders were trying to indoctrinate their clients with Critical Race Theory.
Rep. Paul Gosar, sharing the stage with Greene in the sub-basement of the Capitol, flagged the hypocrisy of some outside groups in worrying about the jail’s conditions. “The silence from the ACLU and Amnesty International is deafening,” Gosar said. And then he repeated the jarring victim-framing so popular on the far right, calling those held awaiting trial for their role in Jan. 6 “political prisoners.”
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Rep. Matt Gaetz, who like the rest of the cohort is closely aligned with former President Trump, added his predictions of an aggressive regime of oversight, should the GOP claim a majority after next year’s elections. “We are going to take power after this next election and when we do it’s not going to be the days of Paul Ryan and Trey Gowdy and no real oversight and no real subpoenas,” Gaetz said. “It will be the days of Jim Jordan and Marjorie Taylor Greene and Dr. Gosar and myself… doing everything we can to get answers to these questions.”
The group’s instinctive veer into the fringe steered the press event back into the land of conspiracy and partisan bluster, and unfortunately rendered it all too easy for the mainstream to continue to ignore the grave and real concerns about how all prisoners in the D.C. department of corrections are being held.
The conditions at the D.C. jail are widely seen as unacceptable. The Department of Justice has waded into the mess and confirmed as much. The site is widely considered a human-rights disaster. There’s no denying that an inmate with recommended surgery, who was arrested after allegedly participating in the Jan. 6 riot, was held without treatment for months. Elsewhere, there are reports of inmates denied diet-compliant menus, access to lawyers and even basic dignities like haircuts, basic dignities that shouldn’t be difficult. And it’s been this way. For years.
Those arrested for their conduct on Jan. 6 turned the persistent problem facing mostly Black inmates in D.C. into a mainstream issue. And, as most of those arrested on Jan. 6 were white, it merely highlights the undercurrent of racism that Washingtonians see every day, whether they recognize it or not. (D.C. officials, of course, dispute such an assessment. Hours after Greene led her press event, corrections officials offered reporters a tour of the jail—but let them see none of the occupied cells or interview any inmates. Look! Running water and a functioning toilet! was basically the best headline they could muster.)
And that’s the problem with who fronts a campaign like this. When strategists set out to have a landmark case, they often check not just the legal merits but also the public relations potential of the parties involved. The NAACP passed over Claudette Colvin, a Black teen who refused to give up her seat in Montgomery, Ala., nine months before Rosa Parks did the same, in order to find an adult who—in some estimations—presented a more sympathetic figure. When strategists set out to challenge California’s Prop 8 that banned same-sex marriage, the team purposefully found petitioners who became stars on their own. The team behind Prop 8’s challenge quite literally cast their parties for what would be a well-received documentary.
That would never be the case with Greene and her allies, who truly live at the margins of the mainstream, even when they’re right. As punishment from her extreme rhetoric, Greene has no seats on committees, thus an effective zero-percent chance of actually getting any legislation passed. As a lawmaker, she could actually help deliver change for the D.C. jail here if she would keep the aperture narrow. That, though, would require her to trim the fringe and play to the audience before her and not chase the folks dozing in the balcony of her ever-growing theater.
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