Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz tape an episode of Gaetz's "Firebrand" podcast in Gaetz's Washington office
Shuran Huang for TIME
June 14, 2022 6:00 AM EDT

On a Tuesday afternoon in late April, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene walks into the seventh-floor congressional office belonging to Representative Matt Gaetz, settles into a high-backed black leather chair, and fits a pair of headphones over her blonde hair. The taping is about to begin for the 38th episode of Gaetz’s “Firebrand” podcast, and Greene is the high-wattage guest star.

Greene has come straight from Dulles Airport, so Gaetz takes a minute to catch her up on today’s topics before the recording starts. There is much to discuss: the latest Anthony Fauci-related controversy; Greene’s trip to the U.S.-Mexico border; the five hours Greene recently spent testifying before a Georgia administrative judge that she should not be deemed an insurrectionist and tossed off the congressional ballot. “And then, of course, I’m going to go into our favorite subject,” Gaetz tells his colleague. “How the Republican Party is being led, and how it should be led.”

“Oh boy,” Greene chuckles. “I just got here from the airport! And Matt’s like, let’s start ’er off, and let’s torch the news cycle.

Torching the news cycle is what Gaetz and Greene love to do. They are constantly in the headlines for their attention-getting antics, outrages and feuds. The pair have defended the Jan. 6 rioters, promoted countless conspiracy theories, hobnobbed with white nationalists and picked fights with colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Their own Republican colleagues have called them “unserious,” clowns, bigots, and worse. The humorist Dave Barry called them “Trump’s inner circle of trusted wack jobs.”

Gaetz and Greene have been cannily building their leverage in Congress (Shuran Huang for TIME)
Gaetz and Greene have been cannily building their leverage in Congress
Shuran Huang for TIME

Gaetz and Greene are the ringleaders of the GOP’s most hard-core, pro-Trump congressional faction. The MAGA Squad, as you might call them, is not a formal caucus, but its numbers are growing—despite the impending departure of one prominent member, Rep. Madison Cawthorn, who lost his North Carolina primary after scandals ranging from insider-trading allegations to lewd videos. The group includes freshmen members like Lauren Boebert, who accused a Muslim colleague of being a member of the “Jihad Squad,” as well as longer-serving representatives like Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, who pushed Trump’s Department of Justice to throw out electoral votes after the 2020 election, and Paul Gosar of Arizona, who has extensive ties to white nationalists and once posted an animated video showing him murdering Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with a sword. There’s Representative Andy Biggs of Arizona, who allegedly helped plan the Jan. 6 rally that preceded the Capitol riot, and Mo Brooks of Alabama, who spoke at the rally. Several members have been subpoenaed by the Jan. 6 Committee, which is also investigating Representative Barry Loudermilk for leading what some have called a “reconnaissance” tour of the closed Capitol on Jan. 5, 2021. There have long been rabble-rousing right-wingers in Congress, but this group makes the Freedom Caucus seem tame.

To Republicans trying to convince voters to hand them power this November by seeming sensible, sober and interested in governing, they’re a constant headache and distraction. The Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, has described Greene’s “loony lies and conspiracy theories” as a “cancer for the Republican Party.” Not that the MAGA Squad care what the GOP Establishment thinks: Back before Twitter permanently banned her for spreading Covid misinformation, Greene shared a tweet calling Kevin McCarthy—the leader of her own party in the House—a “feckless c-nt.”

Democrats and many Republicans deride the group as gadflies, irrelevant to the serious business of lawmaking. But in fact, the MAGA Squad has been cannily building leverage and clout in the halls of Congress. Now, with the primary season in full swing across the country, they’re looking to pad their numbers, recruiting like-minded firebrands in red districts, endorsing and campaigning for fellow insurgents in intra-party contests, and even, in some cases, campaigning against their own colleagues. (Gaetz boasts that a rally he headlined last year for Harriet Hageman, a primary opponent of Representative Liz Cheney, was at that time “the largest political event in Wyoming history without a rodeo element.”)

Most political observers expect Republicans to win the House in November, putting McCarthy in line to be the next Speaker. But to win that position, McCarthy will need the backing of 218 of his colleagues. There are currently 208 Republicans in the chamber, and election handicappers project the party will win another 15 to 20 seats. Depending on how many they gain, McCarthy is likely to need the support of even some of the party’s most extreme members. “At this point, not knowing the size of the potential majority, leadership is about keeping all the frogs in the wheelbarrow, even if some of the frogs are pretty ugly,” says a former GOP leadership aide who estimates there are about a dozen members of the “real cray cray.”

Particularly if the majority is a narrow one, the MAGA Squad will have ample leverage—and McCarthy has been acting like he knows it. For a time, McCarthy made a feeble effort to rein in his party’s nut jobs and conspiracy theorists. Now he seems more eager to curry favor with them. Last year, he condemned Greene for comparing mask mandates to the Holocaust; more recently, when Greene was kicked off Twitter, he issued a fiery statement in her defense. When the New York Times released audio recordings of McCarthy privately condemning Trump and expressing alarm at the rhetoric of Gaetz, Greene and Boebert in the aftermath of Jan. 6, the House Republican leader rushed to make amends with his members. (McCarthy’s office declined to comment on the record for this story.)

The MAGA Squad has spent the past year building their power, and now they’re preparing to wield it. If McCarthy—or any other Republican—wants to be Speaker, he’s going to have to go through them. And he’s not getting their votes without meeting their demands, which could include things like prosecuting Fauci, ousting Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, or even impeaching President Biden. The purpose, they say, isn’t amassing power for themselves. It’s shaping the agenda—and reshaping what the Republican Party stands for.

Greene and Gaetz make small talk as his staffers set up the livestream on Rumble, a conservative-friendly social-media site. “On two Sunday shows, they had a big discussion of how irrelevant we are,” Gaetz confides to Greene, who sits next to him at a long table surrounded by klieg lights. On the wall of the cramped congressional-office-turned-podcast studio, there’s a black-and-white poster for S.J. “Jerry” Gaetz, the congressman’s grandfather, that dubs him “North Dakota’s Most Progressive Mayor.” In a glass display case, there’s a handwritten note from President Trump, scribbled in Sharpie on an article about Gaetz defending himself against a federal sex-trafficking probe involving the transportation of a 17-year-old across state lines. “Matt, This is Great,” Trump wrote. “Keep fighting – You will WIN!”


More from TIME


A note from Trump is prominently displayed in Gaetz's congressional office (Shuran Huang for TIME)
A note from Trump is prominently displayed in Gaetz's congressional office
Shuran Huang for TIME

Gaetz believes his podcast to be Congress’s first-ever live-streamed simulcast, and sees it as an example of the innovative ways he’s working to get his message out. “They had to mention us by name to talk about how irrelevant we are,” Gaetz continues gleefully. “They love talking about the irrelevant people on the Sunday shows.” As Greene cackles at the irony, three-two-one the recording begins, and Gaetz introduces his guest, “the unbeatable, unstoppable Marjorie Taylor Greene.”

Gaetz plays the Sunday-show clips. Appearing on Fox News Sunday, GOP political operative Karl Rove had dismissed the idea that McCarthy faced significant internal opposition. “There may be a few dissidents of the sort of Matt Gaetz-Marjorie Taylor Greene wing of the party, which seems to consist of basically two people,” Rove sniffed, mispronouncing the former’s name as “gites” instead of “gates.”

Gaetz turns to Greene to get her take on this statement. “I want to tell you about Karl Rove,” she says, her syrupy Southern accent suddenly clipped and serious. “Karl Rove’s wing of the party is the failure part of our party.” It was this wing of the GOP, she says, that “led us into never-ending foreign wars,” needlessly killing American troops and leaving others to struggle with injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder and drug addiction. “Their wing of the party has led us to this massive debt the American people are in,” Greene says. “Their wing of the party sent our jobs overseas. Their wing of the party is the complete failure that exists here in this town, Matt, and nobody cares what Karl Rove has to say. Everyone cares about what you have to say. People care about what I have to say. People care about what Donald J. Trump, the 45th President of the United States, has to say.”

Read More: On the Campaign Trail With Marjorie Taylor Greene.

She’s not finished. “So Karl Rove can go kiss my ass, because I could care less what he has to say about any of us,” she says, drumming the table in agitation. “He’s dead wrong. He’s disconnected. And shame on Fox News for constantly having him on there.”

“I do not believe that there is a single Republican running in a single primary in America that would rather stand on stage with Karl Rove or Chris Christie than Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz,” Gaetz responds. “There might be more of them inside the Beltway of Washington, D.C. But there’s more of them that are like us that are going to be voting in these primaries that run from now through September.”

Greene waves signs with supporters outside a voting center in Dallas, Ga. (Andrew Hetherington for TIME)
Greene waves signs with supporters outside a voting center in Dallas, Ga.
Andrew Hetherington for TIME

Of all the things she’s done in her 18 months in Congress, Marjorie Taylor Greene is proudest of having thoroughly irritated her colleagues—Republicans and Democrats alike. “A lot of people beat me up and say, ‘Oh, she doesn’t even have committees,’” Greene tells me. “There’s so many ways to be effective, even if you’re not on a committee.”

In February 2021, Greene was stripped of her committee assignments—just two weeks after she received them—after some of her old comments advocating political violence surfaced. In one 2019 Facebook video, Greene accused Speaker Nancy Pelosi of treason, which she described as “a crime punishable by death.” The House voted to remove Greene from the budget and education committees by a vote of 230 to 199, with 11 Republicans joining the Democrats in condemnation. But if they thought that would stop her, they were wrong.

Much of the House’s business is mundane—dozens of uncontroversial bills that can be passed on a voice vote if no member objects. Realizing this, Greene decided she would park herself on the House floor and object to every one, forcing each of the 435 members to show up and take a position, yea or nay.

“I think at first everybody thought, oh, she’s just mad, she’s got nothing else to do, so she’s pitching a fit,” Greene, who rarely speaks to the national mainstream media, tells me during a recent campaign swing through her Georgia district. A voice vote only takes an instant, but a recorded vote is held open for at least 15 minutes. “Everyone had to stop what they’re doing,” she says, with evident satisfaction. “They would have to leave whatever meeting they had, committee hearing they had, lunch meeting they had, fundraising calls they were doing, all because I would ask for a recorded vote. So it was an annoyance, and it slowed everything down.”

Greene would sit there, hour after hour, making her objections. In March 2021, she knocked 13 bills off the schedule in a single week. Some never came back. Others turned out not to have the votes to pass. A first-term backbencher in the House minority was single-handedly derailing multiple bills the Democratic majority wanted to approve.

The incensed majority leader, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, complained to McCarthy, according to Greene. “He demanded to know, is she going to keep doing this?” she says. “And basically [McCarthy] said, ‘We can’t control her—we can’t make her stop. I think she’s going to keep doing it.’ And I did keep doing it. And then all of a sudden it was Republicans who started getting mad.” (McCarthy’s office did not dispute Greene’s account of his conversation with Hoyer. In a press conference last year, he said “every member has a right” to make such procedural motions.)

According to Greene, some of her GOP colleagues told her she was forcing them to take positions on tricky issues they’d rather avoid. “And I thought, you know, that even makes me want to come in harder,” she recalls. “Because, to me, why would any member of Congress be afraid for anyone to know how I vote? So I doubled down and kept doing it.”

A number of her right-wing colleagues have now joined Greene in her floor objections. In May, a fellow House Republican complained to CNN that the tactic was “screwing all of us,” while the Democratic Chairman of the Rules Committee, Jim McGovern, compared the gambit to children throwing tantrums. “It’s clear Kevin McCarthy has no control over his members,” McGovern fumed. By Greene’s count, she has personally forced 39 recorded votes, and together with her allies has forced more than 500.

It’s a sunny day in Northwest Georgia as Greene and I talk in the back of her campaign SUV, which is stocked with energy drinks, Advil and—Greene’s favorite—peanut M&Ms. She’s campaigning in advance of the May 24 primary, which she will soon win easily. Greene may not be popular in Washington, but she’s very popular here. The primary pitted her against five Republican challengers, all of whom campaigned on behaving less divisively. One was backed by the D.C. GOP establishment, with support from numerous national political-action committees and even some of Greene’s congressional colleagues. (Donors included Senators Bill Cassidy and Mitt Romney.) Greene went on to take 70% of the primary vote, winning by a 50-point margin.

At campaign stops, the 48-year-old mother of three and former construction executive is mobbed by fans sporting Let’s Go Brandon T-shirts, InfoWars paraphernalia, and Impeach Biden stickers. At a diner in Rockmart, a small town near the Alabama border, a man with a cane and a big white beard shows up wearing a gray shirt with a picture of Greene shouldering an assault rifle and the words, “The GREENE New Deal.” She laughs and gives him a hug. Constituents tell her they’re worried the next election might be stolen, as they believe the last one was. They ask why the military can’t be deployed to expel “illegal aliens.” They want to know why Democrats don’t seem to believe in God.

Supporters of Marjorie Taylor Greene at campaign events in her district before the May 24 primary (Andrew Hetherington for TIME)
Supporters of Marjorie Taylor Greene at campaign events in her district before the May 24 primary
Andrew Hetherington for TIME

“Anything I can do for you?” she asks a man in a booth wearing a Second Amendment trucker cap.

“Just keep doin’ what you’re doin’,” he says. “Give ‘em hell.”

Greene isn’t just a celebrity here. She and Gaetz drew hundreds of supporters on a joint “America First” tour last summer that made stops from Iowa to Arizona. A June Morning Consult/POLITICO poll found three-quarters of American voters have heard of Greene, nearly matching McCarthy’s 87% name recognition. Greene has raised nearly $10 million during her term, making her one of the conference’s top fundraisers. The Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance cited Greene’s endorsement as one of the most important factors in his recent primary victory, along with Trump’s and Tucker Carlson’s. Liberals and the media may pity or despise the constituents who thrill to Greene’s provocations, but in a democracy, they are as deserving of representation as anyone else, and in Greene, they see the closest thing they’ve had to a real voice in Congress. This is the source of her power, and her colleagues in Washington know it.

Before she ran for Congress in 2020, Greene was just your average Q-curious Christian mom, posting conspiracy theories on Facebook and cheering Trump against his many haters, from the “Nazi” George Soros to the “Islamic invasion” of Muslim elected officials. Some national Republicans shunned her candidacy—the House GOP’s No. 2, Steve Scalise, backed her primary opponent, though McCarthy was neutral—but Trump embraced her, tweeting that she was “a future Republican Star.”

Greene, who says she still talks to Trump regularly, repaid the favor before she even took office. On Dec. 31, 2020, she texted Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, to let him know she had arrived in DC and would “like to meet with Rudy Giuliani again” to “get organized for the 6th,” according to messages Meadows provided to the Jan. 6 select committee that were obtained by CNN.

On Jan. 6, she and Gaetz were planning to spearhead an objection to the certification of Michigan’s electoral votes when violence broke out instead. “Please tell the President to calm people,” she texted Meadows. “This isn’t the way to solve anything.” The next morning, she wrote, “Absolutely no excuse and I fully denounce all of it, but after shut downs all year and a stolen election, people are saying that they have no other choice.” Meadows replied, “Thanks Marjorie.”

By Jan. 17, three days before Biden’s inauguration, she still hadn’t given up. “In our private chat with only Members, several are saying the only way to save our Republic is for Trump to call for Marshall (sic) law,” she told Meadows. “I don’t know on those things. I just wanted you to tell him. They stole this election. We all know. They will destroy our country next. Please tell him to declassify as much as possible so we can go after Biden and anyone else!” (Greene has refused to comment on the texts, saying she doesn’t trust CNN and can’t confirm they are authentic.)

Today, her view is that while Jan. 6 was a horrible riot, it’s hypocritical of Democrats to focus on it while ignoring the riots that occurred across the country in the summer of 2020. “I was upset for weeks after [Jan. 6]. I was really shocked,” she tells me. “And then, what happened afterwards, we all get blamed for it. And that is still hurtful to this day—hurtful even more now, because now I’m being thrown in the news as supposedly one of the people that caused it.”

In our interview, Greene declined to criticize McCarthy for the leaked tapes, ascribing the harsh words to a tense time long past. “I think we were all saying negative things about each other” at that time, she says. “There was a lot of confusion.” She would like to see the caucus run differently in some ways, “but I’m not going to go on a full bashing-Kevin-McCarthy tirade,” she says. “Kind of like I wouldn’t take my kids and fuss at them out in public. I would take them and we would talk about it privately.”

But Greene is forthright about the fact that she expects to have some leverage over McCarthy if he seeks the Speakership, and she intends to make the most of it. Whoever wants to be the next Speaker, Greene tells me, is going to have to earn her backing—and that of her allies. “I would say my support is very important,” she says. “I think I may have some influence. Probably, if margins are narrow, it would be a strategic key.”

What will she demand? Greene doesn’t want to show her hand completely, but says she’s in the process of formulating a policy agenda she calls “American Revival.“ The package of bills, which Greene hopes to unveil before the election, is likely to include her proposals to rein in social media platforms, bolster border security and eliminate Fauci’s position. “I want to see a plan, and I want to know the person is going to stick to it,” she says of whoever solicits her vote for Speaker. She would like to see the GOP majority impeach Biden, for one thing, and pass a federal abortion ban for another. “If everyone says they’re pro-life, we should end abortion,” she tells me. In speeches to constituents, she advocates firing Fauci, investigating Hunter Biden, and impeaching Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas along with the President. She and Gaetz have argued that a Republican House should focus on investigating and exposing Democratic malfeasance rather than passing partisan “messaging” bills that will never become law.

What she definitely doesn’t want to see is a repeat of the Paul Ryan years, which she terms “weak leadership.” “I mean, Paul Ryan didn’t repeal Obamacare,” she says. (When Ryan was Speaker in 2017, the House did in fact pass a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but it failed in the Senate.) “They didn’t fund and build the wall. And when every Republican there called themselves pro-life, they didn’t do anything about abortion, but they actually funded Planned Parenthood.”

“To me,” she adds,that’s a complete failure on three fundamental issues.”

For all the harsh rhetoric, Greene says she’s been trying to dial it back and become more of a team player as she’s gained experience in Congress. “I’ve learned a lot. I’ve definitely made mistakes,” she says. I ask what comes to mind. “Maybe attacking at times when I didn’t need to, when I could have tried talking to them first, but I attacked publicly,” she says. “Kevin McCarthy is one. I’ve attacked other colleagues for their votes.” Then again, she reflects, “I’m not saying I won’t ever do it again. I probably will.”

One of Matt Gaetz’s favorite mementos is a photo with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the liberal congresswoman from New York and national political celebrity. In the picture, they’re dressed in their congressional garb, standing with big smiles on either side of Father Patrick Conroy, a Jesuit priest and House chaplain, who had asked them to pose for his 2019 Christmas card. (Greene, for her part, recently accused the Catholic Church of being “controlled by Satan” for its work assisting migrants.) “Peace on Earth, Good Will to All!” it says in red script beneath the photo.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Matt Gaetz pose alongside former House Chaplain Father Patrick Conroy for Conroy's 2019 Christmas card (Shuran Huang for TIME)
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Matt Gaetz pose alongside former House Chaplain Father Patrick Conroy for Conroy's 2019 Christmas card
Shuran Huang for TIME

But that was two impeachments and an insurrection ago. Gaetz used to have cordial relationships with some Democrats, finding common ground on issues like antitrust and drug policy. (Once, he and Ocasio-Cortez even teamed up on a failed amendment to promote research of psychedelics.) But few Democrats will even talk to him anymore, he explains mournfully. “It was the populist right and populist left against the neoconservative middle,” Gaetz says. “But all of that functionally ended after Jan. 6.” All the policy affinity in the world, it seems, was no match for one little attempted coup.

Gaetz’s brown hair rises from his forehead in a magnificently gelled wave. “Ever since Dave Brat lost, this has been the best hair in Congress,” he boasts, referring to a former Republican representative from Virginia. He’s fascinated by Ocasio-Cortez and her allies in the left-wing Squad, who he sees as role models for the mastery of asymmetric power. “I have studied carefully the tactics of the Squad, and many are admirable,” he tells me in one of our interviews. “I am very impressed at the ability of a very small number of people to shape the policy goals of the conference. That’s what I want to do.”

Read More: Matt Gaetz Wants To Make Trumpism the New Normal.

It’s not just the votes the Squad commands, but their ability to use social media, grassroots fundraising and clout with the Democratic base to pressure congressional leadership. Gaetz points to a July 2021 episode in which Democratic Representative Cori Bush of Missouri protested the expiration of the federal eviction moratorium: “Is not one of the greatest flexes of the 117th Congress Cori Bush sleeping on the steps of the Capitol and getting the Biden Administration, in a matter of, like, 48 hours, to totally reverse their position?” he says. “I obviously don’t share the policy goals of Congresswoman Bush, but there’s a freshman congresswoman who, by virtue of a pretty compelling direct action, got the Biden Administration to straight-up flip.”

Gaetz considers himself different from other members of Congress. He travels widely, campaigning for other members and candidates, but has held just one fundraiser in the past four years. He doesn’t take money from political action committees—neither corporate PACs nor those associated with advocacy organizations like the National Rifle Association. (Like Greene, Gaetz represents a safe Republican district, Florida’s 1st, which covers the state’s Western Panhandle.) And he prides himself on taking unconventional stands for a Republican. During his time in the Florida legislature, he wrote and passed the state’s laws legalizing gay adoption and medical marijuana. In 2020 he defied Trump to vote with Democrats to limit presidential war powers in Iran, earning a public scolding from McCarthy and Lou Dobbs on Fox News.

Gaetz has no interest in running for a leadership position or giving C-SPAN speeches to an empty chamber. “Members of Congress are often actors who are reading out lines and participating in scenes that are produced, directed and written by others,” he says. “They don’t have agency. And often the people who are writing the scripts and producing the plays are donors and lobbyists.”

A few days after the Times published its recording of McCarthy privately telling colleagues in the wake of the Jan. 6 breach that he planned to urge Trump to resign—something he had denied having said just the day before—the paper released another recording from the same time period, in which McCarthy, on a phone call with GOP leadership, singled out Gaetz and accused him of “putting people in jeopardy” by publicly referring to Cheney as “anti-Trump.” In that recording, McCarthy also expressed a wish that members like Boebert, Greene, Brooks and Barry Moore of Alabama might lose their Twitter accounts. He said he had consulted with the FBI and planned to tell Gaetz, “This is serious s–t, cut this out.”

Gaetz tells me that McCarthy did subsequently call him, but the conversation went rather differently. “He calls me and says, ‘When you’re talking about other members, I would prefer you not use their names, okay?'” Gaetz recalls. “And I said, ‘When they stop using Trump’s name, I’ll stop using theirs.’ And he said, ‘Well, I asked,’ and I said, ‘Well, agree to disagree.’ The entire call lasted less than 30 seconds.” The interaction, Gaetz says, felt more like a box-checking exercise than a tongue-lashing.

Upon the tapes’ release, Gaetz publicly called McCarthy “weak” and said his comments were “sniveling” and “not worthy of leadership.” On May 28, when Trump held an anti-Cheney rally in Wyoming, McCarthy sent a video message that the crowd roundly jeered.

“I see conditions that are unfavorable to a successful speakership when, at a Donald Trump rally, the leader of the Republican conference was booed on a monitor and likely would have been booed off the stage,” Gaetz tells me. (Gaetz was scheduled to appear at the rally, but his flight was canceled. When he appeared on the monitor, the crowd cheered.) Before the Times tapes, Gaetz tells me, “I don’t think McCarthy would have been booed at a Trump rally. After he talked s–t about me, the boos rained down, and I got a standing ovation.”

Gaetz is recruiting and endorsing like-minded candidates to join him in the next Congress (Shuran Huang for TIME)
Gaetz is recruiting and endorsing like-minded candidates to join him in the next Congress
Shuran Huang for TIME

In a normal world, McCarthy’s duplicity might disturb the members he purports to lead. But the bulk of the Republican caucus responded with a shrug—a weird equanimity that only makes sense in the twisted Washington logic of mutual self-preservation, the same peculiar docility with which most GOP politicians accepted Trump’s constant humiliations. McCarthy and Trump both said they had mended fences with no hard feelings. (Trump recently endorsed McCarthy for reelection, but has yet to back him for Speaker.) When McCarthy walked into the caucus meeting immediately following the tapes’ release, he was greeted with a standing ovation and announced, according to Gaetz, that he planned to “lean in” to the controversy, whatever that means. (McCarthy’s office did not dispute Gaetz’s description of his remarks.)

Even Gaetz says he hasn’t ruled out voting for McCarthy for Speaker. He says he wasn’t particularly shocked by the revelation that the leader had lied. “Truth is not really part of the covenant between Republican leadership and the membership,” he says. “It is a covenant based on money. Kevin McCarthy is the most elite fundraiser in the history of the Republican caucus. He is the LeBron James of lobbyist and PAC fundraising. And that is his covenant with the conference.” It would be silly, in his view, to be surprised by McCarthy’s deceptions. “I mean, John Boehner lied to us constantly. Paul Ryan lied to us constantly. What, we thought we were going to get the great truth-teller next?”

How much power Gaetz and his allies have in the next Congress depends, of course, on how the midterms turn out. He has endorsed and campaigned for numerous House candidates, including Anna Paulina Luna and Anthony Sabatini, both running for open seats in Florida; Joe Kent, a primary challenger to Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington state, who voted to impeach Trump; and Bo Hines, who won his North Carolina primary in May. Most have been endorsed by Trump. Some face McCarthy-backed primary opponents.

“I need backup,” Gaetz says. “If I don’t get a bunch of folks through these primaries and into this expected Republican majority—if [the new GOP members] are all just here to cash the lobbyist checks, shuttle the PAC money to leadership and earn their frivolous attaboys along the way—I don’t have much of a fighting force.”

Gaetz says no one has asked for his vote for Speaker, but his ideal candidate would be Representative Jim Jordan, the veteran Ohio right-winger who passionately defended Trump during the first impeachment, and who Gaetz calls “the spiritual and intellectual leader of this conference.” “Where Jim goes, the conference goes,” Gaetz adds. “I don’t even remember who holds which austere titles that append to what corner offices and expanded staff budgets, but they are the followers. Jim Jordan, Marjorie Taylor Greene, myself—we are the leaders.”

Jordan has said he supports McCarthy for Speaker and has no plans to run. Then again, anything can happen: McCarthy was in line to become Speaker when Boehner stepped down in 2015, only to be derailed in part by rumors of an affair, and have Ryan take the job instead. “Paul Ryan was for Kevin McCarthy last time Kevin ran for Speaker,” Gaetz says cheekily. “I think one of the first steps to becoming Speaker is initially supporting Kevin McCarthy.”

But Gaetz, Greene and their fellow travelers argue it would be a mistake to see them merely as a thorn in McCarthy’s side. In fact, these days, they’re pretty pleased with him. When Greene was kicked off her committees, she demanded McCarthy promise to retaliate by removing some Democrats from committees once Republicans take the majority. He immediately agreed. When Gaetz proposed that the prospective Republican majority focus every House committee on oversight of the Biden Administration, McCarthy soon began touting the same idea—in practically the same words. When McCarthy made a recent trip to the southern border, Greene was among the members invited to tag along.

“I frankly have more animosity and disappointment with Kevin McCarthy for enabling her than Marjorie Taylor Greene herself,” says a GOP congressional aide. “She’s accruing power and forcing leadership to be subservient to her. She knows really well how to wield power.” Why vote against a man you’ve already got wrapped around your little finger?

“The critique of McCarthy is not that he has ignored us, or pretended like we don’t exist,” Gaetz adds with a broad grin. “In fact, he’s highly responsive to us.”

The MAGA Squad: They’re here. They’re weird. And pretty soon, they may be in control of the GOP Congress—if they aren’t already.

With reporting by Mariah Espada and Julia Zorthian

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Molly Ball at molly.ball@time.com.

EDIT POST