Marjorie Taylor Greene’s Genocide Rhetoric Creates a Permission Structure for the Right — But Permission to do What?

Georgia Republican, Marjorie Taylor Greene at the 2022 Student Action Summit in Tampa, Florida. Image: Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Even for her, it was a chilling statement. “We’re all targets now though, for daring to push back against the regime,” Marjorie Taylor Greene claimed at a Trump rally in Michigan last Saturday. This is not the first time she and other right-wing Republicans and media figures have railed against what they call “the regime”—the democratically elected US government. But, while this is familiar territory for Greene, this time she escalated her rhetoric. The Georgia Republican, who refers to those convicted for their role in the insurrection as “political prisoners,” declared:

“I’m not going to mince words with you all. Democrats want Republicans dead. And they have already started the killings.” 

This is a startling escalation—even for Marjorie Taylor Greene. It’s also a bold-faced lie: The example she proceeded to give of a teenager killed, “because he was a Republican,” referred to a hit-and-run that had—as the local police department and even Fox News report—nothing to do with politics. Greene also claims that “even last week an 83-year-old woman was shot in the back for advocating for the unborn.” 

The implication here seems to be that the woman was killed. Again, however, Greene is egregiously misrepresenting the facts: An 84-year-old woman got into a heated argument while campaigning against abortion with the wife of the man who, according to his own testimony, accidentally shot her while trying to move her clipboard away with the butt of his rifle. She was hit in the shoulder and drove herself to the hospital where she received treatment. The man is facing charges for felonious assault. Greene—whether out of ignorance or a lack of concern for the facts—misconstrued these two incidents as “killings” of Republicans, ordered by Democratic officials.  

Many articles have been written about how much of Republican warnings of an authoritarian state seem to be projection. But Greene’s claims go one step further than that. What she employs here is referred to by scholars of genocide as an “accusation in a mirror”—a tactic that’s been used by genocidal movements or parties for decades as preparation for the commission of unspeakable atrocities. 

The term was first introduced in a paper written by French psychologist Roger Mucchielli in 1970, as a method by those planning to commit genocide to build a basis of justification against their enemy. In a cruel twist of fate, after the Rwandan genocide, scholars found a memo, in which a Hutu propagandist cited Mucchielli’s work—in which he had warned against such rhetorical tactics—and used it as a tool to prep Hutus for the genocide against the Tutsis. The propagandist explains: “In this way, the party which is using terror will accuse the enemy of using terror.” 

According to genocide historian Alison Des Forges

“The unknown author of the memo claims that with methods like the ‘accusation in a mirror,’ propagandists could persuade ‘honest people’ that they were facing an existential threat by the enemy and it was therefore necessary for them to commit atrocious acts of violence ‘for legitimate [self-] defense.’” 

In Rwanda, and in other genocides, this strategy worked as intended, she says:

“both in specific cases such as the Bugesera massacre of March 1992 … and in the broader campaign to convince Hutu that Tutsi planned to exterminate them. There is no proof that officials and propagandists who ‘created’ events and made ‘accusations in a mirror’ were familiar with this particular document, but they regularly used the techniques that it described.” 

The “accusation in a mirror” strategy has a long and bloody genocidal history. Scholar and attorney Kenneth L. Marcus writes: 

“In its genocidal form, AiM (Accusation in a mirror) has been used and refined by Nazi, Serbian, and Hutu propagandists. Adolf Hitler, for example, warned that Jews intended to engage in mass-murder while he devised his own plans for Aryan domination. Similarly, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia observed this phenomenon in Serbia: ‘In articles, announcements, television programs and public proclamations, Serbs were told that they needed to protect themselves from a fundamentalist Muslim threat . . . that the Croats and Muslims were preparing a plan of genocide against them.’  Indeed, this form of propaganda has been so widely used as a means of inciting genocide that it can properly be classified with demonization and dehumanization as a basic form of genocidal rhetoric.”

It’s a bad sign when an elected official—any elected official—engages in what scholars of genocide describe as “genocidal rhetoric.” What makes it worse is that Marjorie Taylor Greene is no outlier in her party. Although she’s long been described as the fringe of the GOP, she and others, like Lauren Boebert, have found their way into the mainstream. 

How can we possibly tell? Well, for one: she has not and will not receive any meaningful pushback from her Republican colleagues on her incendiary, genocidal rhetoric—at least not from anyone that still has political aspirations in the party. Sure, a Marjorie Taylor Greene or Lauren Boebert might choose their words more crassly than a Lindsey Graham would, but they’re united behind one conviction, as Georgetown history professor Thomas Zimmer writes:

“(…) what Greene is saying has been fully normalized on the Right, maybe not in the exact formulation she uses, but certainly in substance. That is true for her extremist Christian nationalism in general as well as for her embrace of political violence more specifically. The reason why so many Republicans are willing to embrace Greene’s extremism is that her core message is fully in line with what’s become dogma on the Right: Democrats are widely seen as a radical, dangerous, “Un-American” threat that has to be stopped by whatever means.”

This is far from the only example where Greene has used flat-out lies in order to stoke violence as a form of imagined “self-defense” against “the Left.” She’s previously called the Democratic Party the “party of pedophiles” and even called her three Republican colleagues who voted to confirm Ketanji Brown Jackson “pro-pedophile.” 

Greene might have seemed an outlier in the Republican Party only a couple of years ago (former Congressman Steve King was stripped of his committee assignments for white nationalist statements in 2019 that are run-of-the-mill for Greene today), but is firmly rooted in its mainstream these days. We must recognize this for what it is: Not just rhetoric, not just mere words, but one of the characteristic warning signs of genocidal ideation. And while it’s all too easy to become numb to the ongoing radicalization, Zimmer proposes we continue to ask ourselves a question:

“What are they giving themselves permission to do? That is the key question, analytically as well as politically, when dealing with the Right. And an honest assessment should leave little doubt that democracy and the rule of law are currently in an acutely perilous situation.”

Statements like Greene’s are all about creating a permission structure for the Right, about deploying violence—genocidal violence, even—against their political opponents or anybody else whose existence endangers what they see as the God-given order of the world—like LGBTQ, and especially trans people

Months earlier, Lauren Boebert was praying at a political rally for Biden’s death. But she wasn’t even the first in the GOP to use Psalm 109:8 against a political opponent—Senator David Perdue had done the same in 2016 against Obama. 

Political and religious violence is emerging as a core theme of Republican politics in 2022—an ever-present theme on the campaign trail—and one that’s neither being disguised nor disavowed by the party, but rather celebrated and reveled in. What are they giving themselves permission to do, indeed.