The double life of Georgia’s ‘meming’ Congressman

U.S. Rep. Mike Collins’ social media profile has evolved from amusing to aggressive
U.S. Rep. Mike Collins, R-Jackson, chats with diners at Pot Luck Cafe in Monroe before sitting down for lunch with members of his staff.

Credit: Tia Mitchell

Credit: Tia Mitchell

U.S. Rep. Mike Collins, R-Jackson, chats with diners at Pot Luck Cafe in Monroe before sitting down for lunch with members of his staff.

JACKSON — The second floor of Collins Trucking’s headquarters is dedicated to the man who gave the multimillion dollar company its name.

Photos, plaques and other mementos gifted to Michael “Mac” Collins, who served in the U.S. House from 1993 to 2005, decorate the walls. It is a shrine to a “Blue Dog” Democrat-turned-Republican who held positions on the powerful Ways and Means and Intelligence committees in an era much different than the Congress of today.

His son, Michael “Mike” Collins, embodies that new Congress.

His dad’s successor, both in business and in the U.S. House seat representing their Butts County home, Mike Collins tells constituents that he came to Washington to get things done. Elected in 2022, he speaks about working across the aisle and proudly reminds colleagues and constituents that he was the first member of the current freshman class to sponsor a bill signed into law by President Joe Biden.

“I’m second-generation in the trucking industry, second-generation in Congress,” he told the Oconee County Rotary in February. “I’ve never been elected to anything in my life until I got this gig, but it is an honor to serve you in Congress.”

But there is another side to U.S. Rep. Mike Collins, one reflecting the Republican Party’s shift toward the far right and its makeover in the likeness of former President Donald Trump.

This version of Collins is most evident in his feed on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter. In between the more traditional posts from a sitting member of Congress — photos of events in his district and run-of-the-mill takes on the news of the day — are biting and sometimes headline-grabbing entries that reflect a lawmaker entrenched in the GOP culture wars.

Collins’ posts have at times been called racist, antisemitic or xenophobic. One even led to a temporary suspension of his X account.

That was after he appeared to advocate for killing immigrants who enter the country without legal permission and are later accused of crimes. In another post, he elevated an account filled with racist and neo-Nazi propaganda by reposting a comment labeling a Jewish journalist as a “garbage human.”

Still in his first term in office, Collins’ platform has increased largely because of his presence on social media. It is also the main source of criticism aimed at him.

His memes and far-right takes on X also serve to establish Collins’ conservative credentials in Washington. It gives him a direct line to a certain type of GOP voter in a way that no visit to the Rotary Club can and in a manner that did not exist when his father was in office.

Memorabilia from Michael "Mac" Collins' tenure in politics is displayed on the second floor of Collins Trucking; his son Michael "Mike" Collins has succeeded him in business and in the U.S. House.

Credit: Tia Mitchell

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Credit: Tia Mitchell

‘Memer’ of Congress

Like most other newbies to Congress, Collins arrived in Washington virtually unknown on the national stage. His district consists of mainly conservative, rural counties east and southeast of metro Atlanta, but it also includes Athens, one of Georgia’s most liberal enclaves.

Collins easily won a crowded 2022 primary to fill the seat vacated by Rep. Jody Hice, despite Trump endorsing another candidate. By the time the general election rolled around, the former president had given his blessing to Collins. More recently, Collins joined the list of Republican lawmakers who served as Trump surrogates during the 2024 primary season.

Collins’ silver mullet, often accompanied by a soft-spoken demeanor, easy smile and sharp suit, helps him stand out in the shuffle of lawmakers. Yet he spent his first few months quietly learning his way around the cavernous Capitol complex, getting to work on committees and avoiding the spotlight.

Like the vast majority of GOP lawmakers, Collins supported Kevin McCarthy’s rise as speaker even as 20 mostly far-right members resisted for nearly a week. But by September, the patience of a handful of Republicans had worn thin and McCarthy was ousted after making a deal with Democrats on government spending that angered some members.

It was at this time that Collins began to make a name for himself. For a three-week period, while GOP lawmakers struggled to find someone who had enough support to be elected speaker, Collins used humor and sarcasm online to reflect the frazzled nerves and strained relationships among Republicans.

There were Batman and Bart Simpson memes, inside jokes and funny one-liners. Two weeks into the debacle, Collins posted a stock photo of a woman musing about what was on the mind of the man in bed with her, his back turned.

“He’s probably thinking about other women,” the caption said.

The man’s actual thoughts: “Who can get to 217!?”

That post has garnered nearly 600,000 views. A man who identifies himself as a Biden-supporting former delegate to the Democratic National Convention replied, “Can you run for Meme-r of the House? I can work my tail off to get you at least 100+ Democrat votes.”

That moniker, “Memer” of Congress, stuck and Collins’ social media following increased exponentially.

But it wasn’t long before people, especially those with more liberal politics, were no longer laughing.

In early February, Collins responded on X to a photo circulating of a suspect who flipped off cameras upon his release from custody after being charged with attacking police officers. A fellow member of Congress had posted that the migrant should be sent away, and Collins responded: “Or we could buy him a ticket on Pinochet Air for a free helicopter ride back.”

That was a reference to Augusto Pinochet, a military officer and the de facto dictator of Chile for nearly two decades. Pinochet was known for punishing his enemies and critics by having his henchmen throw them from helicopters midflight.

Collins’ post was flagged as violating X’s policies, and his account was taken down for a few hours. A Huffington Post reporter who covers the far right reported that references to Pinochet Air had long been circulating within ultraconservative pockets on social media.

“The congressman here is parroting a meme that’s been popular among white supremacists & neofascists like the Proud Boys for the last 7 or so years,” the reporter wrote.

Three weeks later, a nursing student was killed while jogging on the University of Georgia’s campus in Collins’ own district. The man accused of attacking Laken Riley is an immigrant who arrived in the country without authorization, and Collins picked up again on the Pinochet meme.

“Jose Antonio Ibarra would make a great first passenger for the new Pinochet Air,” he wrote on Feb. 23, the day the man was identified as a suspect in the killing.

A different controversy arose last month when Collins replied to an account widely considered to be racist and antisemitic, indicating he agreed with a post labeling a journalist a “garbage human.” The next day, state Sen. Josh McLaurin delivered remarks on the Senate floor rebuking Collins and accusing him of “dog whistling.”

“There is no space for hate or antisemitism in Georgia,” said McLaurin, a Democrat from Atlanta. Colleagues applauded in support.

Former U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a Republican, and state Rep. Esther Panitch of Sandy Springs, a Democrat and the only Jewish member of the Georgia Legislature, were also among those who criticized Collins for that post.

He responded that he was only calling the reporter a “garbage human” because he disagreed with her take that the United States is a “sticky-fingered nation built on stolen land.” The Washington Post journalist had written a feature story about the national panic over shoplifting, but the author of the original post on X later made it clear that he was targeting the reporter because she is Jewish.

In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Collins said that he is aware some of his posts draw heavy criticism. But he said those outraged are not his target audience.

“That’s people that probably weren’t ever going to be happy with me anyway,” he said. “But that’s OK.”

Collins said he is being himself on social media, and that won’t change.

One GOP colleague confronted him on the House floor after Collins, in a post on X, ridiculed the 105 Republicans who voted with Democrats to oust disgraced Rep. George Santos. Collins complained the vote made the party’s already slim majority in the House even smaller.

“I felt it was a bad move,” Collins said. “We had a Republican; we had a bird in the hand right there. A Republican voting (who) hadn’t been convicted of anything and hadn’t gone to court. And we kicked him out.”

Collins said he uses X to bring more attention to what he and other Trump-aligned Republicans are trying to accomplish in Washington, and he especially wants to reach voters who usually aren’t very plugged into politics. Humor is the hook, but there is more substance than that, he said.

“It’s kind of like the old Baptist preachers,” Collins said. “In a way, they kind of mix in a few jokes and preach the Gospel at the same time.”

These posts allow Collins to signal to far-right Republicans who are chronically online and might not be as interested in the same stump speech he gave to the Rotary, said Yale University professor Daniel Karell, a sociologist who has researched political communication on the internet.

“This meme-ificiation of online right-wing culture allows people to have these signals, these kind of winks and nods and inside jokes that allow them to play both these sides,” Karell said. “To have this kind of moderate side, but then also send out these signals to people.”

Karell said this phenomenon grew after Trump won the 2016 election and is evident not just on X but on other social media sites frequented by the far right, such as Truth Social and Parler.

The 24-hour news cycle and a larger focus on fundraising have also put members of the House, who are elected to two-year terms, in permanent campaign mode. Karell said that could also explain why lawmakers such as Collins are constantly looking for ways to connect with people who could be future voters or donors.

“We might be seeing this behavior as part of this permanent campaign type of environment,” Karell said. “Not just him, but everyone has to be involved in constantly communicating and signaling to your constituents, both the moderates and also the more extreme elements.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Collins, R-Jackson, at North Oconee High School in Bogart, GA, Tuesday, February 20, 2024. (Nell Carroll for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Nell Carroll for the AJC

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Credit: Nell Carroll for the AJC

Becoming a new conservative

Collins has resisted aligning himself with hard-right members by joining the House Freedom Caucus. But he often votes with the likes of Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Andrew Clyde, members of the Georgia delegation considered to be among the most conservative among House Republicans.

He has opposed nearly every funding bill that has been brought to the floor, particularly stopgap measures that House Speaker Mike Johnson has negotiated with Democrats to avoid government shutdowns. But while he has criticized those packages for not cutting enough spending and not including strict border security policies, he has also avoided attacking Johnson.

“He didn’t have many options, but it doesn’t mean that I have to personally support those options,” Collins said in January ahead of one vote on temporary spending. “But it doesn’t mean I’m going to kick him out.”

Collins is among the Republican lawmakers participating in the earmarks process to get money for specific projects in their districts, even as they rail about the level of overall spending. He voted against a $468 billion package in early March that provided long-term funding for about one-third of federal agencies, even though it contained $1.4 million Collins had requested for a water main project in Madison County.

Two weeks later, when Collins also voted against a second bill funding the remaining 70% of the government, he wrote on X: “Today’s thousand-page, earmark-filled, $1.2 TRILLION minibus represents everything that is wrong with Washington.”

Offline, Collins has led Georgia’s delegation in a bipartisan effort to address delivery delays by the U.S. Postal Service and backed federal funding to deepen the Savannah port. He said he was surprised when he was named chairman of the House Subcommittee on Research and Technology but has grown to enjoy it and view it as another opportunity to benefit his district.

“I couldn’t believe it — a freshman, a trucker — to give me Research and Technology,” Collins told the Rotary members. “By God, I wasn’t giving it back. And it’s a very important committee for people like the University of Georgia, who do a lot of research and ag science and space.”

Collins even launched a bid to move into leadership, running for Republican conference vice chairman after Johnson was elevated from that post to speaker. He was eliminated on the first ballot after receiving the least amount of votes.

Ever since Riley, the nursing student in Athens, was killed on Feb. 22, the slaying has been one of Collins’ main focuses in Congress. He was the lead sponsor of a bill fast-tracked to the House floor and named for Riley that would require immigrants in the country without authorization who are accused of theft to be detained by federal immigration authorities. The measure also would allow states to sue the federal government for refusing to enforce immigration policies.

Collins was at Trump’s side when they met with Riley’s family and said he received their blessing to attach her name on his immigration crackdown efforts. He said he took her death personally.

Republican presidential candidate and former president Donald Trump speaks about slain nursing student Laken Riley during a rally at Forum River Center in Rome on Saturday, March 9, 2024, as supporters hold up signs with her photo. (Arvin Temkar /


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“I’ve got a 26-year-old daughter,” he said. “And we send our young adults off to college like that, you expect them to be in a safe place and in a town that is safe. And I guarantee you most families didn’t know that their child was going to Athens, Georgia, to a sanctuary city.”

Athens and its leaders have drawn Collins’ ire for policies he believes are too friendly to immigrants who entered the country unlawfully. He and other Republicans have said Riley’s death is proof that Biden has failed to secure the border, and on social media he has gone even further with posts that appear to demonize all immigrants who lack paperwork.

But even on this topic, there is a side of Collins who is willing to work across the aisle in hopes of finding a path forward to get something done. Recently, he met with Georgia U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, both Democrats.

He told conservative radio host Martha Zoller that he would address questions raised by the senators in hopes of getting the Laken Riley Act passed in that chamber and signed into law. During the segment, there was no mention of Pinochet Air as Collins outlined why he hoped Senate Democrats would embrace his bill.

“We’re not trying to do political work here, we’re just trying to do good policy,” Collins said. “And there’s a difference in that.”