U.S. Rep.-elect Matt Gaetz sits next to Rep.-elect Lauren Boebert

U.S. Rep.-elect Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) sits next to Rep.-elect Lauren Boebert (R-Col.) in the House Chamber during the fourth day of elections for Speaker of the House at the U.S. Capitol Building on January 06, 2023 in Washington, DC.

(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Another January 6, Another GOP Mob

They may be wearing suits and carrying briefcases, but this is a mob just the same—a dangerous one.

It’s the afternoon of January 6. There is chaos on the floor of the House of Representatives, and the business of Congress is stalled. Will the meeting be adjourned so that leaders can figure out whether and how it might be possible to restore normal order, so that the business of the House can be resumed?

Back in 2021 these questions arose in the most dramatic way imaginable, in response to the insurrectionary invasion of the Capitol building by an angry ragtag mob seeking to attack public officials deemed “disloyal” and to undermine the democratic election of Joe Biden as president.

It’s now 2023, and the outcome of another election is unfolding at the Capitol. Again a right-wing mob is attempting to seize control of the House floor in order to hijack the political system. But this time the mob consists of besuited Republican politicians recently elected to the House.

The chaos we are now witnessing centers on the inability of the newly elected Republican majority to agree on a new Speaker of the House. The mainstream media has focused obsessively on the dramatic confrontation between Republican leader Kevin McCarthy and a small group of self-styled “change agents,” led by Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert, willing to delay indefinitely the normal business of the House in order to obstruct McCarthy’s ascension to the Speakership. This obstruction is figured as “extremist,” and the effort to codify Republican control of the House and “get back to business” is regarded as “normal.” The obstructionists are figured as “radicals” and the supporters of McCarthy as “moderates.”

Pundits on CNN and MSNBC breathlessly wonder whether McCarthy can “get control of the extremist wing of his party.” And every time they wonder, they lend a patina of respectability to McCarthy and his supporters, and obscure the fact that every House Republican, on either side of this dispute, is an extremist, the differences between them miniscule and largely personalist.

Through thirteen rounds of House voting, each one followed by more McCarthy concessions, this has been made increasingly clear, and indeed it has been stated, explicitly, by every Republican who has risen to speak in support of McCarthy: the real “enemy” of them all is Biden and his supposedly critical race theorizing, open border loving, and freedom hating liberal supporters. And so they should “reach across the aisle,” and join together as America-loving Republicans, to vanquish their “Democrat” foes, “enemies of the people” all.

Let us not forget that on the evening of January 6, 2021, when the House finally reconvened hours after members had fled the chamber and the building in fear for their lives, 139 House Republicans—two thirds of the caucus– voted to overturn the election results in order to nullify Joe Biden’s election. Among them were the four top leaders of the current Republican caucus who are now being touted as “institutionalists”—Steve Scalise, Elise Stefaniak, Jim Jordan, and Kevin McCarthy himself.

Since last November’s washout of the so-called Republican “red wave,” it has become fashionable to say that the electorate had decisively repudiated “election denialism.” And it is true that almost all of the most extreme election deniers endorsed by Trump, especially at the state level, were defeated. But, as the Washington Post’s Philip Bump has shown, “House Republicans who opposed 2020 electoral vote paid no price,” and indeed almost every single one of them who ran for reelection—over a hundred– was successful. Indeed, according to the Huffpost, when newly-elected Republicans are added in, the number of election deniers in the 2023 House rises to as many as 170—more than the number who voted to overturn Biden’s election in 2020.

On January 3, the Post’s Amy Gardner reported that “all but two of the 20 Republican House members who voted against Kevin McCarthy . . . are election deniers who embraced former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was rigged.” This may be true. But it is also true that all but a handful or two of the House Republicans who voted for McCarthy were also election deniers and in effect still are election deniers.

To put this more bluntly: the idea that the Biden presidency, and indeed Democratic political power more generally, is illegitimate, and must be reversed by a combination of culture war and dramatic changes to election law—this idea is the common sense, and indeed the catechism, of the entire current Republican party.

Kevin McCarthy and Jim Jordan and their crowd are not eager to become the official leaders of the House so that they can promote a coherent policy agenda. They are eager to assume the reins of power so that they can do what they have long said they wanted to do: relentlessly stymie, investigate, and hound the Biden administration, the Justice Department, the FBI, and the Centers for Disease Control, and more generally to undermine what they call “the deep state.” If there is any distance between McCarthy supporters and “Never Kevins,” it is only that the latter are eager to proceed in an even more fanatical way (one MSNBC journalist just reported that one of McCarthy’s “concessions” to his opponents was an agreement to support the impeachment of Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas–something that McCarthy himself threatened last November).

The distance between the “original” January 6—2021—and today is not very great at all.

As the House Selection January 6 Committee Report now makes clear, the violent assault of the mob on the Capitol that day was the culmination of a very extensive effort by Trump and his supporters to use a range of legal and extra-legal means to stay in power. The violence was rather quickly seen as excessive by almost all Republican members of Congress—no doubt because it threatened their very lives—if only for a while (within days they were walking back their criticisms of Trump, then opposing his impeachment, and then eventually kissing his ring at Mar-a-Lago). But it has long been clear that the primary means by which the Republican party seeks to weaken political opposition, cement its own power, and thereby limit democracy, are legal or quasi-legal means—through federal and state law, court rulings, and executive power when they control it. And the key to this agenda is the weakening and the delegitimation of the Biden administration, the Democratic party, and liberal democracy itself. Control of the House of Representatives is now central to this. On this all the House Republicans now squabbling about titles and rules and committee assignments agree.

There may be differences among them. But when it comes to their hostility to liberal democracy, they are united. They may be wearing suits and carrying briefcases. But they are a mob, and they are dangerous.