House Speaker Kevin McCarthy

Former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) stares ahead.

(Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc. via Getty Images)

The Republican Revolution Devours Its Children

Kevin McCarthy was the Kerensky of the Republican revolution; Gaetz is its Lenin.

The conventional media narrative of House Republicans’ dumping Speaker Kevin McCarthy tells us that the act represented disarray and dysfunction within the House GOP, just as its ever-changing list of legislative demands prior to the threatened government shutdown was supposed to be a sign that Republicans didn’t even know what they wanted.

Confusion, incompetence, and blundering ideological zeal offer a superficially convincing explanation. The truth is worse.

It was not disarray and dysfunction in the GOP Conference, but a logical succeeding chapter to January 6. When the destruction of constitutional government could not be accomplished by violence, the leading element of the Republican Party resolved to accomplish it by paralyzing government, a goal now achieved. The deposing of the speaker makes shutting down the government and giving a boost to ideological soul mate Vladimir Putin ( by withholding aid to Ukraine) more likely, an outcome that has always been the goal of the only faction of the GOP that matters.

McCarthy was the surrogate target to appease their simmering frustration with “politics as usual”—meaning constitutional democracy.

After the vote to eject McCarthy from the speaker’s chair, there was the inevitable grousing from House Republicans about Matt Gaetz, the lead instigator of the coup. Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) said, “I’d love to have him out of the conference. He shouldn’t be in the Republican Party.” Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) said potential measures against Gaetz would be “pursued in the conference.”

That the majority of the House GOP dislikes Matt Gaetz and his allies is irrelevant. They could have shut him down through expulsion or other sanctions before the fact had they chosen, but they didn’t because they are passive collaborators at minimum. They resemble the French gendarmes who did nothing to obstruct the deportation of Jews or the arrest of résistantes in World War II, but instead meekly went along with the Nazis. The after-the-fact grumbling from these human nullities counts for nothing.

The media’s concentration on Republicans’ pique with Gaetz dodges the deeper question: What, if anything, separates the majority of the House GOP from the insurgents who defenestrated McCarthy? Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), was one of the insurgents. She is a woman who makes theatrical gestures in the direction of abortion rights, thus earning her the title of “moderate,” a term the establishment press is desperate to bestow on any Republican who doesn’t advocate turning Yosemite National Park into a toxic waste dump. She claimed that McCarthy broke his word to her about moderating the House position on abortion.

The argument doesn’t wash. What could have possibly made her think that McCarthy would—or even could—restrain all 221 House Republican members on the one issue that for 40 years has been the party’s sick obsession, in order to mollify a single member? And even less plausible, what made her think that Jim (“ Gym”) Jordan or any other likely successor as speaker would lift a finger on her behalf?

On the other hand, Paul Gosar (R-Ariaz.) did not vote to dump McCarthy, but the fact that he has publicly, in a constituent newsletter, called for the execution of General Mark Milley, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tells you all you need to know about the moderation of those Republicans who sided with the now-former speaker.

It was always unclear exactly what policies the insurgents wanted McCarthy to follow to retain his speakership, just as it was uncertain, a week earlier, exactly what hostages House Republicans wanted in order to avert a shutdown. First, they demanded draconian cuts throughout the federal government, and, when that would not fly, proposed massive spending on border security (the incongruity of shutting down the government, which would entail either laying off the Border Patrol or making them work without pay, in order to improve border security should be obvious).

In the end, a solid majority of House Republicans supported the continuing resolution to keep funding the government. So why did McCarthy have to go?

All the apparent turmoil and confusion over spending levels and other stuff of traditional American politics were mere window-dressing in the eyes of the new core of the Republican Party. What they really want—and what required McCarthy’s biblical sacrifice to temporarily appease their frustration over not getting it—is something that cannot be accommodated within the Constitution or the traditional give-and-take of politics.

What they want is a radical reordering of society: the takeover or suppression of an independent press, arrests of political enemies, the stripping of rights from various minorities and outgroups, mass deportation of migrants and others considered undesirable, the purging of non-supporters at all levels of government, even extrajudicial killings—all of it accompanied by vigilantes and private militias roaming at large to enforce the new order.

This is a vision that Republican officeholders obviously cannot openly express, because it would give the game away. It accounts for their frustration and apparent vacillation when they are forced to play the inside game of conventional politics. I suspect it accounts for McCarthy’s demise: He was the surrogate target to appease their simmering frustration with “politics as usual”—meaning constitutional democracy.

But in influential corners of the extreme right that are less visible to the public at large, in places like Hillsdale College or the Claremont Institute (January 6 codefendant John Eastman’s source of wingnut welfare), in books by conservative intellectual wannabes, or in manifestos that have taken up where the Turner Diaries have left off in the goal of dismantling democracy, that vision stands out vivid and stark. It is the same authoritarian, fascist vision that has intermittently cursed the planet since the end of World War I.

The supposed “moderates” could stop this determined move towards populist dictatorship, but the odds are overwhelming that they won’t. Reps. Bacon and Mace, for all their whining about the crazies in their party, opted not to impeach Donald Trump in the second impeachment vote, even as the shattered glass from the violent insurrection that he incited was still being swept up at the Capitol.

When future historians trace the Republican descent into madness, they may depict Kevin McCarthy as the Alexander Kerensky of the American right-wing revolutionary movement. Like Kerensky, he was opposed to the established order, and was suitable as an interim figure. But he lacked the decisiveness of the Bolshevik faction of the Russian socialist movement, and only lasted roughly as long as McCarthy did.

Like the hard core of the Bolsheviks and like the leading elements of violent revolutionary parties everywhere, the Republican extremists, even if they are a minority, constitute the vanguard of right-wing extremism in America. That vanguard, as Lenin taught, consists of people sufficiently decisive, ruthless, and unscrupulous to dictate events while the mass of party members obediently follows along. The procrastinators and temporizers find themselves in the dustbin of history.

It is little wonder that Steve Bannon, one of the architects of the movement that was to assault the Capitol and depose McCarthy, said, “I’m a Leninist. Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

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