U.S. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy

U.S. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) departs from his office for a series of votes in the U.S. Capitol Building on January 09, 2023 in Washington, DC. During 118th Congress's first day of business since electing a Speaker of the House, the House held a series of votes on a rules package with parameters for the House of Representatives.

(Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

The New McCarthyism Is Coming

Is that you, Kevin?

It has always been clear that a Republican takeover of the House of Representatives would signal real danger for American democracy. Last week’s drama surrounding Kevin McCarthy’s ascension to the House Speakership was a sideshow. The demands of the so-called “far-right” Gaetz Gang—“so-called” because the entire House Republican leadership and most of its members are far-right—for House rules changes was never a sincere effort to promote greater transparency and deliberation.

More important, the changes were always motivated by a genuine far-right agenda far beyond legislative “process”: to weaken the Biden administration and the Democratic Party, to harass and intimidate all so-called “deep state” agencies of the federal government, and to wage a culture war against liberalism.

"[Republicans] cannot govern. But they do not seek to govern. They seek to lay waste to what they despise..."

McCarthy’s nauseating encomiums to “democracy” notwithstanding, it is now even clearer that what House Republicans have in store for us is a version of “democracy” best described by the influential, Carl Schmitt, whose political ideas helped to pave the way for the rise of Nazism in the 1930’s:

Every actual democracy rests on the principle that not only are equals equals but unequals will not be treated equally. Democracy requires, first, homogeneity and second—if the need arises—elimination or eradication of heterogeneity . . . A democracy demonstrates its political power by knowing how to refuse or keep at bay something foreign and unequal that threatens its homogeneity.”

This is precisely what the new McCarthyism promises: the investigation, punishment, and suppression, if not the more ominous “eradication,” of what is “foreign” and “threatening” to the MAGA vision: the Democratic Party, liberalism and progressivism in all of its variations, and especially “wokeness” as it has supposedly corrupted and debased all educational, scientific, and legal institutions. And while McCarthy himself speaks out of both sides of his mouth—playing to his red base while also pretending to be “moderate”—his entire leadership team, with his blessing, is already laying the foundation for this latest MAGA assault on liberal democracy.

Exhibit 1: News outlets report that plans are underway for the House Armed Services Committee to investigate and purge “wokeness” in the armed forces. Rep. Mike Rogers—the so-called “moderate” that assaulted Matt Gaetz on the House floor after McCarthy’s failed fourteenth ballot last week—is in line to assume the chairmanship of the Committee. And he has already declared: “All this wokeness in the military, we are going to be aggressively trying to root that stuff out.” As Paul Waldman has pointed out, there is absolutely no evidence that the U.S. military is overtaken with “wokeness.” But there is a great fear on the right that traditional gender norms, and especially conceptions of “masculinity,” have been waning in society at large, including the military, and this fear is being stoked daily by Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, and a host of other right-wing media personalities. And so it is now Republican dogma that liberal gender norms, and the protections they offer to many citizens, must be eradicated. This obviously represents a threat to women, LGBTQ individuals, and perhaps even ethnic and racial minorities. But it also represents a threat to all of those inside the military, in the officer corps and in the military academies and educational institutions, who are working to create a culture of greater tolerance and understanding of the world. In short, it represents a threat to the very practice of military professionalism.

We can thus look forward to Benghazi-like hearings in which General Milley and a range of other military leaders who have refused to follow the example of Mike Flynn will be subjected to public inquisition and debasement.

Exhibit 2: Sunday’s Tweet from Rep. Steve Scalise, McCarthy’s loyal lieutenant who will now step into the role of House Majority Leader:

Every one of these promises represents an attack on the federal government. The “SPR oil sales” is a nod to the investigation of Hunter Biden and on Joe Biden himself (the logic of this is laid out in Barton Gellman’s recent Atlanticpiece, “The Impeachment of Joe Biden”). And items two and four are clearly aimed at the Justice Department’s investigations and prosecutions of the January 6, 2021 insurrection, including its cases against Donald Trump, and is possibly also aimed at the House January 6 Committee itself (promised by McCarthy back in November).

Exhibit 3: The “committee on the weaponization of the federal government against citizens” is a very serious, and ominous, initiative that is clearly intended to counter, and undermine, the now-terminated January 6 Committee. The new committee, a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, will be chaired by Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan. As the New York Timesreports, the Republican initiative will grant Jordan extensive power:

authority to subpoena the Justice Department for information about the special counsel inquiry into Mr. Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election and his handling of classified documents, along with other politically charged matters like an open tax investigation into President Biden’s son, Hunter Biden . . . [it] would also grant Mr. Jordan’s panel the power to receive the same highly classified information that intelligence agencies make available to their oversight committee, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.”

This committee is being promoted by Republicans as “a new Church Committee.” But it is likely to be more similar to the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee which, along with the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations chaired by the infamous Joseph McCarthy, contributed immeasurably to the evisceration of civil liberties during the 1950’s, and indeed created a new term in the lexicon of American politics: “McCarthyism.” When the records of McCarthy’s closed, executive sessions were finally made public by the Senate in 2004, Senators Carl Levin and Susan Collins issued this statement:

Senator McCarthy’s zeal to uncover subversion and espionage led to disturbing excesses. His browbeating tactics destroyed careers of people who were not involved in the infiltration of our government. His freewheeling style caused both the Senate and the Subcommittee to revise the rules governing future investigations, and prompted the courts to act to protect the Constitutional rights of witnesses at Congressional hearings. … These hearings are a part of our national past that we can neither afford to forget nor permit to re-occur.”

It is very clear that this past is now prologue.

House Republicans are taking aim at the Biden administration; the Democratic Party, including their own Democratic colleagues; and a wide range of governmental institutions deemed “tyrannical.” They will use their investigative and subpoena power to destroy individuals, disrupt the process of government, attack opponents, and delegitimize the very institutions of liberal democracy. And they will be aided, abetted, and incited by a far-reaching network of media institutions and social media platforms.

They cannot govern. But they do not seek to govern. They seek to lay waste to what they despise, and especially anything that is “foreign” to their perverse idea of “American Greatness.” What they despise is nothing less than political pluralism and liberal democracy itself.

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