In American politics, it’s natural to try to make these distinctions between supposedly “fringe” elements of a political party and the more cautious, pragmatic ones. Those distinctions satisfy a very human need to impose a sense of structure and order on what we see and think. And that paradigm has been the governing principle of accepted political analysis since the founding of the Republic: there have always been categorized subgroups: “Whigs,” “Tories,” “Dixiecrats,” “Liberals,” “Blue Dogs,” “Moderates,” “Progressives,” and so on.
But as the country approaches the two-year anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection and finds itself witness to another Republican debacle—one that, like the stunning physical assault on our government occurring that day, is wholly unprecedented in recent history—it’s well past time for the news media to rethink those assumptions. Because there is no longer any Republican “establishment.” There is no daylight between McCarthy and those who oppose him as speaker. This is simply a party comprised almost entirely of nihilists, with no interest whatsoever in serving the needs of the American public. Their only interest is retaining the perks and privileges of power, and the only distinction between them is which members can throw their bombs the farthest.
The flat refusal by the “Never-Kevin” faction of the current GOP to make any accommodations toward one of their own is telling. No matter how much McCarthy offers in concession to this particular group, they remain unmoved and intransigent. As Josh Marshall, writing for Talking Points Memo, puts it, that’s because there’s nothing that McCarthy can provide that these particular fanatics don’t already believe they possess. They know they are the true Republican Party, and anyone who isn’t as nihilistic as they are is simply a heretic.
The reality is that they can trust him to give in to literally every far-right demand. But it hasn’t been enough. Because at heart the GOP is now a burn-it-down party. They want to break things. There are no chits McCarthy can give them. Because breaking things is the goal. At this moment the thing is Kevin McCarthy. But that’s just momentary.
As Marshall and others have pointed out, the transmogrification of the Republican Party into a vehicle for complete destruction has been ongoing since the formation of the tea party in 2008-2009. Then a largely astro-turfed creation of the Kochs and other billionaire Republican donors, the tea party faction channeled the racism that infects most of the Republican voter base into a cohesive political force that (not coincidentally) served those same billionaire donors’ business interests. The same people who made up the tea party now call themselves the “Freedom Caucus,” but the only difference now is that their numbers have grown to the point where they are the wholly dominant force motivating the GOP. To the extent any “moderate” Republicans exist, they are wholly powerless, thanks largely to the malign influence of Donald Trump.
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As Charles Blow, writing for the New York Times, explains:
Donald Trump became Exhibit A for the synergy of fame, power and influence the Republican base craves when he broke through the establishment firewall in 2016 and gave his supporters what they wanted: an unbridled political anarchist, an unapologetic white nationalist.
During the Trump era, the Marjorie Taylor Greenes of the party became rock stars among the base, even if they were jokes among their colleagues. Their success has made the term “fringe” a poor way to describe them. In many ways, they are the Republican Party.
As is emphasized in both Marshall’s and Blow’s analyses, Donald Trump did what no other president had tried to do up to that point: fully and publicly embrace the bomb-throwers, and “govern” according to their whims alone. In doing so he gave those same fanatics a legitimacy that they’d never before achieved. The predictable result was a thoroughly corrupt, feckless administration culminating in a deliberate (if clumsy), unsuccessful effort on Jan. 6, 2021, to overthrow the entire democratic system that had spawned it. But the more lasting effect of Trump’s absorption of the GOP was displayed in full view that same day, in the actions of the 147 Republican members of Congress who voted to disenfranchise the majority of the American electorate, each of them parroting the preposterous notion that the 2020 election was somehow fraudulently decided.
The Republican Party as it exists now is not far removed from the pseudo-governmental structures of totalitarian and authoritarian states in which any deviation from the party line is simply unacceptable, punishable by expulsion, or worse. This riveting trainwreck of Republicans trying to elect a nominal leader that Americans are now witnessing on C-SPAN is simply a predictable consequence of its transformation into a monolithic bloc of ideological nihilists. Whoever it is that Republicans finally elect as their speaker—be it McCarthy or anyone else—that person is going to be no different from anyone currently described as being among the party’s “fringe.” He (or she) can’t afford to be anything but subservient to the party’s dominant ethic, one that values only non-governance and destruction of the institutions that stand in the way of its power.
Media and pundits should remember this when and if this embarrassing spectacle finally resolves. These very same people are provided the keys to actual power in Congress: outright nihilism, and total antipathy to government aren’t just abnormal and unhealthy; they’re inherently disqualifying for any functional democracy. These people simply don’t deserve to be heard or credited in a representative form of government, because they are fundamentally uninterested in it.
And that will be the case no matter who they ultimately accept as their “speaker.”
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