Tuesday should have been a joyous day for Republicans in Congress, as they kicked off two years as the majority party in the House of Representatives by swearing in new members and electing one of their own as speaker of the House. Instead, Tuesday’s vote for speaker showed just how dysfunctional the GOP has become and what a precarious position the party has put itself in.
Despite finding themselves in the minority, it was Democrats who were jubilant on Tuesday, voting unanimously for Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the first African American to lead a major party in Congress, as speaker. He succeeded Nancy Pelosi, the first female speaker of the House, who led House Democrats for two decades.
Republicans struck a far dourer note. Minority leader Kevin McCarthy was unable to scrounge up the votes he needed for the speakership – the first time in a century that the vote has had to go beyond a first ballot. Even though McCarthy knew he didn’t have the votes he needed going into the selection process, Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik from New York put on a bizarrely confident show when she announced his nomination, citing midterm wins that delivered a Republican majority to the House under McCarthy’s leadership.
But the Republican House majority is a narrow one, and Republican candidates far underperformed expectations in the midterms, as a promised red wave was more of a small but toxic red tide. Voters generally rejected Republican extremism, but the party has unfortunately moved so far toward conspiracy and the cult of former President Donald Trump that many of its most untethered members – including but not limited to Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Andy Biggs of Arizona, Matt Gaetz of Florida and Jim Jordan of Ohio – were reelected.
A “furious” Greene was one of the few on the Republican far right to cast her vote for McCarthy. These are people with views extreme enough and divorced enough from reality that they would have once been called “fringe.” But how fringe is a view if it’s held by more than a dozen elected members of Congress?
But don’t cry for McCarthy. He has spent the past several years courting and catering to those in his party who engage in conspiracy theorizing and election denial, and has even supported members who have played footsie with White nationalists.
He seems to understand just how damaging Trump and the cult of personality around him has been to the GOP – his private phone calls made in the aftermath of January 6, 2021, made clear that he worried that members of his own party were endangering other lawmakers with their rhetoric – but then chooses to empower those dangerous members anyway.
Now, he’s reaping the consequences of helping to reshape his party in the image of Trump. A hallmark of Trumpism was a rejection of decency and moderation and the intentional destruction of the institutions that kept our country stable and the kind of traditions that helped to build trust and functional governance. His most rabid followers in Congress have followed his lead, embracing this spirit of narcissism and burn-it-all down rage.
And McCarthy, who in the early days after the January 6 attack said Trump bore responsibility for it but didn’t support his impeachment, and who helped usher conservative extremists into office and then protect them once there, is experiencing the all-too-predictable outcome of handing power to the unhinged.
Now, the GOP is in a precarious position. Even if McCarthy manages to squeak out the leadership, a powerful and vocal contingent of his party has publicly humiliated him and expressed their lack of confidence in his control (it seems worth pointing out that several of the extremists who voted against McCarthy are also among the loudest and most recognizable members of Congress).
That does not bode well for the Republican Party’s ability to govern, and instead suggests that the next two years might be characterized not just by intense partisan divides, but by a profoundly dysfunctional GOP heading into a contentious presidential election.
This is the Republican Party that Trump made. But it’s also the party that McCarthy has nurtured. And now, he’s meeting his monster.