The House Republicans have triggered a Chernobyl of their own, a chain reaction that will inexorably lead to a meltdown to their core surrounded by a radioactive forbidden zone. Saboteurs rush in unobstructed, setting blazes and planting explosives. The nominal fire chief stands dumbfounded, an observer transfixed at the raging conflagration, anxious about his escape route. “This is a whole new concept of individuals that just want to burn the whole place down,” the fire chief fumes. Then, smoke billowing behind him, he flees the scene and tells everyone to go home for a week.
The speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, is the speaker in name. He has the part. He will do anything to retain the honorific. Gesture by gesture he dispenses with the powers of his office for the sake of wearing its polished badge. If nature abhors a vacuum, his unnatural enemies thrive in it. He agreed to their demand that instead of proposing a continuing resolution for 30 days to continue negotiations on the budget he would divide appropriations into 14 separate bills, each requiring a procedural vote to be able to consider them. Twice he dutifully brought to the floor the procedural votes for the defense appropriations bill, and twice they were contemptuously rejected. His heedless appeasement was a defeat foretold. The federal government shutdown looms.
McCarthy could have ignored his hostage takers. He could have made an agreement with the House Democratic leader, Hakeem Jeffries, on the basis of the already negotiated bipartisan budget deal with the Senate Republicans. McCarthy could have brought along some of his caucus and that with the Democrats would be a comfortable majority. And he could still attempt to make a deal. If the far right initiates a motion to vacate, to try to remove him, the Democrats could join with a portion of the Republicans to maintain him.
But the consequences of demonstrating that he has a backbone would almost certainly spark the motion. To survive, he would have to confront his tormentors; to vanquish them, he would have to discredit them. To discredit them, he would have to contend with the greater power behind their cabal whom they imitate and serve, Donald Trump, who presses for the catastrophic outcome because he prospers on disorder.
In the meantime, the sidelined Democrats watch and wait. If the Republican illogic reaches its logically absurd conclusion in a shutdown, would McCarthy, if he resisted, be removed? And, after numerous inconclusive ballots to elect a speaker, would five Republicans agree to vote for Jeffries as speaker, who would give them committee chairmanships, so that the House would be a functioning body? Perhaps, in the speculative possibility, there would be no speaker, without which there would be no functioning House, therefore no functioning Senate, and therefore no functioning government. It would be Trump’s dream come true. Would President Biden have to step in to authorize emergency funding until there is a Democratic House?
McCarthy would seem to prefer to die the coward’s death of a thousand cuts. In the midst of the meltdown, McCarthy chose to appear on Fox News to state that Trump is the certain Republican nominee, “stronger than he has ever been”, and that his rival Ron DeSantis is “not at the same level”. The fire chief is the pyromaniac enabler in chief. Yet he still complains about the arsonists.
None of his Trump worship helps McCarthy quell the Trump miscreants, or calms anybody else in the House Republican Conference, for that matter. McCarthy is perceived as having the vision of a mole, the courage of a squirrel and the dignity of a dunk-tank clown. But that’s only what Republicans think of him. The feeling is not reserved to those who wish to destroy him, but held by those sustaining him.
From the more regular Republicans the nicest thing said about him is that he’s “weak”, as Representative Victoria Spartz, Republican from Indiana, recently put it. “It’s Kevin McCarthy who failed us,” she said, invoking the founding fathers “rolling over in their graves”. She is so disgusted she is not running for re-election. Representative Mike Garcia, Republican from California, accused his party’s irreconcilables of being Manchurian candidates. “This city,” he said, “Washington DC, is riddled with Chinese sympathizers.” Representative Don Bacon, Republican from Nebraska, went biblical: “Some of these folks would vote against the Bible because there’s not enough Jesus in it.” Representative Mike Lawler, Republican from New York, declared: “This is not conservative Republicanism. This is stupidity … It’s a clown show.”
Matt Gaetz, the towel-snapping bullyboy, is the ringleader of the rump caucus desperately seeking to bring the House to a halt. Preening as a lady-killer, he has notoriously remarked of women’s rights activists: “Why is it that the women with the least likelihood of getting pregnant are the ones most worried about having abortions? Nobody wants to impregnate you if you look like a thumb.” The congressman from Florida was not charged earlier this year in a justice department investigation into his alleged involvement with the sex trafficking of a minor in which a close associate of his pleaded guilty. But the House ethics committee began questioning witnesses in July in an investigation of Gaetz’s alleged sexual misconduct and illicit drug use. The kindest things he has said about McCarthy are that he is “unhinged” and “lying like a dead dog”.
Gaetz has furiously been trying to force McCarthy out and to close the ethics committee investigation. “Matt is upset about an ethics complaint,” McCarthy explained. In response, Gaetz called him “a sad and pathetic man who lies to hold on to power”. Gaetz has drafted a resolution of a single sentence to remove McCarthy: “That the office of speaker of the House is hereby declared to be vacant.” The date was left empty on the document, a copy of which was discovered on a baby-changing table in a bathroom near the House chambers.
The proximate source of McCarthy’s quandary lies in his devil’s pact to gain the office he has long coveted, since he failed in his bid in 2015 to succeed the retiring speaker, John Boehner. He finally secured the post after 15 ballots in which he was dragged around for four days by Gaetz & Company. His Faustian bargain was to promise all things to all fringes. The premise of his getting power was to relinquish it.
McCarthy “has made promises on each of those issues to different groups. And now it is all coming due at the same time,” said the rightwing representative Ken Buck. One of Gaetz’s allies, Representative Tim Burchett, Republican from Tennessee, compared McCarthy unfavorably to the former Democratic speaker Nancy Pelosi (“Well, he’s not as mean as she is”), and added, “We are very dysfunctional right now.”
Representative Chip Roy, Republican from Texas – who inhabits an outer reach of the right and who, as Senator Ted Cruz’s chief of staff, was instrumental in precipitating a federal government shutdown in 2013 in a vain attempt to overturn the Affordable Care Act – declared: “I honestly don’t know what to say to my fellow Republicans other than you’re going to eat a shit sandwich and you probably deserve to eat it.”
The origins of the self-destructiveness of the House Republicans always run to the rise of Newt Gingrich. When he was a backbencher, the leadership thought it could unleash him to damage only the Democrats, a gambit from which the party regulars would reap the ultimate benefit. But Gingrich quickly became uncontrollable, torpedoing President George HW Bush when he made a deal with the Democratic Congress to raise taxes. When Gingrich rocketed into the speakership, fueled with grandiosity, he staged two federal government shutdowns in 1995 and 1996, but was stood down by President Bill Clinton, which laid the pathway to his re-election.
Among Gingrich’s insidious techniques was the introduction of an unstated rule that a bill could be brought up for a vote only on the basis of approval of a majority of the majority, which was in fact a minority of the overall body. This tilt empowered the right within the House Republican Conference and isolated moderates. Under Gingrich, the rule was not actually often applied. But under the speakership of Dennis Hastert, who replaced him, it became known as the Hastert rule, canonizing the rule of the minority.
From the Hastert rule onward, the tyranny of the minority in the House became an operative principle. Whether it was applied or not, the right could exercise its power through its sabotaging veto, leading to a spiraling descent. Ever smaller minorities wielded threats; ever more facsimiles of Gingrich spontaneously generated. (Hastert himself was convicted in 2016 of sexually molesting four boys as a high school wrestling coach and imprisoned.)
In 2015, a gaggle of House rightwingers led by Jim Jordan formed the Freedom Caucus, which in a relatively short time systematically wrecked the Republican speakerships of John Boehner and Paul Ryan – and, by the way, kept Kevin McCarthy out of the office.
But after the Republicans lost the House majority in 2018, McCarthy had enough juice to beat Jordan in the contest to become minority leader. A careening Trump became so dependent on the Freedom Caucus as his defender that he made its chair, Mark Meadows – a congressman from North Carolina, and a Jim Jordan finger puppet – his chief of staff, where he ultimately became a central figure in the management of the January 6 attempted coup.
McCarthy, Trump’s redoubtable “My Kevin”, was shocked by the assault on the Capitol, but swiveled to defend Trump from impeachment and removal. Just one week after Trump went into exile at Mar-a-Lago, on 27 January 2021, McCarthy traveled as a supplicant to bend his knee. There he issued a statement denouncing the impeachment for the January 6 insurrection, and, without missing a beat in the same sentence, condemned the incoming Biden administration’s efforts to deal with climate change, “destroying blue-collar jobs” as the “radical Democratic agenda” – twin olive branches, one to the disgraced Trump and the other to the fossil fuel industry that is a pipeline of dark money into Republican campaign coffers. By his abasement to Trump, McCarthy made himself a hostage to fortune. The rest is the corrupt bargain.
If the Republicans were to lose the House in 2024, they would do so by forfeiting many if not most of the 18 swing districts that Biden won in 2020, currently held by more moderate or old-style conservative types, hanging by a thread that may be cut by a shutdown. Redistricting may also yield the Democrats at least six to 10 seats, perhaps seven in New York, enough by themselves to shift the balance of power, despite the possible gerrymandering of North Carolina districts by a Republican-dominated state supreme court. The aftermath of a purged and reduced Republican conference would leave a more purified, embittered and vengeful far right in an even more ideologically homogeneous and compact minority.
House Republicans’ fear of losing their majority is an unstated motive driving the accelerated radicalization of the rump caucus forcing a shutdown, demanding their wishlist of maximum reactionary policies, to which McCarthy has caved, and if necessary overthrowing McCarthy.
The folly would not end either with a shutdown or its avoidance by means that may or may not ignite the motion to vacate, while the Senate and the White House would reject the House budget, if there ever is one, and it all starts over. Scene by scene, the absurdist play unravels until it begins again. It is a jumble of Eugène Ionesco plays.
Is it The Chairs? Chairs are arranged for invisible people. An old couple welcome the king, who is also invisible. An orator who cannot hear or speak promises to deliver a message to save humanity. The old couple jump out the window. The orator scrawls incoherent words on a blackboard. The empty chairs remain. Or is it The Bald Soprano, with a fleeting glance at Lauren Boebert before the blackout to signal that the play starts from the beginning in an endless feedback loop?
A character without character is the main character. Delinquent members of the chorus rip apart his script and order him to dance to their discordant music. He taps awkwardly along for a while, shouts incoherently into the wings, shakes his fist, lowers his head and walks in circles. His haphazard fecklessness, learned helplessness and empty commands move the play rapidly to the blackout.
But the incredible lightness of Kevin McCarthy is actually a scene in a heavier drama. Behind the facade of the theater of the absurd a more menacing play is being rehearsed. “Republicans in Congress can and must defund all aspects of Crooked Joe Biden’s weaponized Government,” Trump wrote recently on Truth Social. “This is also the last chance to defund these political prosecutions against me and other Patriots. They failed on the debt limit, but they must not fail now. Use the power of the purse and defend the Country!” Or as he put it in another post: “UNLESS YOU GET EVERYTHING, SHUT IT DOWN!”
Trump stokes a shutdown to bring it all down. The deadlock that can produce a temporary crisis is a continuation of his rolling coup to delegitimize the government and seize maximum power. He will bring the Capitol to a stop without the mob at the doors, but instead inside the chamber. The greater the chaos, the greater the demand for the dictator; the worse, the better. After the bleak comedy, the joke is on us. After McCarthy, Trump.
When the Ionescu comedy dissolves, what is revealed is Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. Written in 1941, the play is a parable of a Chicago gangster ruthlessly eliminating anyone in his way to absolute power: “Now you stand defenseless in a cold world where, sad to say, the weak are always trampled. You’ve got only one protector left. That’s me, Arturo Ui.”
Sidney Blumenthal is the author of The Permanent Campaign, published in 1980, and All the Power of the Earth: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1856-1860, the third of a projected five volumes. He is the former assistant and senior adviser to President Bill Clinton and senior adviser to Hillary Clinton