From a Clown Coup to a Clown Speakership

From a Clown Coup to a Clown Speakership

From a Clown Coup to a Clown Speakership

Kevin McCarthy’s surrender to the House Freedom Caucus is proof that the January 6 insurrectionists rule the GOP.


Last Friday, as Kevin McCarthy was nearing the end of his grueling, humiliating, multiday quest to become the new House speaker, former Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer tweeted, “Kevin McCarthy becoming Speaker by offering concessions to the pro-insurrection caucus on the two year anniversary of January 6th is just a perfect statement about the GOP.” As it turns out, Pfeiffer’s tweet wasn’t quite accurate, because McCarthy didn’t actually have all the votes he needed on January 6. It was only after one final round of begging Florida Representative Matt Gaetz to just vote “present” that McCarthy, in the 15th round of ballot counting, finally won the bare majority he needed to become speaker in the early hours of January 7. But Pfeiffer’s tweet remains poetically true: Two years and a day after the assault on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, the Republican Party provided fresh proof that it remains in thrall to its insurrectionist caucus.

McCarthy achieved a pyrrhic victory; he’s finally speaker—but at the cost of empowering the far-right Freedom Caucus. McCarthy’s speakership is compromised from the start, and he’ll likely continue to be bullied by the Freedom Caucus, pushed to take radical actions like impeaching Joe Biden or engineering a showdown over the debt ceiling in order to cut Medicare and Social Security. The next two years of American politics will be chaotic.

The journey from January 6, 2021, to January 7, 2023, has been from a clown coup to a clown speakership.

As political scientist Joe Lowndes noted on his personal blog, McCarthy is a perfect emblem for the GOP’s surrender to the insurrectionist faction. From the start, McCarthy has been two-faced about his attitude towards Trump’s harebrained attempt to hold on to power.

As Lowndes observes,

McCarthy in particular embodies the contradictions of that day. On the phone with the Trump [sic] as insurgents pounded hard on the entrance to his office, he sought to shore up an institutional authority that was cracking like the glass panes in its doors: “Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to,” he yelled at the President. Soon after, McCarthy stated that Trump bore some responsibility for the events that day. Yet within weeks he traveled to Mar-a-Lago to demonstrate fealty to his party leader. In a similar display of convoluted opportunism, McCarthy himself voted against certification on the night of January 6th, but then told reporters a few days later that it was not, in fact, a vote to deny the Electoral College victory of Joe Biden.

The Freedom Caucus’s humiliation of McCarthy was driven by the same insurrectionist spirit—and often the same planners—as the January 6 aborted coup. As journalist Adele Stan noted in a blog post, Steve Bannon has played a prominent role in advising Freedom Caucus holdouts such as Gaetz. Stan’s analysis parallels reporting by Grid and Yahoo! News showing that the Freedom Caucus’s strategy was developed in close cooperation with the Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI), a MAGA think tank headed by former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows and former South Carolina senator Jim DeMint. Meadows was one of the key architects of the January 6 coup. Steve Reilly and Maggie Stevens of Grid report that activists such as Ed Corrigan presented at CPI a strategy of hobbling McCarthy’s bid to become speaker with a view toward allowing the Freedom Caucus to function like a European-style coalition partner independent of GOP leadership. Reilly and Stevens report, “The strategy outlined by Corrigan went beyond just extracting concessions from House leaders—it amounted to a game plan for the House Freedom Caucus to operate as a third party in a de facto parliamentary system, essentially co-governing the chamber with mainstream Republicans.”

According to reporting from Jon Ward of Yahoo! News, members of CPI, including former Trump budget chief Russ Vought as well as DeMint, signed an anti-McCarthy letter—as did two other prominent supporters of the January 6 insurrection, Cleta Mitchell (an attorney) and Ginni Thomas (wife of Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas).

In his newsletter Big Tent, Brian Beutler of Crooked Media underscored the continuities between the clown coup and the Freedom Caucus holdouts. According to Beutler, the holdout faction is

composed almost entirely of insurrectionists. Their aims as legislative terrorists, such as we can discern them, aren’t the kinds of nonstarter policy demands that marked Republican hostage taking in the Obama years (gut Medicare, defund the Affordable Care Act, etc). They are rooted in the realm of corruption. They want to steal elections. They want to sabotage criminal investigations that implicate themselves, Donald Trump, and January 6 defendants, current and future. They want to dictate the tactics and tools the House will bring to bear to achieve those goals to whoever becomes speaker. They want to institutionalize a standard of impunity for Republicans caught in the reach of legitimate oversight, and a different standard of total compliance for Democrats, whether investigating them is merited or not.

McCarthy’s hampered speakership is therefore an example of the revolution eating its own: The Republicans are now so insurrectionist they are undermining their own party’s leadership and ability to govern.

This is a short-term tragedy for governance in the USA, but provides opportunities for the Democrats to build for a post-MAGA world. The Democrats have already reaped electoral rewards in 2022 by successfully tying the GOP to the unpopular aborted insurrection of 2021. Now they have ample reason to argue that insurrectionists run the GOP Congress. McCarthy, Democrats should argue, is a mere cat’s-paw of the insurrectionist caucus—a puppet of figures like Gaetz and Colorado Representative Lauren Boebert. Thanks to the clown speakership of Kevin McCarthy, the Democrats have a great message for 2024: A vote for the GOP is a vote for permanent insurrection.

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