On December 2, the Orange County Register, one of Southern California’s larger regional newspapers, published an editorial declaring its support for Representative Kevin McCarthy’s plan for Republicans to read every word of the US Constitution aloud on the floor of Congress on day one of their control of the House. “There’s nothing wrong with reminding members that their prime job is to uphold the nation’s founding document,” the Register opined. It would also, the editorial acknowledged, be a good PR stunt, showing that the GOP was indeed the party that cared about upholding constitutional values.
Two days after the editorial was published, Donald Trump—whom McCarthy has spent the past 23 months working to rehabilitate after the rageful outgoing president incited a mob to attack Congress in 2020 and attempt to prevent the peaceful transfer of power—somewhat undermined that message. He posted on Truth Social a horrifying call to “terminate” the Constitution in order to restore him to power. Führerprinzip, anyone?
Begrudgingly, a number of GOP senators responded. After days of silence, Mitch McConnell eventually got around to saying it was hard to imagine you could swear in a president who was on record calling for the termination of constitutional governance. John Cornyn called it “irresponsible.” Even Ted Cruz mustered the balls to call Trump’s idea “wrong.” All of which is a bit like calling a Category 5 Hurricane slightly blustery, or summer temperatures in Death Valley a tad warm. It’s a malign and depressing version of the “’tis but a scratch” scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in which a knight is hacked to pieces, and with each body part lost rises up once more to verbally minimize the damage.
But McCarthy couldn’t even muster that level of mild criticism. In his muddled, mediocre mind, Trump’s call for an end to constitutional governance isn’t even a political scratch; it’s a “nothing-to-see-here” moment. Instead of criticizing Trumpty Dumpty’s asinine and dangerous statement, the Bakersfield Congressman headed for the metaphorical hills, opting not to comment on Trump’s outrageous post as he tried to stave off a Trumpite rebellion, led by hard-right Arizona Representative Andy Biggs, that threatens to derail his endless, and increasingly desperate, ambitions to be House speaker.
McCarthy’s silence this week has been deafening. Even if one gives him the benefit of the doubt and assumes that he’s just frantically brushing up on his oratorical skills so that he can flawlessly speak every line of the sacred document that his Mar-a-Lago puppet master wants to shred, his already tenuous credibility evaporates moment by moment. He wanted a red wave in November, but the extremism of his party and the violent, unstable nature of its jefe, Donald J. Trump, ensured that it was but a dribble. He hoped to be able to use his time in office to unleash devastating waves of investigations that would ultimately cripple the Biden administration; instead, he has to tap-dance around a Freedom Caucus that continues to defend an ex-president who dines with Nazis and muses aloud about ending the world’s most durable experiment in constitutional governance.
After Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro lost the presidential runoff election to his rival Lula Da Silva, he disappeared from public view. A week later, one of his aides made the somewhat bizarre announcement that Bolsonaro—the Trump of the Tropics—couldn’t appear in public because he was suffering from a skin infection that prevented him from wearing trousers. It’s a rather satisfying image: the thuggish Bolsonaro, stewing about an election loss he couldn’t conceive would happen, but prevented from addressing his adoring fans by the fact that he has no pants.
Trump’s increasingly off-the-wall statements in recent weeks, his epic record of midterm election failures, his cascading legal crises, his collapsing popular support, his meetings with Nazis, are, cumulatively, his equivalent of a tropical skin disease that leaves him pacing the corridors of his Mar-a-Lago complex naked. The emperor truly has no clothes at the moment—and his sycophantic supporters, the McCarthys and Lindsey Grahams of the world, are likely starting to realize that. And yet, so entrenched is the GOP’s Trump-cult that would-be Speaker McCarthy can’t even seize this golden opportunity to shuck off the liability that is The Donald.
In 2016, the Republican’s national platform paid rhetorical homage to the Constitution:
We believe in the Constitution as our founding document. We believe the Constitution was written not as a flexible document, but as our enduring covenant. We believe our constitutional system—limited government, separation of powers, federalism, and the rights of the people—must be preserved uncompromised for future generations.
It was, of course, bunkum then, and it has only become worse bunkum now. Four years after the GOP first embraced Trump as presidential nominee, the party eschewed specific policy platforms and agreed to support whatever Donald Trump asked them to support. Now, two years on, and with Trump running for the presidency again on an explicitly anti-constitutional message, McCarthy’s House seems likely to continue to provide cover for America’s would-be Führer, even as he revs up his mob to attack the foundations of the country’s system of governance.
There’s something entirely rancid about this spectacle. California has produced many powerful political figures in recent years, men and women who have imposed themselves on the congressional stage and crafted policies that have significantly changed the country’s social compact. McCarthy has no such ambitions. He is a man entirely preoccupied with power for the sake of power, and he is willing to continue to dance with the devil for however long it takes to secure his grip on the speaker’s gavel.