The morning after last week’s first televised congressional hearing into the January 6 insurrection, House minority leader Kevin McCarthy issued a snarky tweet asking why the Democrats didn’t instead hold prime-time hearings on inflation. He made no effort to engage with the committee’s findings about Trump’s criminal behavior; instead, he simply looked to change the subject.
McCarthy’s demand quickly became the main GOP talking point du jour. As they tried to minimize the impact of a mountain of evidence pointing to Trump’s marshaling a deadly mob against the Capitol, against his own vice president, and against the police officers who defended the grounds of the Capitol, one elected official after another took to the airwaves and to social media to aver that the American people were interested in inflation rather than the “old news” of an attempted insurrection.
The Californian congressman, who represents a district that includes Bakersfield and many of the ultraconservative desert communities northeast of Los Angeles, has never been the sharpest of tacks. He is a shameless opportunist and a man of most mediocre intellect. Washington reporters delight in honing phrases to convey his uninspiring thought processes. Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson calls him as an “ambitious plodder,” though when I listen to McCarthy talk, I think of Eeyore from Winnie-the-Pooh. He sounds, to me, like an ass who has accidentally sat on a pile of thistles; an ass who has decided that if you can’t beat the thistles at their own game, you may as well try to make your peace with them.
Ass or not, he is manifestly a person with no sense of the historical importance of the moment we are living through, of the danger that the GOP will ride the Trumpian tiger just far enough to trash what is left of the two-and-a-half-century-long American experiment. Liz Cheney was right when, in her opening statement, she poured scorn on the GOP leaders whose infamy and dishonor would, she said, outlive the person of Trump himself. In enabling Trump, in spreading his lies about the election process, and in backing extremist candidates in state primaries around the country, they are proving themselves to be vastly unreliable stewards of the democratic ship of state.
On January 6, as he and his colleagues fled for their lives from an enraged mob that Trump had goaded into lethal action, McCarthy reputedly called the president on his cell phone and demanded that he order his paramilitary thugs to stand down. Trump, in response, sneeringly told McCarthy that he guessed the rioters “are more upset about the election than you are.” A flabbergasted and enraged McCarthy—in possibly the only moment in his adult life that his spine straightened into something capable of allowing an adult human being to stand upright—reportedly screamed back, “Who the fuck do you think you are talking to? ” A day later, he told colleagues he was thinking of asking the president to resign.
The effort must have nearly killed him—or, at the very least, sent enough stabs of pain running up and down his legs that he resolved never again to repeat the experiment. Within hours, the gelatinous quality of McCarthy’s vertebrae reimposed itself. The California jellyfish was back.
A few days later—while, outside the chamber, several Capitol police officers were suffering from injuries or psychological trauma that would subsequently kill them or end in suicide—McCarthy and almost all of his Republican colleagues in the House voted against impeaching Trump for having incited the mob to attempt to undermine the peaceful transfer of power.
Soon after that signature act of cowardice, McCarthy—who told associates in private that Trump’s behavior on January 6 was “atrocious” and that he “bore responsibility” for the bloodshed—began making nice to the ex-president. He headed down to the twice-impeached huckster’s gilded palace of exile at Mar-a-Lago to start drawing up new road maps back to power. From that moment on, McCarthy essentially ceded his party to a ragtag band of extremists, conspiracists, fantasists, narcissists, and miscellaneous other kooks and cranks.
In the nearly 18 months since Trump’s insurrectionary acts, McCarthy has publicly defended the most extreme wing nuts of Trumpism, including Marjorie Taylor Greene, who believes space lasers controlled by Jewish bankers are igniting Californian wildfires and thinks the Nazis’ secret police were called “the Gazpacho.” If Greene isn’t low-hanging fruit, the easiest of easy options for a GOP leader to disavow extremism in trying to restore sanity to an increasingly unhinged party base, I don’t know what is. Yet even such low-hanging fruit is, apparently, beyond the reach of McCarthy and his floppy spine.
And while McCarthy did mildly rebuke North Carolina Representative Madison Cawthorn for some of his more bizarre and inflammatory comments on Ukraine, he also doubled down, albeit unsuccessfully, in his support for the verbal-bomb-throwing congressman’s reelection during primary season. Not to belabor the point, but it too ought to be low-hanging fruit to disavow any representative on record as having visited Hitler’s vacation retreat and gushing about how it was on his “bucket list” and “did not disappoint,” and who has had to repeatedly deny being a pro-fascist white nationalist, owing to the number of inflammatory tweets and quotes that point to him being a pro-fascist white nationalist.
But his most shameful act went further still. While the minority leader went into the primary season urging Republicans to stick with Liz Cheney, despite their differences with her over Trump, as soon as the disgraced ex-president began criticizing him for that decision, McCarthy and his blob-like spine executed a perfect pivot and instead endorsed her primary opponent.
Prime time hearings on inflation? Give me a break. Inflation is an economic disaster—and, to the degree that their policies contributed to it, a massive self-inflicted political wound for the Democrats—but what it isn’t is a conspiracy to undermine the very foundations of the Republic. Ineptitude does not equal criminality.
By contrast, each and every minute of the congressional hearings into January 6 reveals the extent of the political rot in the GOP. McCarthy could have given the green light to his colleagues to take part in the committee’s work; he could have thrown his political muscle into a fight for what is shaping up to be the future of democracy in America. Instead, he chose to withhold his cooperation from the committee, to paint its two GOP participants, Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney, as apostates, to issue phony denunciations of partisanship over its conclusions regarding Trump’s culpability, and to try to shift the focus onto pretty much anything apart from the pro-Trump mob, and its GOP congressional enablers, that shed blood in the temple of American democracy on that dark day in January 2021.
How depressing to think that this political cat’s-paw might well end up the next speaker of the House.