Kevin McCarthy’s Latest Hostage Crisis

Kevin McCarthy’s Latest Hostage Crisis

Kevin McCarthy’s Latest Hostage Crisis

Kevin, blink twice if you need help.


The woebegone tenure of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is less a study in leadership than a series of reality-TV challenges. Can our contestant withstand the procedural hazings engineered by the House Freedom Caucus? Will he strike a provisional blow for decorum over the “let’s all look at a naked Hunter Biden” faction? And in our next episode: Is he going to get the keys to Doc Brown’s time machine and schedule votes to expunge Donald Trump’s two impeachments in the 116th and 117th Congresses?

McCarthy’s most recent dilemma arises from his noncommittal posture in the pending 2024 GOP presidential primaries—which is to say, from a position of insufficient fealty to Trump, who was reportedly enraged at the news that McCarthy wasn’t tendering him a rapid and adoring endorsement. Indefatigable quisling that he is, McCarthy walked back some critical comments about Trump’s candidacy—and then further sought to placate the tantrum-prone Caligulan party leader with an alleged pledge to get the expungement votes before the House.

McCarthy now denies that he reached any such agreement with the former president, but that scarcely matters. Every time the speaker plays at asserting something like independence from Trump, he is ritually humiliated into submission. The basic narrative was established in the immediate aftermath of the failed January 6 coup, when McCarthy briefly indicated he might support a censure of Trump for trying to break the American political system in order to establish himself as permanent MAGA dictator. That flirtation with principle cost McCarthy dearly; he was summoned to Mar-a-Lago to abase himself before Trump. Ever since, McCarthy’s been a stooge and sycophant—so much so that he now says he supports the expungement of Trump’s January 6 impeachment, during which he’d originally instructed his caucus members to vote their conscience, on the transparently laughable grounds that the proceedings transpired on “the basis of no due process.” (Apparently worried that this sound bite hadn’t been sufficiently steeped in MAGA epistemology, McCarthy also called for Trump’s first impeachment—for using military aid to extort a Hunter Biden conspiracy narrative from Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy—to be cleared because it “was not based on true facts.”)

All of which to say that McCarthy’s version of voting one’s conscience is to bend to the prevailing winds of Trumpian power, wherever they may lead. The political press reports that the speaker actually wants to sidestep expungement votes to help save the seats of more moderate members of his majority who represent districts that might lean Democratic. In reality, though, McCarthy’s leadership quandary is another empty spectacle that is of a piece with the GOP’s broader political plight, as the party seems to be coasting toward the nomination of an arraigned criminal awaiting at least two more reckonings with the justice system. Trump’s stranglehold on the GOP base makes it impossible to create any conditions for long-term governance—or anything like a coalition for a new GOP majority.

But that, too, may not matter. Trump has transformed the entire Republican Party into a rolling hustle, and the way to wield power and influence within it is always to play along. “Donald Trump doesn’t like being called ‘twice impeached,’ when the media people he pretends not to watch on cable say that about him,” says Tim Miller, the former communications director for Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign. So the expungement measures—which are unprecedented, and likely moot in view of the fact that the Senate voted to acquit Trump both times he was impeached—are simply exercises “in Trump ego-stroking, trying to make him feel better, and coddling him,” Miller adds.

The alleged agons of McCarthy are but a subset of that mandate. “I think McCarthy’s being confronted with this partially from his past crimes—‘crimes’ being in quotation marks—against MAGA,” Miller says. “It’s also just part of the deal he made with Trump in order to get the speakership. If Trump had turned on him, he wouldn’t have been the speaker. There are certain things Trump doesn’t care about, like the debt-ceiling negotiations. He doesn’t care enough about things like that to take McCarthy down over them. So that means in certain areas McCarthy can operate freely, while in other respects he has to do what Trump says.” Miller also notes that the bid to obtain a get-out-of-impeachment-free vote for the former president is a familiar sort of MO for House Republican leaders. “I just think that there are a lot of privileged guys who had their permanent records expunged in high school, so they now think they can expunge Trump’s permanent record from January 6.”

You could call McCarthy’s deal with the MAGA power elite a Faustian bargain—except that Faust was a tragically divided figure in search of ultimate knowledge, while Kevin McCarthy is, to put things generously, a moral nullity. Even his ballyhooed debt deal soon plunged him into fresh rounds of recriminations from the Trumpified Freedom Caucus, who effectively shut down Congress for a good stretch of June in protest. Meanwhile, the party that McCarthy ostensibly helps to lead just continues to do its crime-boss leader’s bidding on autopilot. “We’ve gone from 2020 election denial to a broader reality denial,” says William Kristol, the former chief of staff for Dan Quayle and former editor of The Weekly Standard. “Which I suppose was inevitable.”

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