There’s base, amoral self-advancement—and then there’s whatever House GOP minority leader Kevin McCarthy does. McCarthy, who has represented California’s 22nd Congressional District since 2013, is angling for the speakership of the House, and less than a month away, the midterm elections still narrowly favor a GOP majority. In late September, he tried to cement his case for congressional power with a knock-off version of the Republican Party’s famed 1994 Contract With America called the Commitment to America. The document boils down to hand-waving over inflation and government spending alongside breathless callouts to the bogus GOP crusade for ballot reform (read election denialism) and the paranoid moral panic over “critical race theory”–inflected public-school curricula.
A much better measurement of what a McCarthy speakership might yield came this week with a pair of news stories highlighting his role in downplaying the attempted coup at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. In a meeting last summer with two Washington, D.C., police officers and the mother of an officer who died after the insurrection, McCarthy falsely claimed that President Donald Trump had no real-time awareness that the mob he had incited was laying siege to the Capitol. (In fact, as McCarthy well knew, Trump was raptly watching TV coverage of the Capitol riot in the White House after he’d been rebuffed in his plan to walk down to the Capitol alongside the rioters-in-the-making.) D.C. Police Officer Michael Fanone, who had recorded the McCarthy meeting, told CNN that McCarthy deliberately misrepresented Trump’s intense interest in the January 6 siege. Meanwhile, the House GOP caucus was backing away from its pledge to appoint responsible lawmakers to the House committee investigating the insurrection. (So much, it seems, for a “commitment to America.”)
As Fanone explained, he took the precaution of recording the call because he “saw how [McCarthy] deviated from his original statements immediately after January 6 to seize upon the politics of the moment.” Fanone said he neither expected McCarthy to “tell the truth” nor to “recount the conversation accurately.” while castigating the “indifference” McCarthy and other lawmakers feel toward the “the actual American people they are representing.”
And sure enough, another report, disclosing new material from Unchecked, a forthcoming book by Washington Post reporter Karoun Demirjian and Politico reporter Rachael Bade, drove home just how fully McCarthy operates within a theater of cruelty of his own devising. (Full disclosure: Demirjian worked for me when I was an editor at Congressional Quarterly.) After Washington House GOP member Jaime Herrera Beutler confirmed to the press that McCarthy had urgently requested Trump to issue a statement calling on the rioters to stand down, McCarthy delivered an indignant tirade to the congresswoman, prompting her to break down in tears. “I alone am holding the party together!” McCarthy yelled. “I have been working with Trump to keep him from going after Republicans like you and blowing up the party and destroying all our work!”
Of course, we now see the fallout from McCarthy’s self-advertised heroism all about us. To begin with, just two weeks after a disoriented McCarthy made a token show of outrage over the siege of the Capitol, he kissed Trump’s ring at Mar-a-Lago to save himself from the backlash he threatened Herrera Beutler with. (As the authors of Unchecked report, the minority leader had been rattled by Trump’s deriding him as “the biggest pussy in Washington” for floating a half-hearted proposal to pursue a censure of the president in lieu of impeachment proceedings.) Since the McCarthy-Trump alliance was renewed, the country has been saddled with an openly authoritarian Republican Party in thrall to Trump’s election lies, ensuring that Republicans like Herrera—i.e., principled conservatives who oppose Trump’s thugocracy—are purged from leadership and largely consigned to electoral doom. If that is the work Kevin McCarthy was hell-bent on preserving, it is far better left destroyed.
GOP congressional leaders like McCarthy and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell “had the opportunity to fundamentally purge the party of Trump with the second impeachment,” says longtime congressional scholar Norman Ornstein, senior fellow emeritus with the American Enterprise Institute. “The moral cowardice is astonishing.” After the January 6 attacks, Ornstein notes, McConnell “did a tally of his colleagues. He looked at the numbers and saw they were still dealing with 60 percent of Republicans sticking with Trump and believing the election was stolen. So his pragmatic choice was to say to the congressional Republicans who were leaning toward impeachment, ‘Go ahead, but we won’t be with you.’ For McCarthy, his weakness and moral cowardice go back further. This is not ruthless pragmatism like McConnell’s—it’s weakness and a complete lack of moral character.”
A case in point, Ornstein recalls, is another damning meeting caught on tape from 2016, when McCarthy told a group of GOP lawmakers that both Trump and their colleague California Representative Dana Rohrabacher were on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s payroll. And then, of course, there’s the conduct of the caucus McCarthy leads: “You stand by while Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, and Louis Gohmert all say disgusting racist things, and you just say nothing,” Ornstein says. But he also goes on to note that McCarthy’s leadership approach comes out of a long-standing GOP playbook: ‘This is a party that completely lost its way going back before Trump. You have a party that sees how demographic change in this country is bringing it to a crossroads: You either can change your rhetoric and your policies to broaden your appeal and compete with the Democrats on a level playing field, or you can say, “We’re going to double down on what we’ve been doing: suppress votes, blow up the norms to achieve our goals by subverting democracy.’ They chose the latter course, and they’ve had success, and are continuing to have success. I can tell you this: If they take a majority in the House, we are headed for serious trouble.”
Yet, even in the face of forces blockading basic moral reasoning in the GOP leadership, Ornstein acknowledges that McCarthy is truly a quisling who stands apart: “I have rarely had more contempt for a figure in public life than I do for Kevin McCarthy.” It’s a safe bet that this scathing assessment represents the only kind of history that a House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is ever going to make.