The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Kevin McCarthy emerges as a demagogue in his own right

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) speaks at the Capitol in Washington on Aug. 31. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s threat that Republicans “will not forget” if telecommunications companies comply with requests for email and phone records by the Jan. 6 committee marks a coming out of sorts.

For years, McCarthy (R-Calif.) has been former president Donald Trump’s factotum — a groveler and sniveler, held in obvious contempt by the object of his loyalty. You can usually identify the minority leader in a picture by his hunted expression.

But now McCarthy is emerging as a demagogue in his own right. His obstruction of a congressional inquiry is probably a violation of House ethics rules, and maybe even a violation of federal law. But that is presumably the point: McCarthy wants to show his chest hair and spitting skills in a party where toxic masculinity has become the dominant political philosophy.

It is possible, even probable, that the minority leader is also hiding something — either in his own conduct during the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, or in the conduct of his caucus. But in his chosen response, McCarthy has fully adopted the MAGA conception of governing as gangsterism.

With the notable exception of the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the GOP’s national leadership has now enthusiastically embraced as its platform the lawless pursuit and exercise of power. This creates a predictable cascade of further problems as the right’s entire ideological spectrum becomes red-shifted.

The American right has generally had three roles or slots that define its coalition: a governing conservatism, a movement conservatism and a populist right wing. Through most of my political lifetime, the governing slot consisted of moderate conservatives such as George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and John McCain, and legislative pragmatists such as Bob Dole.

Liberal Republicans such as Nelson Rockefeller had already been shifted out of the coalition by the Reagan Revolution, leaving a uniformly conservative party. But the governing conservatives sought the political support of centrists and desired legislative cooperation with Democrats (see No Child Left Behind).

In the older era, movement conservatives saw their main job as stiffening the ideological spines of governing conservatives. Anti-tax advocates, pro-life activists and judicial originalists gathered in places such as Grover Norquist’s Wednesday meetings or the Heritage Foundation to encourage conservative purity and punish heterodoxy.

The populist right wing consisted of people such as Pat Buchanan, who styled themselves as “peasants with pitchforks.” They practiced a transgressive politics, seethed about racial and ethnic changes in the country, and reserved their hardest criticism for the globalists of the Republican establishment. Governing Republicans wanted them to stay in the party, but not to define it.

Since the rise of Trump, and his effective solidification of control over the GOP, the content of these slots has moved two slots rightward. What was the Buchanan right is now the governing face of the party, further radicalized by its temporary access to executive power.

The role of movement conservatives is now played by Christian nationalists, true QAnon believers, anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers of the conspiratorial right. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and her ilk do not so much push rightward as downward, into a rabbit hole of destructive insanity.

The right-wing populist slot is now filled by the militia movement, the Proud Boys, neo-confederates and various white supremacists. Their activism is more of the kidnap-the-governor-of-Michigan and brutalize-Capitol-Police-officers variety. They have been invited into the GOP coalition by Trump’s consistent refusal to adequately repudiate them. And people such as Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) feed their appetite for apocalyptic “bloodshed.”

What has happened to other Republicans left chairless when the music stopped? Moderate conservatives have been pushed so far from the governing center of the GOP that many wonder about their future in the party. Even the movement conservatives of the 1990s and 2000s have been red-shifted out of an obvious role. People such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and McCarthy were presented with the political choice of adapt or die. And they are consummate adapters.

Here is the problem: When a leader such as McCarthy fully embraces Trumpism — both its content and methods — as the essence of governing Republicanism, he is not only determining the predominant ideology of his party. He is also implicitly affirming the new ideological ecosystem of the American right — its lawless governing theory, its cultlike conspiracy theories and its threat of political violence. This is very much a package deal.

For this reason, the next two national elections may determine the future of constitutionalism and democratic liberalism in America. The political future is unpredictable and ever-changing. But here is something you can depend on: The elevation of McCarthy to House speaker would be a disastrous day for the Republic.