The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Kevin McCarthy’s border stunt reveals a dark truth about the GOP

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) at a news conference on Capitol Hill in December. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) will travel to the U.S.-Mexico border on Monday. It’s a transparent attempt to distract from newly released tapes recorded just after the Jan. 6 insurrection, in which McCarthy is heard telling other Republicans that he would advise then-President Donald Trump to resign.

But McCarthy’s trip is more than just a cheap stunt. It’s an admission of a dark truth about the Republican Party.

If McCarthy wanted to center his stunt on the most politically potent issue, he wouldn’t pick immigration. In a recent Gallup poll, 17 percent of voters chose inflation as the most important problem facing the country, followed by the closely related catchall of “the economy” at 11 percent. Immigration is down at 5 percent. And while inflation and gas prices didn’t take off until Joe Biden took office, the immigration numbers are murkier for Republicans. Border crossing numbers have been inflated by covid-era measures such as Title 42 (which has greatly increased repeat encounters), and the rise in fentanyl trafficking began under Trump.

Most Republicans recognize inflation is their best argument. “I predict we’re going to get probably at least 40 [House] seats, because this president has been so unpopular when it comes to inflation, gas prices," Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) told “Fox News Sunday.”

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On Friday, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) predicted a "huge wave in November … because [Democrats] don’t want to talk about the inflation and the high cost of everything that they have created.” And on last week’s “Fox News Sunday,” McCarthy himself listed “wasteful, irresponsible spending that has led to higher prices and inflation” as the top reason for President Biden’s poor poll numbers.

Yet, McCarthy and his fellow Republicans aren’t holding political stunts outside gas stations or supermarkets. And they’re barely even gesturing at ideas for lowering prices. Yet they’re hammering border politics. Why? Because while immigration might not sway the electorate as a whole, it fires up the GOP base that McCarthy wants to keep on his side.

In his “Fox News Sunday” interview, McCaul — the former chair of the House Homeland Security Committee — encouraged that anger. “Putin invaded Ukraine,” he told host Sandra Smith. “We have an invasion in my home state right on the border, every day.” He then made reference to the (inflated) 2.5 million migrant encounters that have taken place since Biden’s inauguration.

Notice that McCaul didn’t limit this comparison to traffickers or criminals trying to cross the border. No, every single person trying to cross — including the tens of thousands seeking asylum and the hundreds of thousands of families and unaccompanied children who are just seeking a better life — is in McCaul’s framing no different from soldiers invading a sovereign nation.

That “invasion” language — a favorite of Trump and white supremacists — has led to bloodshed before. In 2019, a gunman killed 23 people at a Walmart in El Paso after posting an anti-Latino manifesto in which he said the attack was a response to “the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” And lest anyone doubt the partisan component of this hatred, the shooter also expressed fears that changing demographics would "make us a Democrat stronghold.”

Responsible leaders would look at such an outcome and reconsider their rhetoric. After the shooting, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) admitted “mistakes were made” in sending out a fundraising call just a day before to “defend” the Texas border. But Abbott’s bout of responsibility was short-lived: By last year, he was again warning that Americans at the border “are being invaded.” This year, he’s shipped buses of migrants to Washington and ordered “enhanced” inspections of all commercial trucks crossing the border. The latter found no drugs or migrants, but it did cost the state $4.2 billion in GDP. Yet, despite this abject failure, Abbott was back on Fox News on Sunday denouncing Biden’s handling of the “national disaster” at the border, with not a word about the trucks.

Abbott, McCaul and McCarthy, whether they admit it or not, recognize that the easiest way to protect their standing in the Republican Party is to embrace the hate and stoke the same bigoted fury that led a man to open fire in a store. Perhaps one day, the GOP’s fever will break. Until it does, this country’s future remains very dark.