The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Kevin McCarthy is caught in Trump’s vicious cycle

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in Washington on Tuesday. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Do you think Republicans should break decisively with Donald Trump over his dinner with a white-supremacist antisemite? So do I. But there are deep structural reasons for what many of us see as the moral rot inside the GOP. Let’s call it the Trump Vicious Cycle — vicious being the operative word in many senses.

Viewed from outside the party, it is easy to say that Republicans should toss the former president overboard. He probably cost the party control of the Senate with his candidate picks. He was a drag on the party in many closely contested House races. At the state level, his insistence on election denial as infallible doctrine was an albatross.

But here is where the vicious cycle kicks in: The weaker Trump makes the party, the harder it is to displace him. The more he drives nonextremists away, the more pro-Trump the party’s core electorate becomes.

Republicans who actually win office are, with a modest number of exceptions, deeply dependent on Trump’s coalition for their victories and have more reason to worry about losing primaries than general elections. Of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump, only two survived. Four lost primaries, and four retired.

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The 2022 elections made this problem worse in the House, where red districts became, on the whole, even redder. As Dan Keating, Harry Stevens and Nick Mourtoupalas reported in an excellent analysis for The Post: “Districts that voted for Trump [in 2020] are where Republicans saw many of their largest swings.” Dave Wasserman, one of the country’s premier election analysts, ratified the view that Republicans gained votes in seats they already held and told me that they “picked up the most votes in noncompetitive districts in general.”

So the political world in which Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader and would-be speaker, lives is a very Trumpy place. No wonder he engaged in an awkward tap dance on Tuesday in responding to Trump’s dinner with Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, and Nick Fuentes, the very definition of a far-right antisemite. To get a sense of who Fuentes is, consider that during a speech this year discussing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he said, “They compare Putin to Hitler like it’s a bad thing.” He thought this was funny.

McCarthy did say the obligatory thing: “I don’t think anybody should have a meeting with Nick Fuentes.” But he also tried to get Trump off the hook, saying – falsely — that the former president had condemned Fuentes “four times.”

Why that very specific “four” when Trump never condemned Fuentes once is something of a mystery. Maybe it just sounded good. When a reporter corrected McCarthy, he retreated to a general statement about Fuentes that again avoided Trump. “I condemn his ideology,” McCarthy said. “It has no place in society at all.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was more robust in his condemnation: “There is no room in the Republican Party for antisemitism or white supremacy. And anyone meeting with people advocating that point of view, in my judgment, are highly unlikely to ever be elected president of the United States.”

Unlike McCarthy who is still clawing together votes to be speaker, McConnell has already secured reelection as minority leader. Also, McConnell is smarting from how Trumpist candidates lost Senate races in Arizona, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire; endangered Georgia, which votes in a runoff next week; and forced him to spend a bundle to save seats in North Carolina and Ohio.

Still, even McConnell limited himself to that “highly unlikely” formulation. How about “never”? How about saying the guy’s name?

Trump seems to realize that dining with Fuentes was not such a good idea. He let it be known on Wednesday that he blamed the whole thing on Ye, insisted he was totally sandbagged (the reports had him using more colorful language), and stuck to his story that he didn’t know who Fuentes was.

That will certainly be enough for McCarthy, who has been pandering desperately to the pro-Trump right of his caucus to win the speakership. How worried is he? Appearing Monday on Newsmax, the network for those who think Fox News is too moderate, McCarthy warned that if Republicans don’t stick together and vote for him, “the Democrats can end up picking who the speaker is.” Not exactly a declaration of confidence — and also an intriguing idea if a handful of GOP moderates decide to bolt.

As it is, the disconnect between a country fed up with Trump and a GOP still in the grip of Trumpism does not bode well for governing over the next two years.

But governing has never been a priority for Trumpists — or for the man who can’t even take responsibility for his own dinner parties.

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