The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Kevin McCarthy’s desperate plea to MAGA reveals a glaring GOP failure

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on Capitol Hill on March 10. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
4 min

Donald Trump has long possessed a singular talent for humiliating “my Kevin,” as Trump calls House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, and now he has done it again. Late Sunday, McCarthy told reporters that Trump supporters should not “protest” if Trump is indicted, as expected. The California Republican added: “I think President Trump, if you talk to him, he doesn’t believe that, either.”

Someone should tell that to “President Trump.” A few hours after McCarthy issued his plea, Trump unleashed a tirade on Truth Social that effectively cast any indictment as a war on MAGA nation waged by the “RADICAL LEFT” and the “COMMUNISTS, MARXISTS, RINOS AND LOSERS.” This functionally reiterated his previous call for civil unrest.

This moment vindicates those who long insisted the GOP must hold Trump accountable for the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, if only to send a signal to GOP voters. Republicans instead squandered years of opportunities to categorically side with law enforcement — and for the proposition that violence and lawlessness have no place in our politics — because those stances might put them crosswise of MAGA.

Now, with Trump possibly facing indictment in Manhattan over hush-money payments to porn actress Stormy Daniels during the 2016 campaign, his advisers are publicly demanding that leading Republicans stand behind him. Trumpworld reportedly believes this will be problematic for presumed 2024 rivals such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who are trying to win support among MAGA Republicans while also appealing to party elites who want to move past Trump.

Asked about this Monday, DeSantis tried to have it both ways, going out of his way to draw attention to the seamy nature of the case (“Look, I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star”) while blaming the possible indictment on George Soros.

Non-MAGA hopefuls have also struggled with their responses: Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has remained quiet, while former vice president Mike Pence, who has denounced Trump over Jan. 6, blamed the situation on the “radical left.”

Republican leaders themselves are to blame for this quandary. That’s because GOP lawmakers and influencers have, for six years, dismissed legitimate probes of grave crimes against the country — into very real Russian interference in the 2016 election, into Trump’s extraordinary assault on U.S. constitutional democracy, into his hoarding of state secrets — as a witch hunt perpetrated by the “deep state.”

Just after Jan. 6, genuine constitutional conservatives and scholars of democratic breakdown alike warned that the conduct of GOP leaders would be critical in determining whether rank-and-file Republican voters accepted the need to hold Trump accountable to preserve the rule of law.

Political science holds that elite signaling sends important cues to voters on how to understand politics. And sure enough, polling now shows that an overwhelming majority of GOP voters still believe Trump was the wronged party in 2020.

“Trump and elected Republican leaders have trained their base to think of any law enforcement activity that looks into Trump as a witch hunt,” Natalie Jackson, who closely monitors polling of GOP voters as the director of research at the Public Religion Research Institute, told me. “When we get to a possible indictment now, it’s just seen as more of the same.”

To be fair, legal experts see a lot of potential problems and complexities involved in an indictment of Trump for allegedly committing bookkeeping fraud or breaking campaign-finance laws by covering up a hush-money payment. There isn’t anything wrong in principle with criticizing an indictment on substantive grounds.

But that’s not what McCarthy and other Republicans are doing. McCarthy did dismiss an indictment as “the weakest case” that could be brought against Trump. But he went much further, slamming it in advance as a “political” prosecution. Pence — who, again, is casting himself as non-MAGA — did the same. Can anyone really deny that Republicans will do this no matter what Trump is indicted for?

Republicans are now seemingly required to cast any and all law enforcement activity directed at Trump as inherently illegitimate. At the same time, McCarthy knows it’s politically lethal for his party to be associated with outbreaks of MAGA lawlessness or violence. So he’s calling for calm in response to any indictment — while simultaneously endorsing Trump’s claim that it can only be the result of a witch hunt against him.

That straddle is absurd and unsustainable. To paraphrase a great poet of responsibility and regret, if Republicans are now potentially stuck with a leading candidate for the 2024 nomination who is facing a criminal indictment one they can’t even cite to persuade GOP voters it’s time to move on it’s their own damn fault.