The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

There will always be a fringe litmus test that Kevin McCarthy will fail

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy meets with reporters after the new House Republican majority ousted Democratic Rep. llhan Omar, a Somali-born Muslim from Minnesota, from the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
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House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is a putative leader in a party predicated on rejecting leadership. He is the manifestation of the institutional establishment for an institution that rejects its own establishment. He is a member of the D.C. elite representing a party that loathes few groups more energetically than elites from D.C.

Asked this week whether he agreed with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s (R-Ga.) characterization of the death of Ashli Babbitt, a rioter killed at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, as a “murder,” McCarthy said he did not. He said he didn’t because he wouldn’t, as someone who quite obviously views the party’s right-wing fringe as something apart from himself, something to be managed.

McCarthy secured the speakership by figuring out how to retain a Spider-Man-like grip on both the surprisingly small part of his caucus that is traditional and centered largely in reality and on the surprisingly large part of his caucus that is focused on conspiracy and centered largely on disliking the other part. He will always be more successful at this strenuous task when he’s not asked to pick between the two sides, since he will generally side with the former.

And because there will always be some test posed by the fringe that he simply can’t pass.

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The evolution of how Babbitt is viewed on the right is a great example of how Republican politics works in general. The facts are straightforward: There was a massive riot, triggered by Donald Trump’s false claims about the election and his encouraging people to come to Washington that day and then to march to the Capitol. Babbitt was part of a group that was first to reach an antechamber to the House floor and was herself the first person to attempt to climb through a broken window to enter it. A nearby police officer drew his firearm and warned the mob to stop pressing forward. When Babbitt climbed into the window, he fired, hitting her. She died soon after.

In the immediate aftermath of the riot, there was a halfhearted effort to cast the day’s violence as a function of left-wing actors but, generally, it was seen for what it was, including by McCarthy. Soon, though, the effort to recast the riot as something else — a false flag by the FBI, a protest that got out of hand, a protest that didn’t really get out of hand — gained steam. After all, consider who we’re talking about here: The central actors in the riot and their defenders are a group that embraced obviously false claims about a stolen election and who were acting in service of a president, Trump, who centered his politics on combating the “elites” and the “deep state.” Any official statement, then, is suspect, even ones that state obvious truths.

As The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake wrote a few months after the riot, it took a bit for the revisionism of the riot to extend to Babbitt. Fox News chatterboxes such as Tucker Carlson were earlier proponents of framing Babbitt’s death as an injustice or as something even more nefarious. Fringe elected officials such as Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) realized that championing the idea that there was an overreach by law enforcement — the enforcement arm of the deep state — could both generate attention and centralize anger once again at the D.C. elites. That the officer was cleared after an investigation was a sign not that he acted appropriately but, instead, of a coverup. Because this is how it works.

This week, Greene responded to the release of footage showing the beating of Tyre Nichols by Memphis police by comparing the scene to Babbitt’s death.

“There’s a woman in this room whose daughter was murdered on January 6th, Ashli Babbitt,” Greene said, apparently having invited Babbitt’s mother to attend the hearing. “As a matter of fact, no one has cared about the person that shot and killed her,” Greene continued, which isn’t true: After his identity was leaked online, the officer who pulled the trigger felt the need to speak out publicly, explaining his side of the incident and defending his actions.

It was this comment to which McCarthy was asked to respond.

“I think the police officer did his job,” McCarthy said, which is the consensus of objective observers — a pool of people dismissed by many in McCarthy’s party as corrupt, dishonest elites.

McCarthy’s relationship with Jan. 6 is unique, of course. He was at the Capitol and aware of the threat posed to members of Congress; he infamously got into a heated argument with Trump in the middle of the violence, with the president chastising McCarthy for not agreeing with the rioters’ position. McCarthy knows what Jan. 6 was, which is reflected in his response to Greene’s comments.

But many in his party don’t want to hear what it was; they want to hear what it wasn’t. Like Trump, for example, who hopped on Truth Social to disparage McCarthy.

“I totally disagree with the Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy,” Trump wrote, “in that the Police Officer ‘Thug,’ who has had a very checkered past to begin with, was not just ‘doing his job’ when he shot and killed Great Patriot Ashli Babbitt at point blank range.”

If you are curious about the use of “thug” there, Trump’s tipping his hand a bit: The officer is Black, part of the subtext to the period during which he became a focus of attention by the fringe right.

There’s no reason to treat Trump’s assessment of what happened in the Babbitt incident as considered or accurate. But it is representative of the traps he and his allies set for others in their party. There is no reason to think that Babbitt’s death was a function of anything other than her illegally entering the Capitol and then trying to gain access to a part of the building near where members of Congress had been evacuated. But since any official articulation of what happened is necessarily suspect and since there’s an eternal instinct for Trump and others to cast themselves and their allies as victims, Babbitt becomes one. And then this becomes a litmus test.

It is good that McCarthy didn’t side with the fringe on this point, certainly. But it’s easy to see why he probably wishes he hadn’t been asked to weigh in on it at all.