How 20 ratbag Republicans could Trump 200 party loyalists

Jan 10, 2023
Capitol building close up Washington DC. The dome of American Capitol is on background at blue sky. In front of American flag.

The farce occurring in the US House of Representatives, where a small group of far-right Republicans are seeking to veto the overwhelming choice of their colleagues for the party’s congressional leadership, may well be resolved by the weekend in the traditional American parliamentary way, with bribes, deals, committee placements and stiff-arming.

It is not the first such internal revolt, nor the first in which some of the players give every indication that they will never compromise about their cause, and that they are willing to take matters to the point where control of the congress is effectively passed to the Democrats. Hardliners often do say such things, if only to strike a tougher bargain, of course. But the problem that students of the new types of American political conflict must contemplate is that many of the rebels in the Republican Party have no interest in having a role in government and want to be in congress only to frustrate anyone else governing as well.

Kevin McCarthy is the choice of most of his Republican colleagues to be Speaker of the House of Representatives, the person able to set the House’s agenda, the composition of its committees, and the distribution of most of its patronage. The Republicans have 222 members in the congress, four more than the 218 they need for an absolute majority. But about 20 of the Republicans think that McCarthy is too “liberal”, too inclined to compromise and make deals with the Democrats, and not likely to push the nihilist anti-government agenda they want to see.

Indeed, they fear that McCarthy, and a proportion of the party, secretly want to be involved in the business of governing America. This would include acting in the public interest to seek compromises with other legislators, including Democrats, to produce legislation and appropriations that improve the lives, the safety and the well-being of Americans and America (the sort of thing they were elected for, a naïve Australian might say).

The rebel 20 think that the Republicans were elected to stop Biden’s power to govern. The Republicans who want to govern are as much the enemy as the Democrats. They are derided as RINOs, or Republicans in Name Only, more traitorous because they do not adhere to the doctrines of smaller government. Politicians with agendas, particularly over health, education and welfare, housing and the environment, are particularly suspect, as are politicians who talk policy rather than politics, the possible rather than the prohibited.

Naturally politicians suspected of having agendas, and those who show signs of being practical and pragmatic, may also be under suspicion of being part of wider conspiracies, or of having instincts for more and more regulation likely to add to the costs of business, and for more controls over American citizens. They are thus, by definition, enemies of freedom.

As it happens, McCarthy has the endorsement of Trump, and has long parroted Trump, so it is not to be assumed that the distaste some of his colleagues feel for him is because he is some sort of mainstreamer. But those who have swallowed the Kool-Aid have an infallible instinct for the potential rat, and McCarthy has been under suspicion for a long time.

It is idle to point out that the mainstream of the Republican Party once contained ordinary American businessmen and women, most of whom were only slightly right of centre, and many of whom were generally liberal in their ideas. The party is now much changed – in major part because of the anti-government philosophies of Ronald Reagan, the movements he inspired, including the Tea Party, and later the economic nationalism and focus on white unease, anxiety and displacement refined by Donald Trump from the slogans of Richard Nixon and George W Bush.

The party is now led by its lunatic fringe

It is true that the party has long harboured bigots, loonies and conspiracy theorists, but they were mostly at the fringe until the last few decades. Now they are at the forefront, and it is not by coincidence. Moderates in the party have been pushed out of the party councils. They are under attack for being weak. The new radicals of the right have come to own the idea that the party is one for limited government and that the old guard secretly yearn for big government and lots of power. Party arguments have almost ceased to be policy focused and have become intensely personal and political – as well as being dominated by “fake news” reckless allegations and stunts. The primary system generates the loudest and most extreme candidates, using attack ads and new media rather than debate to promote themselves.

The House of Representatives is the most important engine room of practical government. It is where most laws are initiated, budgets are devised, and where choices are made – between different policies, and between different programs. With a looser party system, politicians bargain for their support for measures, seek to put clauses in appropriations favouring their constituencies and pet causes, and are lobbied relentlessly by major interests. Their parties, and their party leaders, including the White House, put pressure on them to support the general party line and signature executive branch legislation and programs. They can sweeten their pressure with campaign donations, attractive committee appointments and assistance in election campaigns. Members of congress are also responsive to attack from within their own electorates if they support measures which are said to hurt jobs or local industry.

But as politics has become more tribal, most politicians are more known for their loud opinions and prejudices rather than their considered views on different policies, or their records. A candidate may come under withering attack, if not necessarily so much for something done in the direct theatre of politics, but for some attitude which is said to characterise their approach to politics. Sarah Palin’s first foray into politics involved attacks on the books that school libraries were buying, and in attempting to frame the argument as being about abortion. In recent time, elections have become referendums about Trump, or about ideas being implanted by his side of politics, such as about white decline, the alleged stealing of elections, and alleged attempts by the Biden administration to politicise the Justice Department with a view to having that fine citizen charged with some crime. Republican politicians get more exposure for expressing views on such matters, or on attacking others of different views, than for putting their own ideas into the political marketplace.

In this sense, the present judgement of the recalcitrant twenty that there is nothing in it for them in accepting some blandishment from McCarthy and re-joining the fold might well be sound. McCarthy needs better arguments, or better bribes, than he has come up with so far. The most serious party activists are forever going to be critics of what Republicans do in the American parliament, other than blocking appointments and rejecting legislative proposals, especially those with any sort of tax component. If they take some attractive committee appointment – even if they settle for some local boondoggle – they are likely to be accused of being sell-outs, even RINOs. On the outer they can be lionised by the crowd and find themselves even closer to the centre of power around Trump. It may well be that Trump is by now unlikely to get the Republican nomination. But he still controls large sums of Republican campaign cash. And even his strongest critics in the party are reluctant to attack him head on because of his grassroots following. So far, a candidate for decline is still setting the terms of debate. It will be someone else twelve months from now. But that someone is unlikely to be Kevin McCarthy and being in his good books may be lead in the saddlebags at the next election.

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