McCarthy’s Problems Long Predate Trump

When was Kevin McCarthy more likely to be deceiving his audience? When he told congressional Republican leaders days after the January 6 attacks that he would tell then-President Donald Trump that “it would be my recommendation you should resign,” or last week when McCarthy told reporters he “never thought that [Trump] should resign.”

Anyone who has followed McCarthy’s balky, grasping, two-decade-long climb from representing Bakersfield in California’s state assembly until now, standing for a second time at the threshold of becoming speaker of the House of Representatives, will know that the answer is easy: “both times.”

McCarthy’s chief political gifts are a self-abnegating elasticity that allows him to wrap himself around whoever’s fingers seem the most useful at a given moment and a relentless ambition that has allowed him to endure the many humiliations on his path to power. He was paying lip service to Rep. Liz Cheney and others who wanted Trump out of office then, and he is paying lip service now to Rep. Matt Gaetz and others who squawk in exultations at the thought of Trump returning to power and punishing their enemies.

The narrative favored by Democrats and many in the press is that McCarthy was going to pressure Trump to step aside but then chickened out can’t really be accurate because McCarthy was never going to push Trump—or anyone—into anything. Trump would have laughed in his face. But the idea that McCarthy was once going to put the interests of Congress ahead of his own ambition and then changed his mind supports the central premise for much of the political coverage today: Trump as the center of the universe.

Trump’s civil war against those in the GOP who have not accepted his alternate history of the events from November 2020 to February 2021 is real, and it may end up being the single most important thing in American politics today. If Trump breaks the GOP’s back with a bunch of primary wins for his candidates, starting next week in Ohio with J.D. Vance and continuing through May in Nebraska, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and, the big one—Georgia’s gubernatorial race—it will have lasting, painful consequences. If the Trump faction dominates the primaries and Republicans go on to have a big midterm success anyway, the party may be entering a long captivity by the culture warriors on the populist right. The next six years for the Republican Party may be all about gay sex-ed, testicle tanning, and tirades about Twitter algorithms. Change the elephant to a hog-tied Mickey Mouse, presto change-o.

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