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The GOP-Speaker-Vote Burlesque

If you think the crisis of American democracy is over, the circus in the House should remind you that a significant portion of the Republican Party has no interest in governing, policy, or democracy itself.

House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., speaks after a closed-door meeting Tuesday morning with the GOP conference as he pursues the speaker of the House.,Alex Brandon/AP

Watching the messy filleting of Representative Kevin McCarthy’s career (and ego) over the past 24 hours has been undeniably entertaining, not least because the representative from California deserves it. McCarthy, a dull creature of the Beltway, tried to pander his way to power. Much like his lieutenant, Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, he sold his soul to Donald Trump’s movement and expected loyalty in return. (Trump endorsed him for the job, but for a moment seemed to have second thoughts about backing a loser.) Ambition and opportunism are common among politicians, but McCarthy took it to new levels. He even sorted Trump’s favorite Starburst candies so that the “Toddler in Chief” could avoid the icky yellows and oranges. (I am not making this up.)

Maybe Stefanik and other grovelers deserve such a comeuppance even more, but McCarthy has built up a serious karmic debt. He once preened as one of the self-appointed GOP “Young Guns,” the trio of conservative up-and-comers who were going to lead a practical and policy-oriented Republican Party to a governing majority. Reality quickly intervened: Cantor was turfed in a 2014 primary by a Tea Party flash in the pan named Dave Brat, who was defeated in 2018 by an actual centrist Democrat, Abigail Spanberger. Ryan suffered through two terms as speaker before boarding the John Boehner Emergency-Exit Pod and bailing out of politics. McCarthy stayed and made the compromises he thought he had to make, which is how he ended up sorting candy with his staff.

As I said to my friend Charlie Sykes yesterday, if there is such a thing as Narcan for schadenfreude, I’ll need to keep it handy if McCarthy is actually defeated once and for all in his quest for the House’s top job. But McCarthy’s misery is secondary to the real story behind the hijinks of the Republican defectors tormenting their own leader. McCarthy and others have asked what the rebels want—but they do not understand that the rebels have no tangible goals. A significant part of the Republican Party, and especially its base, now lives in a post-policy world. Governing is nothing. The show is everything.

As I was writing this, Representative Chip Roy of Texas proved that the play’s the thing by nominating Byron Donalds for the speakership. Who? Donalds is a 44-year-old Republican first elected to the House in 2020. I’m guessing Roy nominated him simply to counter the nomination of Hakeem Jeffries, the leader of the Democratic caucus, with that of another Black legislator. Roy even made a cringe-inducing speech, complete with a Martin Luther King Jr. quote, about the wondrousness of two young Black men vying for the speakership. It’s great television, right?

Unfortunately for McCarthy, it’s also great television to see the GOP leader lose his fourth vote for speaker, which he did in short order, with the same 20 votes for Jordan moving over to Donalds. The fifth and sixth defeats followed in quick succession.

The inane Kabuki taking place around McCarthy’s job isn’t really about debt ceilings or abortion or Ukraine—or anything else. If you think Lauren Boebert or Matt Gaetz or Andy Biggs are possessed of deep thoughts about any of these issues, you have already made the same mistake that brought McCarthy to this impasse. Gaetz’s big idea in politics is that—according to a Trump aide’s testimony to the House Select Committee on January 6—he should be given a blanket pardon for things he swears he didn’t do. (Gaetz has denied asking for the pardon.) Biggs is the high-minded Cincinnatus who suggested that the January 6 riots could be blamed on the FBI; Boebert ran a gun-themed restaurant back in Colorado and often says things that lead to debates not over policy, but over whether she is the most ignorant person currently sitting in Congress.

What all of these GOP members do seem to have in common is a shared belief that they should be in Congress in order to make other people miserable. Usually, those “other people” are Democrats and various people on the generic right-wing enemies list, but lately, the targets include the few remaining Republicans who think their job in Washington is to legislate and pass bills and other boring twaddle that has nothing to do with keeping the hometown folks in a lather, getting on television, and getting reelected.

Note, by the way, that the conspiracy-minded Marjorie Taylor Greene—herself a perennial nominee for, shall we say, the least intellectually incisive member of Congress—is backing McCarthy. Indeed, Greene and Boebert are now in a political slap fight with each other. Both women are playing to the same base, but Boebert’s district is far less safe than Greene’s, and so, as Ed Kilgore wrote recently, “it makes sense for her to pick a fight with Greene, or with one of Greene’s famously batshit bits of commentary.” Greene, meanwhile, can aim for more power by backing McCarthy. This would also explain McCarthy’s support from Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, who slyly went to the floor to argue for electing McCarthy and then watched as McCarthy failed yet again because 19 votes were cast for—wait for it—Jim Jordan.

This is the best of all worlds for someone like Jordan, one of the most irresponsible members of Congress, who thinks his job as a legislator is to show up at hearings and Gish gallop the proceedings into chaos. He gets to support McCarthy and look like a team player, and then, no matter what happens, get the job he wants: chair of the House Judiciary Committee, where he likely intends to investigate Hunter Biden and impeach the president.

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The Republican rebellion is rooted in a giant inferiority complex: We know we’re not popular, we know a lot of people think we’re jerks, but we’ll show everyone that we can paralyze this country and its institutions using the machinery of government. Democracy, process, lawmaking, and governing? All of that is for saps; doing it is how you end up becoming Eric Cantor or Paul Ryan. The GOP rebels have every intention of staying in Washington and staying in power—even if “power” amounts to little more than sitting in the wreckage of the Capitol and keeping warm by burning the furniture. Win or lose, McCarthy never had a chance at being a true master of the House.

Tom Nichols is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of the Peacefield newsletter and the Atlantic Daily newsletter.