If House Republicans win in the midterm elections, it’s already clear their new majority will be a constant churn of self-radicalization and an extremist political weapon for Donald Trump.
The Republican conference is purging heretics who reject the ex-President’s personality cult and fueling his continuing assaults on democracy designed to restore him to power amid ever-growing signs that the narrow Democratic House majority is in trouble.
So far this week, the House GOP has shown it’s ready to turn a blind eye to Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar’s tweet of a photoshopped anime video depicting him appearing to kill Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and swinging swords at President Joe Biden. The bulk of the House GOP is expected to stand by Gosar on Wednesday as he faces a rare censure vote by the full chamber and is stripped of two committee assignments. Explaining her decision to hold the vote, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said: “We cannot have members joking about murdering each other.”
But if they are not bothered enough by Gosar’s glorification of violence to punish him, some of his Republican colleagues do want to strip committee posts from 13 GOP members who backed a bipartisan infrastructure bill that will repair roads and bridges and widen access to broadband. Their sin lies in handing a victory to Biden, in a recently signed law that even some Republicans – including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell – argue is a win for the American people.
Trump extended his revenge tour to two House GOP primaries this week, choosing the West Virginia congressman who voted against infrastructure in an incumbent-on-incumbent primary, and backing an opponent to a Michigan congressman who voted for his impeachment earlier this year.
Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, meanwhile, was again disowned by her state party for telling the truth about Trump’s authoritarian attempt to destroy the peaceful transfer of power, which has been a hallmark of American democracy for nearly 250 years. Cheney had already lost her House leadership post for defending cherished American values to a Trump acolyte, Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, and she’s now one of just two Republicans serving on the House select committee investigating January 6.
Cheney spoke out on Tuesday about colleagues who tolerate the violent rhetoric that increasingly characterizes their party but condemn lawmakers who vote for programs that they think benefit their districts – even though she personally did not support the infrastructure bill: “The notion that Leader (Kevin) McCarthy won’t full on condemn what Paul Gosar did on multiple occasions, but that he seems to be entertaining this move to push the 13 off of their committees, I mean, it’s indefensible – morally and ethically – and it’s crazy politically.”
McCarthy said Gosar didn’t mean to promote violence. But contrary to Cheney’s claim, he also argued it was not the right time to go after Republicans who supported the infrastructure bill. Still, the idea that a staunch conservative like Cheney is being ostracized by her own party shows how far the GOP has moved from its ideological roots toward undiluted Trumpism.
The new turn against Cheney came after Trump’s allies vowed to use precedents forged by the House select committee to destroy the Biden presidency in a wave of investigations if they capture the majority next November. It’s the role of Congress to serve as a check and balance on the power of the executive. But after most Republicans refused to probe one of the worst attacks on American democracy in generations, they are already plotting similar investigative offensives over far lesser transgressions.
A long term, anti-democratic trend
This fresh evidence of the GOP’s increasingly extreme path is just the product of a few days. But it follows months in which the party has covered up Trump’s attempt to steal power and supported his lies about a stolen election as part of its countrywide move toward authoritarian conservatism. At the state level, Republicans have tried to make it harder to vote in elections but easier to fix the results. And this week’s ruckus inside the House GOP also coincided with anti-democratic fervor growing outside it, as Trump’s populist political Machiavel Steve Bannon vowed to bring down the Biden “regime” after he was indicted for criminal contempt of Congress for refusing to testify on the attempted Trump coup.
There will be another reminder of the horror of January 6 on Wednesday with the scheduled sentencing of Jacob Chansley, the self-described “QAnon Shaman” who paraded through the US Capitol during the insurrection shirtless and wearing a horned headdress.
And in another another example of American democracy in peril, it’s possible Republicans could gain the seats they need to win the majority next year simply through partisan gerrymandering – a practice both parties engage in but with which Republicans have had more recent success. Years of gerrymandering by both parties have produced a House in which there are few competitive seats and in which members are driven to extremes to avoid primary challenges by more radical foes. While the Democratic Party’s radicalization tends to push it toward a more progressive democracy, the same process in the GOP has turned the party of Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln against democracy itself. That fact threatens to deny the country the healthy two-party system that has long been a hallmark of its superpower strength.
A sense of inevitability over a new extreme, GOP House majority is also being fueled by the Democratic Party’s muddled efforts to sell Biden’s achievements – including the infrastructure law – as Americans feel the pain of immediately rising prices, which may overshadow any enthusiasm for long-term investments in roads and bridges. And a drip, drip of Democratic lawmakers announcing their retirements is exacerbating a sense that their party may soon be in the minority. While Republicans are in many cases abetting an illegitimate attempt to steal power, Democrats are proving that effectively wielding power won fairly, but with tiny majorities, can be almost impossible.
Greene warns McCarthy he’s not a shoo-in for speaker
If McCarthy fulfills his dream of becoming speaker, his riotous conference might make the struggles of ex-GOP Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan to control their radical wings look tame by comparison.
Neither man had to deal with someone like freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who said McCarthy was “a failure” on Wednesday despite his constant appeasement of Trump. Angry that the California Republican hasn’t stripped Republicans who voted for the bipartisan infrastructure bill of their committee assignments, Greene warned that McCarthy isn’t a shoo-in for the speakership by saying Trump’s opinion is going to “matter big” in who gets the gavel if the GOP wins. The sharp rebuke was a sign that McCarthy must constantly appease the vast Trump wing of his party to secure his own political ambitions – a factor that saw him quickly visit Mar-a-Lago this year in a bid to walk back his previous criticism of Trump over the insurrection.
Greene, who has spread misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines, revealed on Tuesday that she has not been vaccinated. She’s frequently lambasted social distancing and masking measures and has earned thousands of dollars in fines for violating the House’s pandemic-era rules, reflecting the kind of disregard for public health measures Trump exhibited.
The turmoil wracking the GOP House minority this week is yet another reflection of the iron fist that Trump wields over his party – and especially in the House, which traditionally showcases the radicalism of a party’s grassroots.
The reason why Republicans are standing by Gosar is that he is one of Trump’s most vehement defenders and accomplices in attacking democracy. The reason why 13 supporters of the popular infrastructure bill are in trouble is that their votes helped hand Biden a win on an issue on which Trump manifestly failed, creating an embarrassing comparison with his presidency. And the reason that Cheney, one of the most consistently conservative members of the conference, was declared persona non grata by the Wyoming GOP is that she had the courage to stand against Trump’s authoritarianism.
Scenes of a Trump-led Republican revolution, which is already threatening party members who reject the GOP’s ever more extreme dogmas, are all the more extraordinary since that kind of extremism could up alienating some general election voters in more competitive districts.
It’s only been a few weeks since Republicans were parsing the victory of Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin in Virginia as a sign that keeping Trump-style extremism at arm’s length could help the GOP win back critical suburban voters.
This week’s outbursts have also drowned out an effective midterm election message that McCarthy was pushing for months about Biden’s presidency failing – on the economy, on the pandemic, on the border and abroad.
The evidence of a party that has embraced self-radicalization is dismaying former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who, many years ago, was considered something of a conservative firebrand himself as a young GOP congressman.
“It’s completely crazy,” Kasich said on CNN’s “The Situation Room,” bemoaning his party’s failure to rein in Gosar. “The Republicans are lucky the people aren’t following this thing carefully. If they did, their ability to take over the House, in my opinion, would be in question. People don’t support this kind of nonsense; they don’t.”
CNN’s Melanie Zanona contributed to this story.