A great many people are eagerly anticipating the opening of the next Congress, waiting with bated breath to see what the new House sheriffs in town intend to do with their newly minted powers. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, to name but one of the serious new players, has spent the last two years looking like he wants to paint his face blue and charge the White House gates in a kilt. Reps. Maxine Waters, Emmanuel Lewis and the others, from the sound of it, are likewise champing at the bit.
For my money, however, the real show in the House is going to be on the right side of the aisle. The Republican minority, defeated and pruned like it was 1974, is set to empower a radical faction of an already disorganized party which will commence in short order to make messes so vast and deep that all prior messes will seem quaint by comparison.
With the departure of Speaker Paul Ryan now imminent, House Republicans elected Kevin McCarthy of California as their new leader by a vote of 159 to 43. His opponent for the position, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, is a leader of the Freedom Caucus, a genuinely dangerous collection of wreckers who will have a loud voice in the House. The Freedom Caucus played a central role in ending John Boehner’s political career because they thought he was too liberal, and later made Ryan’s life miserable enough to quit for pretty much the same reason. McCarthy would be foolish to miss the inherent lesson: Cross the Freedom Caucus at your peril. If he forgets, Jordan will surely take pains to remind him.
The Freedom Caucus was formally created in 2015, but its members were busy little bees well before that. Several of its current members spent the second half of President Obama’s administration trying to shut down the government and default on the debt ceiling, because Obama. In 2017, they killed Donald Trump’s ACA replacement bill, which would have deprived 28 million people of health insurance, because it was too nice.
The superstars of the Freedom Caucus include men like Louie Gohmert of Texas, who may actually be from space. Gohmert once accused Obama of trying to recreate the Ottoman Empire; opposes gun control because, he says, gay marriage leads to bestiality (seriously); and believes pregnant women are coming to the US to birth “terror babies” who will grow up to “destroy our way of life.” He voted in favor of letting hunters kill sleeping bear cubs in their dens, and in favor of a bill to denude the Americans With Disabilities Act of its civil rights protections.
For the record, Louie Gohmert was re-elected this month by a margin of 72 to 26.
No list of Freedom Caucus fanatics is complete without Mo Brooks of Alabama, who also believes shooting sleeping bear cubs in the face is a bully idea. Brooks once characterized Democratic criticism of Jeff Sessions as a “war on whites,” claimed the ocean is rising because rocks are falling into the water, voted against disaster relief in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and wants troops deployed to the US-Mexico border with shoot-to-kill orders in hand.
For the record, Mo Brooks was re-elected this month by a margin of 61 to 39.
And then, of course, there is Ted Yoho of Florida, bannerman for the Birther conspiracy and sworn foe of all gun restrictions. After voting for the 2013 government shutdown, Yoho was appalled to learn that furloughed workers would still get paid. He believes only property owners should be allowed to vote, thinks the #MeToo movement is “sterilizing” men, also approves of shooting sleeping bears, also voted against relief after Harvey and thinks Republican members of Congress work directly for Donald Trump.
For the record, Ted Yoho was re-elected this month by a margin of 58 to 42.
Joining Rep. McCarthy in the ranks of House Republican leadership will be Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, daughter of the former Vice President, who will assume the role of conference chair. Cheney’s mission in life seems to be making torture cool again so her dad can travel abroad without getting arrested. Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, whose great love of the NRA and unlimited guns remains undaunted even after nearly being shot to death last year, will be minority whip.
As for Rep. McCarthy, well, he sure loves him some Trump. “My Kevin” is how Trump refers to the new House minority leader. McCarthy and Trump were together on Air Force One last year, and McCarthy noticed Trump only ate the cherry and strawberry-flavored candies out of the Starburst vat kept close at hand. “Days later,” according to The Washington Post, McCarthy “bought a plentiful supply of Starbursts and asked a staffer to sort through the pile, placing only those two flavors in a jar. McCarthy made sure his name was on the side of the gift, which was delivered to a grinning Trump.”
Gosh, it’s just so damned cute. What could possibly go wrong?
If you’re going to pick the year everything really began to go sideways for the Republican Party, 1964 will do nicely. That was the year Strom Thurmond and the other segregationist Southern Democrats became Republicans because of the Civil Rights Act. It was also the year Barry Goldwater, another ardent foe of the Civil Rights Act, became the Republican nominee for president. “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!” he bellowed from the convention podium, and the crowd went wild.
Twelve years later, that same crowd met Ronald Reagan at yet another Republican convention, nominated him for president the next chance they got, and we were off to the races. Reagan’s toxic amalgam of Nixon-style campaign racism in the deep South, his embrace of far-right evangelical Christianity and his regulation-crushing trickle-down economic plans built the bridge that carried the Republican Party from Abraham Lincoln and Schuyler Colfax to Donald Trump and Kevin McCarthy.
The ball of angry authoritarian hate that is today’s Republican Party is on the verge of becoming even more desperately furious. Deprived of majority power, House Republicans will watch as their president is investigated by every major committee in the building simultaneously. The Freedom Caucus will become more vocal and disruptive, painting the party even further into an extremist corner that will make the 2020 presidential election truly one for the books.
The wilder House Republicans get, the less interested stodgy Senate Republicans will be in riding to their rescue. It’s your fudge, Mitch McConnell will say. Go cook it yourself. Trump hasn’t had a thought for anyone but himself since the day he found out his daddy was loaded, so there will be little to no help from the White House if Gohmert and Brooks go off the rails again, which they will.
“The edge of a black hole, the event horizon, is a boundary that marks the point of no return,” Rep. McCarthy once wrote in a breathless National Review op-ed about the national debt. “Once an object crosses the event horizon, it cannot escape and will be ripped to pieces, atom by atom.”
The rot at the core of the Republican Party reaches outward even as its influence continues to shrink, and soon enough that rot will become more visible than ever. Kevin McCarthy does not have enough political talent or power to control the worst instincts of the worst people in the House chamber, a fact that will become evident each time all the Republican presidential candidates are asked to comment on the latest brute nonsense foisted on the public by the Freedom Caucus.
Their noise will become the metric by which the entire party is judged, and if the 2018 midterms were any guide, that noise is already too much for most voters to bear. The Republican Party has crossed its own event horizon, and McCarthy is about to find out more about entropy than he ever wanted to know.