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The MAGAfication of the GOP is Complete
How a radical faction yanked an entire party even further right.
The American party that currently enjoys majority control in the lower house of the national legislature just voted unanimously to make their leader a man who insists the previous presidential election was stolen and who played a key role in efforts to overturn the results. He is also an outspoken opponent of abortion who believes the procedure should be banned nationally beginning six weeks after conception, if not sooner. He opposes same-sex marriage more than eight years after the Supreme Court embedded a right to such unions in the Constitution. He favors making sharp cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. And he is a young-earth creationist who denies the reality of climate change.
Why did every Republican present on Wednesday afternoon vote to elevate Louisiana Rep. Mike Johnson to lead their party in the House of Representatives? One reason is that they were desperate to end the three-week deadlock within the party that had left the lower chamber paralyzed, and Johnson’s mild-mannered persona and absence of enemies within the Republican caucus made him a logical consensus choice. But there was also another reason: Johnson’s views place him well within the mainstream of the Republican Party in 2023.
The Self-Validating Gaetz Gambit
There are many reasons the House was plunged into chaos for three weeks, unable to coalesce around a new speaker. But as the outcome of the saga makes clear, organized opposition to the right-wing drift of the party was not one of them. The issue that prompted Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz and a handful of his colleagues to defenestrate the former speaker, California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, on October 3 was McCarthy’s willingness to strike a deal with Democrats to temporarily avoid a government shutdown.
That dispute points toward the true fissure within the party. On one side are those, like Gaetz and Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, who embrace brinksmanship, hostage-taking, and a willingness to drive the institution itself into a ditch if (they think) it will help to advance their ideological agenda. On the other side are those, like McCarthy and his allies in the party, who are comfortable deploying incendiary rhetoric and antagonizing Democrats but who nonetheless believe in adhering to normal institutional procedures, including occasional compromises with the other party, in order to keep the government running.
In this respect, the Gaetz gambit of undertaking a figurative regicide against the head of the party in the House wasn’t only successful because his side got its way, replacing McCarthy with a smiling, bespectacled, bow-tie wearing member of his own radical faction of the GOP. The gambit was a success because it was self-validating: Gaetz vividly demonstrated to his colleagues that his own extremist tactics work.
The Republican Party in the House is remarkably unified on policy and in what its members will say on the record to reporters and in public to constituents. It’s a party that supports Donald Trump, thinks the 2020 election was stolen, blames the former president’s legal troubles on out-of-control partisan prosecutors, opposes abortion, denies the reality of anthropogenic climate change, and increasingly expresses hostility to gay and transgender rights, and to funding for Ukraine in its war with Russia. It sounds, in other words, like a fully MAGA party.
But that impression is deceptive—or rather, only skin deep. As countless anonymously sourced stories and books (the most recent being McKay Coppins’ candid biography of Mitt Romney) have demonstrated, Republican elected officials will roll their eyes and express contempt and even disgust when speaking in private and off the record about Trump and where their party has ended up. This implies that most don’t actually believe much of what they say for public consumption. They say it because the voters back home demand it, because saying it gets them media hits, and because if they don’t say it, Trump might turn on them and encourage a primary challenge from further to their right.
They talk like extremists, in other words, but it’s a put-on. This was the subtext of the Gaetz-led revolution against McCarthy: The MAGA true believers sensed that the Speaker of the House was faking it. He was a standard-issue Republican with views and procedural commitments antedating the right-populist takeover of the GOP that began with the Tea Party but became truly transformative with Trump’s victory in the 2016 primaries and general election. McCarthy tried to walk the walk of a Trumpist Republican. But his willingness to cut even a temporary deal with Democrats revealed the truth: He was a squish, content to go along to get along rather than showing a willingness to break the system to get his way.
A Call to Action
Does Gaetz really believe what he says? Does Johnson? Or Jordan? It doesn’t matter. This isn’t a contest over authenticity. It’s a contest over actions. Most Republicans have grown comfortable mouthing hyperbolic denunciations of Democrats and obsequious praise for Trump. The question is whether they act in a way that matches their own incendiary rhetoric. McCarthy didn’t—at least not consistently enough. But Gaetz does. Jordan does. Johnson has—and he will be expected to continue doing so in his new, powerful role as speaker. (I see nothing in Johnson’s career as a lawyer or in his record since running for Congress in 2016 that suggests anything other than genuine commitment to the positions he’s taken.)
And that points to what’s most at stake in the MAGAfication of the GOP. Yes, Trump’s takeover of the party has entailed important shifts on policy: a sharp turn away from a foreign policy of democracy promotion and support for treaty allies; strong hostility to immigration; and deep skepticism about free trade. But at least as important as these changes has been the insistence on displays of tactical or procedural radicalism—the willingness to fight ruthlessly for victory, even when it entails breaking from longstanding norms and even laws that limit and constrain the behavior of elected representatives.
There was some of this in both the House and Senate during Barack Obama’s presidency. But Trump went much further, crashing through norms from the very start of his presidency, even refusing to accept his own defeat in the 2020 election, allegedly breaking a number of state and federal laws in the process. Lots of Republican officeholders spoke out against this behavior in the immediate aftermath of the insurrectionary violence on January 6. But 139 Republicans in the House and 8 in the Senate nonetheless voted that very same evening to sustain objections to certifying Biden’s win.
Over the following months and years, the Trump critics either stood their ground and lost their seats or backed down and tried (often insincerely) to prove their MAGA bona fides. McCarthy, like many others, tried to have it both ways, joining with those who voted on January 6 to reject Biden’s win, railing against Trump in private and telling his colleagues a few days later that he would urge the president to resign before the official end of his term, and then traveling to Mar-a-Lago eight days after Trump left office to seek his forgiveness for acts of treachery just a few weeks earlier.
Saying vs. Doing
That’s the kind of thing the Gaetz faction despises in the former speaker and in every other Republican who tries to put on a MAGA show while expressing anonymous disgust to reporters or failing to demonstrate a willingness to get with the program on Capitol Hill. They say they believe the election was stolen. That deficits are dangerously high. That abortion is murder. That the LGBT agenda is an abomination. That climate change is a hoax. And that the stakes on all of these issues are unimaginably high. But then why, asks Gaetz, don’t they act like it?
Once again, this isn’t about true belief. I have no idea if Gaetz sincerely cares about these issues or if his rabid commitment to them is entirely motivated by a desire to get himself on TV. What matters is that Gaetz has managed to yank the Republican Party even further to the right by demanding its members more uniformly and consistently put their money where their mouths are. You say you believe these things; then act like it.
With another government shutdown looming, we’re all about to see what it looks like when they do.
Damon Linker writes the Substack newsletter “Notes from the Middleground.” He is a senior lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania and a senior fellow in the Open Society Project at the Niskanen Center.
This article was cross-posted at Notes from the Middleground.
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