When score-settling is policy
What McCarthy's ouster reveals about the modern GOP
Kevin McCarthy’s speakership is at an end, in a rather spectacular and historic fashion. I know the watchword of our time is “Don’t normalize this,” but really, we need to get used to stuff like this. This is what the Republican Party has been building towards for some time. And it’s a pretty useful indicator of what a second Donald Trump term would look like.
As I’ve noted in a few posts on this site, the modern Republican Party is marked by a rising and now dominant conservative populist faction. This faction long predates Trump, but it was Trump who put them firmly in control of the party.
Of course these populists have a set of policy preferences — especially strict limitations or even the elimination of immigration — but one of their most important goals is payback. People who cross them (and they’ve got an Arya Stark-like list of such people) need to be taught a lesson. And this is directed both at Democrats, who they feel need to be punished for what they’ve done previously when in office, and at their less faithful fellow Republicans — the people who should be on board but aren’t. For someone like Rep. Matt Gaetz, who initiated the effort to dethrone McCarthy, getting substantial media attention for successfully inflicting payback is a major accomplishment.
Trump has demonstrated this bent toward payback pretty consistently. His rationale in encouraging House Republicans to impeach President Biden is that “they did it to us.” As Jonathan Swan demonstrated, a second Trump term would largely be focused on settling scores — purging the executive branch of those who were not sufficiently loyal. It’s not exactly a coincidence that today’s other big political story is that Trump now has a gag order on him for trying to invite retribution on the clerk of Judge Arthur Engoron in his New York civil case.
But this isn’t just about Trump. The current House doesn't have a ton of policy achievements to point to — and in fairness it’s not easy to get much enacted when confronting a Senate and presidency controlled by the other party — but two things it has done are all about payback: initiating an impeachment inquiry of President Biden despite a lack of evidence of wrongdoing, and censuring Rep. Adam Schiff for investigating Trump.
McCarthy’s speakership was born tenuous. He endured a humiliating week back in January making all sorts of concessions to the far-right populist caucus, not so they would trust him, but so they could remove him if he disappointed them.
And disappoint them he did. And it wasn’t for any specific policy, of course, so much as that he worked with Democrats to keep the federal government from shutting down. This was, to Matt Gaetz and others in his caucus, an apostasy that had to be answered for. Gaetz had to make it clear that, even if it was impossible for McCarthy to do his job by working within his party, he wasn’t allowed to work outside it. And now he doesn’t have that job anymore.
Now, to be sure, score-settling is at least something of a legitimate practice within a party, a business, a nation, or any kind of organization. Loyalty to the organization is expected, and if leaders are too lax the organization can fall apart. Part of Nancy Pelosi’s considerable successes as Speaker were due to the fact that her fellow Democrats wanted to keep her happy; she could make their reelections a bit easier if she wanted, just as she could make their work as legislators a bit harder. In this sense, exercising discipline can be done in service of a policy agenda. It exemplifies the adage that you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.
But the populists within the House are largely focused on settling scores for the sake of settling scores. There are a lot of egg shells on the counter and no one’s even heated up a skillet.