The Republican House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, is a political lifer who has represented the most conservative district in California for the past 15 years. He has every reason to feel confident about his party’s future. According to most polls, the House of Representatives will return to Republican control after the November 2022 elections, which means that McCarthy will replace Nancy Pelosi as the most powerful person in the chamber.
Yet McCarthy also appears to face a big problem. He already can’t control some of his wilder junior colleagues, including far-Right representatives like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar, who are a constant source of embarrassing headlines. Now, a new wave of MAGA mavericks — including Mayra Flores, a “far-Right Latina” known for sharing QAnon hashtags — are on their way to join them.
There’s no doubt that these new Republican members will be controversial. But the question for followers of the American political scene is, how much will they really matter? A quick look at the recent history of the GOP suggests that the answer is: not much. Loose-cannon legislators are nothing new, and while they might cause headaches for party elders, they almost always vote with mainstream Republicans on the issues that really matter to the party. In other words, for all the sound and fury about an emerging QAnon caucus, don’t expect the Congressional Republican Party to change much any time soon.
McCarthy’s trouble with his party’s Right began in earnest earlier this year, when an audio recording circulated in which he could be heard discussing the need for Donald Trump to resign after the January 6 riot. Whereas most in the press derided McCarthy for his cowardice in only criticising Trump behind closed doors, some of the Trumpiest members of the House saw the recording as evidence of McCarthy’s disloyalty. The minority leader drew harsh criticism from the far-Right Freedom Caucus, a group founded in 2015 to advocate for an “open, accountable, and limited government” that now serves as the home base for many of the party’s most truculent young members.
The Freedom Caucus is certainly a colourful group. Take Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who chanted “build the wall” in unison at President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address in March. Later that month, the pair found themselves in a heated argument about Greene’s decision to attend the America First Political Action Conference in February alongside Iowa Congressman Steve King. King, of course, was taken off U.S. House committees by McCarthy and the GOP leadership after asking when the term “white supremacist” became offensive.
King, however, is a moderate compared to the conference’s host, Nick Fuentes, a Holocaust denier and veteran of the 2017 Charlottesville riots who claims that “having sex with women is gay”. Breaking bread with Fuentes was apparently too much for Boebert. But Boebert is no stranger to controversy herself. In addition to voicing support for QAnon, the Colorado Republican has recently come under fire for abandoning her then-sister-in-law after a 2020 off-roading accident that occurred two months prior to her victory in a Republican congressional primary. She’s also been fending off salacious — and seemingly spurious — rumours that she used to work as a sugar-daddy call girl.
The Freedom Caucus was also home to Madison Cawthorn, the troubled MAGA stalwart who recently lost his primary after falling afoul of the DC Republican establishment, which he had accused of tolerating orgies and cocaine use among its members. The establishment fought back with a classic “dirty tricks” operation, digging up salacious rumours and passing them on to sympathetic journalists. The same American Muckrakers PAC that is now attempting to smear Boebert released documents and videos suggesting Cawthorn was sexually harassing his male second cousin, and someone leaked to The Daily Beast that Cawthorn’s chief of staff had received tens of thousands of dollars in outside money beyond what is permitted by House ethics rules. Cawthorn, having made himself into an annoyance, was unceremoniously shoved out of Congress.
As strange as that saga was, Cawthorn’s brief tenure speaks to the fundamental strength of party politics in the American system. Crazies may get elected, but they live and die based on their ability to make themselves useful to the party. Rising MAGA candidates such as New York’s Carl Paladino, who called Adolf Hitler “the kind of leader we need”, and Washington’s Loren Culp, a former police chief who tweeted his support for hanging a black man who could be seen on video pushing a senior citizen down the stairs, may generate bad press, but they will vote with the party much of time — and if they make more trouble than they’re worth, they’ll be kicked to the curb. Trump himself was a shining example of this phenomenon: Although he exasperated Republican grandees, he was able to secure their support by pushing party priorities like tax cuts and conservative Supreme Court appointments.
This isn’t a new problem. Every few years, a new generation of GOP radicals emerges to shock liberal sensibilities, but the party’s priorities remain the same. The “Republican Revolution” of 1994, engineered by Georgia Congressman Newt Gingrich, broke the so-called “conservative coalition” of conservative Republicans and “boll weevil Democrats” that had worked together since the New Deal. But while Gingrich’s “Contract with America” contained novel proposals like term limits, these never came to fruition. Instead, the party hewed closely to its post-Barry Goldwater identity: Bill Clinton was forced to move to the right on issues such as crime and welfare, and his Republican successor, George W. Bush, worked with the GOP to pass sweeping individual tax cuts, expand the surveillance state, and conduct military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some legislators elected in 1994 evolved into establishment figures and major power brokers, while others were quickly defeated following gaffes and controversies.
The Tea Party movement, which coalesced in 2009 following CNBC reporter Rick Santelli’s call for a “Chicago Tea Party” to chasten big government, underwent a similar evolution. It failed miserably in its goal of shrinking the US federal government, but it succeeded in launching new Republican political careers, including those of pundit Glenn Beck, Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and the aforementioned Iowa Congressman Steve King. At the time, some commentators saw the Tea Party as the voice of America’s forgotten heartland, but political scientist Robert Putnam was nearer to the mark when he observed that the Tea Party’s activists were simply Republican voters who wanted increased border security, restrictions on immigration, and a renewed infusion of some elements of traditional Christianity into public life. They were, in Putnam’s terms, “super-Republicans”, even if the rhetoric they used sounded alarmist, extremist, or unorthodox.
Even Trump himself — the seeming bête noire of Jeb Bush and all the other corporate Republicans he crushed in the 2016 primary — was another outgrowth of the Tea Party era. His rise to fame was built on the back of a quixotic campaign to determine the national origins of then-President Barack Obama coupled with clever tweets about things like Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank’s protruding nipples. Trump’s own reputation as a charismatic, unorthodox speaker with a socially libertine lifestyle led many to believe he could be all things to all MAGA hat wearers. But controversies and crises aside, this avowed fan of “Two Corinthians” came through on taxes and abortion, the core Republican political issues since Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency in 1980. Despite his rhetorical disdain for Mitt Romney and other old-guard leaders, Trump, once in office, delivered the goods that the party had long promised its base.
At the end of the day, then, Kevin McCarthy need not worry about what Carl Paladino and Loren Culp will do to the Republican Party. It will keep doing what it does best, asserting issues of public morality and low taxation that resonate with its long-term base, which is gradually assimilating more Latino voters. In doing so, it will be reasserting the power of historical continuity and frustrating the hopes for a more genuinely populist course espoused by “post-left dissidents” and members of the “New Right”. But McCarthy, who has served in Congress through the Speaker of the House tenures of John Boehner and Paul Ryan, surely knows that failing to find the right mix of velvet glove and iron fist could empower challengers and cost him his own position of authority. Political fortunes are always rising and falling in America, even if the partisan song remains the same.