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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, May 19, 2024

The tragedy of Kevin McCarthy

McCarthy’s ouster as House speaker demonstrates the new politics of humiliation.


Kevin McCarthy is pictured.

Hyper-partisan politics have become very strongly entrenched in our nation’s political system. Still, some events manage to display just how shockingly fractured party loyalties are. The most recent example is the removal of Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the House of Representatives. McCarthy was ousted as speaker by far-right members of his party after McCarthy negotiated with Democrats to avoid a government shutdown. For McCarthy, it was only a matter of time until he was removed as speaker, given that to appease the so-called “Freedom Caucus” enough to win the position in the first place, he reinstated a House rule that would require only one member to call for a vote for the speaker’s removal.

Since McCarthy’s removal, most Republicans have voted for the more extreme election-denier Jim Jordan to take up the speakership. It is unclear whether Jordan will eventually win the position of speaker, or if the duty will fall to someone else (or nobody for the time being). Having already gained the support of the chaotic far-right faction of his party, Jordan may have more job security than McCarthy if he wins the speakership. But it’s hard to imagine why any Republican would want the position at all, given the risk of an ouster at a moment's notice.

The Republican Party has been steadily harboring an incredibly toxic relationship between MAGA Republicans and the older party establishment. When Trump first ran for president in 2016, his public comments about fellow Republican candidates were unnecessary, unprecedented and mean. Trump’s comments should have provoked lasting moral outrage in those who he offended. Take Ted Cruz, for example. Trump suggested his wife was ugly and claimed his father might have been involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In Texas, men have been shot for less. However, Cruz later endorsed Trump and was a key supporter during his presidency. The example of Cruz makes painfully clear how establishment Republicans relent and kiss the proverbial ring of the MAGA movement.

McCarthy’s story followed the same path. Members of the House Freedom Caucus, in a charge led by Matt Gaetz, made a political spectacle of McCarthy’s initial speaker election, at one point voting for Donald Trump for House speaker over McCarthy. Although McCarthy eventually won the position after a humiliating five days and 15 public rounds of voting, he did so by ceding significant power to the far-right bloc of his party, agreeing to several political agenda items such as the aforementioned rule change. Over the course of his hard-fought speakership battle, McCarthy showed just how badly he wanted the position; but just 269 days after the battle ended, he was deposed. The moment was a significant political win for Matt Gaetz, who filed the motion to remove McCarthy. 

It was no surprise that Gaetz decided to seize the power McCarthy himself relinquished; Gaetz has only ever demonstrated the desire to see McCarthy embarrassed, as demonstrated by his public attacks on McCarthy in which he called him “pathetic” and a liar. Potential explanations for Gaetz’s political feud with McCarthy mainly center on the assumption that Gaetz wants the spotlight. This explanation is reasonable, but it could ignore a darker truth that speaks to an aspect of human nature. McCarthy is essentially Gaetz’s boss as House speaker, and he demonstrated a degree of power over Gaetz by not squashing an ethics investigation into the representative’s conduct; perhaps Gaetz could be driven by his desire to assert dominance over McCarthy. Humans are no better than the beasts among us, and politicians’ desire to get to the top of dominance hierarchies by humiliating others is a bleak, but increasingly normalized trait. Furthermore, as a voyeuristic C-SPAN viewer throughout the proceedings, I found myself rooting for Gaetz to take down McCarthy. Although I dislike Gaetz more than McCarthy, it was impossible not to see him as a Nietzschean “Übermensch of sorts.

Unless establishment Republicans start to stand up to wars of embarrassment waged by the MAGA wing of their party, this infighting is sure to persist. For his part, McCarthy blamed Democrats for getting him removed as speaker, despite the blame obviously falling on the shoulders of his own disjointed party. McCarthy’s blind party loyalty would be somewhat admirable if it weren’t so incredibly misguided; He presumably thinks it will reflect badly on him to criticize the Republican Party. Yet establishment Republicans only make themselves appear weak when they take MAGA bullying with a smile.

It’s no surprise when a politician has a big ego, yet seeing politicians abandon their dignity ought to also make constituents feel uneasy. Humans naturally have pride, and anger is perfectly justified when someone calls your wife ugly or publicly revels in firing you. The Republican Party has devolved into a school playground, rife with bullying and spectacles of domination. Establishment Republicans must realize that they can only take back control of their party by standing up for themselves against these rowdy, new MAGA kids.