House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy looked in the mirror this week, and the face of Preston Brooks stared back at him. It was 165 years ago next month, in one of the defining political moments in the lead-up to the Civil War, that the pro-slavery Congressman from South Carolina savagely caned Massachusetts abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner on the Senate floor. McCarthy has tried for years to avoid confronting the ugly underbelly of Republican politics, even as he pursued his ambition of being Speaker of the House. This week, it caught up with him: the long, ugly history of white supremacy in the United States looked McCarthy straight in the eye, and he did not like what he saw.
It was just eight months ago that the Republican Party decided to head into the fall election with no party platform. At the time, McCarthy and other erstwhile GOP “leaders” decided that embracing no principles at all was a better bet than embracing principles or positions that might alienate their mercurial party leader and his MAGA followers. It probably seemed like a reasonable gamble at the time: if Trump won, the party would remain his and he would define what it stood for; if he lost, the party would move on to its post-Trump future and no one would be the worse for wear.
As it turned out, of course, neither happened. While Donald Trump lost in November, the Big Lie that he has trumpeted since the election has carried the day within the GOP. According to a recent Monmouth University poll, two-thirds of Republicans continue to believe that Trump only lost the election due to voter fraud perpetrated by Democrats. Hamstrung by a man who could not win, but would not lose, the GOP is left with nothing but chaos.
Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and this week Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar — notorious as the members of the Republican caucus most closely identified with the QAnon and the white supremacist movements, respectively — decided to seize the moment and released their America First Caucus Policy Platform. For all the turmoil the paper provoked, it is actually a remarkably pedestrian document. Over six and a half pages, it covers the MAGA landscape as one might hear it at a typical Trump rally or on a Rush Limbaugh broadcast, migrating from the Big Lie, through the vilification of Big Tech, to the evils of the federal government and mask mandates, and closing with the ritual attacks on the Chinese Communist Party.
Nonetheless, reaction among GOP leaders was swift and furious. Perhaps seeing the references to “Anglo-Saxon’’ (a term apparently embraced on the right as code for racial purity) political traditions and nationalist rhetoric in black and white under the banner of a Republican House caucus forced McCarthy and others to confront just how far down the rabbit hole of dog-whistle white supremacy their party has tumbled. It was just two years ago, after all, that Iowa Congressman Steve King was blackballed from the party for off-hand remarks that pale next to what Greene, Gosar and their compatriots suggested should be embraced as official GOP doctrine. Greene, who has been treated with kid gloves by GOP leaders since she arrived in the Capitol, seemed genuinely startled by the reaction and proved unprepared to stand her ground. Within a matter of hours she backtracked, abandoned the idea of creating the proposed caucus, and blamed the media (of course) for publishing a staff document she now claims she had never read.
In his own tweet disavowing the machinations of Greene and Gosar, McCarthy dragged out the old “GOP is the Party of Lincoln” meme for one more run around the track. McCarthy is far from the first Republican leader torn between the legacy of the GOP as the Party of Lincoln and the realities of the modern Republican coalition. Bob Dole and Jack Kemp, the Presidents Bush, and Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan each struggled with the racism and cruelty of the party base that they relied on for votes on election day with the loftier side of the GOP legacy. But in the era of Trumpism, all pretense has been stripped away. This week, as white supremacists sought to move from the fringes of the party and seize center stage, it is time that Kevin McCarthy and his colleagues recognize that theirs is the Party of Lincoln no more.
That the pro-slavery Preston Brooks was a Democrat, while the abolitionist Charles Sumner was a Republican is just one reminder of how complete the reversal of roles of the two political parties has been since that brawl on the House floor in 1856. The Republican Party remained the party of civil rights for more than a century, up to and through the mid-1960s, when Republicans in Congress provided nearly unanimous support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But all that changed over the ensuing decades as the GOP decided as a matter of electoral strategy to swap its pro-civil rights identity and large historical following among Blacks for the support of southern and ethnic whites who had become increasingly disaffected by the Democratic Party’s rejection of its own racist past, embrace of civil rights, women’s rights, and other social issues.
For whatever sincere disgust McCarthy may have felt this week, his swift response to the America First Caucus document likely had less to do with history than it did the 2022 midterm elections that loom just eighteen months away. Republican hopes of winning back Congress — and McCarthy’s dream of seizing the Speaker’s gavel from Nancy Pelosi — depend on the GOP’s winning back suburban white voters that they had won in 2016, but who abandoned the GOP in 2018, and again at the presidential level in 2020. Winning those voters back, McCarthy knows, will be nearly impossible — despite the natural advantage the party out of power has in off-year elections — if Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar are allowed to become the face of the party.
While the success of GOP leaders in keeping the party’s white supremacist wing under wraps may be one key to GOP success down the road, the electoral outcome in suburban districts in 2022 probably rests as much on what Democrats do in the intervening months as on what Republicans do. Joe Biden understands this. It is the reason that his focus on the economy and COVID has been unrelenting, and he has been resolute in ignoring a range of the other issues that might distract his administration’s focus. Hopefully, Democrats in Congress will follow his lead.
All too often, however, it seems that too many Democratic leaders fail to grasp what is at stake. When Michigan Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib renewed calls for abolishing the police, you could feel Kevin McCarthy’s spirits rise. When, two days later, two Democrats in the House and two in the Senate introduced legislation to add four seats to the Supreme Court, you could feel Mitch McConnell’s spirits soar. And an otherwise divided Republican Party could be heard chanting hosannas of joy when California Congresswoman Maxine Waters swept GOP chaos from the news cycle as she called for amped up protests and confrontation should Derek Chauvin not be found “guilty, guilty, guilty.”
Democrats who believe that turmoil in the GOP means that Democrats have the upper hand eighteen months from now should think again. If history is any guide, Republicans stand to win back both the House and the Senate, as the party that holds the White House tends to lose 30 seats or more in the House and as many as a half-dozen seats in the Senate. While the decline in Republican Party affiliation to near historic low levels has given Democrats reason for optimism, the deterioration in Republican support has not translated into a meaningful increase in Democratic affiliation. Rather, nearly half of the country now identifies as Independent. Against that backdrop, the midterm elections may well be decided by how effective each party is in framing the debate; and few can argue that this is not a skill at which Republicans have excelled over the decades.
Turmoil within the Republican Party has given Democrats an opportunity to confound history, make gains in off-year elections, and solidify its hold on Congress. Yet some Democrats seem determined to return the favor and hand the advantage back to the GOP. The simple fact is that no one is going to abolish police departments anywhere in this country — now, or anytime in the near future; nor is anyone going to change the composition of the Supreme Court. Democrats who spend time and energy fighting those battles — and in doing so promoting narratives that serve Republican interests — should take a hard look in the mirror. What they will see staring back will be the smiling faces of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy.
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of “FedExit! To Save Our Democracy, It’s Time to Let Alabama Be Alabama and Set California Free.”
Artwork by Joe Dworetzky. Follow him on Twitter @joedworetzky or Instagram at @joefaces.