It may very telling that the extremist Republican representatives in the U.S. House of Representatives orchestrated their election of Kevin McCarthy to the role of Speaker of the House on the two-year anniversary of violent insurrectionists storming the Capitol in deadly fashion to interrupt the peaceful transition of power after the 2020 presidential election.
As a critic and professor of literature, let me suggest that one compelling way to interpret the days-long drama that seated McCarthy as Speaker of the House is to understand it as a continuation, indeed escalation, of the insurrection.
Let’s hope it’s not, but we watchdogs of American democracy would be remiss, even derelict, if we let down our guard and willfully blinded ourselves to the encroachments, or infiltration, of anti-democratic forces into the inner workings of the nation’s democratic governing institutions.
House Democrats joked about munching popcorn while spectating at the sport of Republican incompetence and fecklessness. Watch the Democratic talking heads on the television, and you’ll see they are largely gleeful about what they tend to describe a study in contrasts that made crystal clear to American viewers the unity and efficacy of House Democrats in opposition to the disarray and dysfunctionality of House Republicans.
This glee, this schadenfreude, as pundits have called it, is dangerously misplaced.
And we should be understanding that the glee over Democrats stemming the predicted red wave in the midterm elections last November may very well be similarly misplaced. Yes, to be sure, it could have been worse, but we certainly can’t suggest, as we’ve heard some voices proclaim, that the midterms represented the American people speaking out loudly and clearly against the quickly creeping authoritarianism in American politics, in favor of salvaging American democracy. First, so many of the elections were decided by razor-thin margins; and, second, Republicans took control of the House.
We know from the 2020 election, especially after reading the January 6 report recently released, that those intent on razing democratic institutions in America need only a small opening.
Frankly, our founders and framers of the Constitution, while they worried about self-serving seditionists, clearly didn’t imagine someone like Trump or the strength of bigotry and fascist tendencies in the populace that would sustain and even thrive in U.S. culture and society as a counterforce to maintaining and expanding democracy. Our founders were right that the strength and fate of democratic institutions relied largely, perhaps too largely, on the character of the people and their representatives. Trump and his allies very well may have succeeded in stealing the 2020 election by creating enough confusion to put the election in the hands of the House of Representatives, which could and would have elected Trump, if it weren’t for individuals of character here and there in key states who refused to go along with Trump’s plot. It very well may have taken just one of those individuals to bend to have toppled U.S. democracy.
And now there at least 20 representatives in the U.S. House who have been clear about their support for the insurrectionists. Really, all Republicans have basically pledged their allegiance to the insurrection, as did we see any Republicans at last Friday’s ceremony honoring the heroes who risked and in some cases sacrificed their lives to stem the insurrection?
The elevation of McCarthy to Speaker is, indeed, another maneuver by the insurrections to disrupt and destroy democracy. The insurrectionists are no longer banging down doors and breaking windows; they are not on the outside trying to get in. They are on the inside proclaiming that this drama of electing a speaker represented the best of democracy and its messy and deliberative processes, while they are really using the means of democracy to dismantle it.
The gang of extremists, who controlled the process of deciding the Speaker, did not so much elect McCarthy as much as they tamed, domesticated, and subordinated him. This gang succeeded in establishing minority rule in the House. The Republican majority must defer to them, making the House effectively subject to a tyranny of the minority.
This small opening is enough for the extremists to do great damage to the lives of Americans and the institutions that are supposed to work to support and protect American lives. If the Republicans continue to defer to this group, key legislation like farm bills, budget approvals, key funding bills, raising debt ceilings, and more, can be stalled—with grave consequences for U.S. society and its economy, doing great damage to Americans’ lives.
It’s seems clear, at this point, that the Republicans will defer to this group.
Or, put another way, it seems clear that there is no such thing as an anti-Trump, pro-democracy, Republican Party; nor is there any such a thing as a bi-partisan moderate Republican.
House Republicans had a golden opportunity over the past few days to thrust a dagger deep in the heart of extremism, of Trumpism.
They had 212 votes across the aisle, and they could have sought to secure six of them to get their Speaker of choice elected and disempower the likes of Lauren Boebert, Matt Gaetz, Andy Biggs, and others of their gang.
They could have signaled a bi-partisanship that they, the Republicans, still largely could have controlled.
Once again, they put party over country.
They had many opportunities, these so-called moderate establishment Republicans, to out an end to Trumpism. Take any of the impeachment trials. Where were the moderate Republicans such as Rob Portman and the like?
Let’s not be fooled. The Republican Party is the party of authoritarianism, fascism, whatever you want to call it.
And extremism is alive, well, and making inroads on our fragile democratic institutions. Hopefully our aspiring democracy can survive the next two years, but let’s not let down our guard.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.