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The New McCarthyism - Governing In Fear
Given an opportunity to break away from the former President, Kevin McCarthy instead chose to bend the knee.
“Is this story going to be all about Trump?” asked a nervous, apprehensive Kevin McCarthy as he was being interviewed for a New York Times story published a few weeks ago. The moment was indicative.
Shortly after January 6th, Kevin McCarthy staked out a stance that clearly blamed Donald Trump for the siege of the Capitol while falling short of calling for his impeachment. As the leader of the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives, McCarthy instead called for a censure of the soon-to-be-former President.
“The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters. He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding,” said McCarthy, joining a wave of initial criticism from Republicans against the outgoing president.
In the immediate wake of January 6th, there seemed to be a changing tide in how both Republican pundits and politicians were viewing their erstwhile champion. An array of plain facts had begun changing their estimation of whether Trump was an asset or a liability.
Since Donald Trump had risen to the leadership of the party, first as the outsider candidate and then as the President who defeated the hated Hillary Clinton, they had lost the House in 2018, then the Presidency in 2020, and then the Senate in the Georgia runoff elections.
On top of this political backsliding, the loudest contingent of the Republican Party had become run through with conspiratorial angst that refused to believe these election results were legitimate. Donald Trump pounced on this state of fear and loathing and embarked on a crusade to overturn the election, a crusade that culminated with the angry storming of the capitol by his supporters.
For a moment, it seemed both Republican leadership and the majority of its rank-and-file members had finally had enough with Trump’s bombastic style of leadership. On January 20th, Trump retreated to exile in Mar a Lago, and the Republican Party seemed poised to chart a new, post-Trump, path.
Mitch McConnell, for his part, has mostly held to that determination. Reportedly, he has not spoken to Donald Trump since he left office, nor does he intend to. Kevin McCarthy, on the other hand, has done an about-face.
Within weeks of his denouncements, Kevin McCarthy became among the first of many members of Congress to make the “Mar a Lago pilgrimage,” visiting Trump at his Florida resort in a clear sign of deference. Since that time, McCarthy has continuously backtracked from the position he took in the immediate aftermath of January 6th. He now paints a very different picture of how he views what happened on that day. He’s also offered cover for the die-hard Trumpists in his caucus, like Marjorie-Taylor Greene, and sought to play hard-ball with Democrats, demanding actions be taken against Maxine Waters while staying disturbingly silent on the transgressions from Matt Gaetz.
The only possible way to understand what Kevin McCarthy is trying to do is to assume his perspective is centered in fear. Like so many others, he has determined that Trump and Trumpism remain too strong to be challenged. He’s become convinced that he has no path to the House Speakership without Trump and his die-hard cohorts, and he’s made the calculation that he will do what he has to do to ingratiate himself with the former President.
This is the new McCarthyism, a view being adopted by more and more Republican politicians who have decided upon an existence of constant fear. Just as the old McCarthyism had people looking over their shoulders seeing communists in every shadow, this new McCarthyism sees Trump’s influence everywhere they go. They have come to view Donald Trump as a true king-pen, a Vito Corleone who can scratch his chin in Florida and decimate a political career in California. Donald Trump, in their view, is the most powerful political figure in American history. He can make you a king, or he can make you a pauper. The only choice you have is to bend the knee or die in flames.
The problem, of course, is that this isn’t the case. While it’s true that Donald Trump maintains a stranglehold on a loud and aggressive plurality of Republicans, his dominance has been consistently overstated.
Donald Trump won the 2016 Republican Primaries with 44% of the total vote. You have to go all the way back to 1968 to find a Republican candidate nominated with a smaller percentage of primary votes. To put things in perspective, George Bush was nominated in 2000 with 62% of the vote. To drive home the point, Ronald Reagan got a higher percentage of the vote in the Presidential Primary he lost in 1976 (45.9%).
In the 2016 general election, Donald Trump squeaked out a victory against Hillary Clinton by the narrowest of margins. The results indicate that had 80,000 votes swung the other way in three states, Hillary Clinton would have been President of the United States. That’s right, Donald Trump was such a strong, record-breaking President that Hillary Clinton came within a statistical hair of living in the White House...again.
In addition, while Donald Trump loved to call Mitt Romney a loser for his 2012 defeat, the inescapable facts point to an uncomfortable reality: Donald Trump may have managed the luckiest victory ever through Electoral College math, but his 46.1% result in the popular vote is less than Mitt Romney’s return of 47.2%. Mitt Romney had a better percentage of support from the American electorate going up against the most popular Democrat in recent history than Donald Trump managed to scrounge up against the least popular Democrat in recent history.
But Donald Trump’s time in office changed the calculus, right? He expanded the electorate for the Republicans in record-breaking ways, didn’t he? Well, he did manage to increase his percentage in the 2020 elections by a whopping 0.8%. Meanwhile, Biden was able to surpass Hillary Clinton’s 48.2% plurality and jump to a slight majority of 51.3%.
But what about these reports that Donald Trump gained record levels of support from African Americans and Hispanics for a Republican President? The reality here is that the Republican share of minority votes simply returned to their pre-Obama levels. It’s neither a surprise nor a credit to anything Trump said or did that after the first African American president was no longer on the ballot, fewer minorities voted for the Democratic candidate.
But what about the 2020 Republican Primary? Had any other Republican President ever received such an astounding vote of confidence from his voters? Donald Trump had a 93.99% nod of support as the incumbent candidate. Historic? Not quite. President Bush received a 98.6% nod from his party in 2004, and Ronald Reagan had a similar vote of support at 98.8% in 1984. Once again, Trump’s numbers are nothing spectacular and demonstrate points of weakness rather than strength.
Finally, the holy grail of many Right-wing pundit election claims is that Donald Trump has brought the blue-collar working class into the Republican fold. Victories in reliably blue states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania in 2016 are held up as totems of a new “working-class GOP.” But how do the numbers hold up to this claim?
There is evidence that Republicans gained a larger share of working-class votes in both 2016 and 2020. However, research fails to demonstrate a clear connection between this reality and anything unique about Donald Trump. In fact, working-class support for Republican Presidents has fluctuated considerably over the years. Analysis performed by Professor Noam Lupu demonstrates that claims of Donald Trump’s unique penchant for obtaining working-class votes come from comparing his 62% support in 2016 to John McCain’s 45% in 2008. But looking at the overall numbers suggests general inconsistency with an overall trend upward.
At best, we can concede that Donald Trump managed to hold on to the post-1992 trend that he inherited but one that, as we can see compared to the post-Reagan dip, isn’t guaranteed in any meaningful way. But even in maintaining this growth, Trump failed to increase the raw voting share of the electorate for Republicans because he lost the suburbs.
The down-ballot results were even less spectacular, particularly in Senate races. Senate seats in reliably Red states like Arizona and Georgia were nabbed by Democrats capitalizing on Donald Trump's unpopularity. While Republicans in the House were able to recover some of their lost seats in 2020, they are still a far cry from the majority they achieved before Donald Trump arrived on the scene.
What about party membership? While reports of serious atrophy in membership and support are exaggerated, Donald Trump has shown no major bump in support, and the numbers read as pretty typical. However, crucially, Donald Trump’s post-election antics have seriously damaged Republican trust in the election process. Reports indicate a heavily depressed turnout in the Georgia run-off elections, with over 752,000 voters who cast a ballot in the Presidential election failing to do so in the January run-off, even though control of the Senate was on the line. We won’t know until next year whether this serial distrust will damage Republican chances in 2022 and 2024, but things don’t look good.
As Ben Shapiro loves to say, facts down care about feelings. And the facts tell us that Donald Trump is far from the dominating figure that we’re often told he is. As a private citizen, as a candidate, and as a president, he is pure spectacle. He’s been held aloft in no small measure by the small but loud contingent of cohorts that have bullied others into silence but in large part because Trump-friendly media personalities have chosen to convey a message of strength that isn’t reflected in the numbers and elected Republican officials have chosen to believe this message.
On top of these electoral realities, support for Trumpism has lost Republicans their credibility on the issues. In the face of run-away spending and massive expansions of government under the Biden administration, Republicans are “fighting” by reading Green Eggs and Ham and cannibalizing members of their own party over the Trump question instead of organizing themselves into an effective opposition party.
This is largely because they supported Donald Trump’s run-away spending and expansions of executive authority. They know that’s left them with little footing to push against Biden’s progressivism. The Democrats have been able to take marginal victories and slim majorities and paint themselves as having a mandate for “a new progressive era” because Republicans have surrendered the high ground and are forced to concede the argument time and time again because they know they’ve become hypocrites.
And yet, far too many Republicans in office, as exemplified by Kevin McCarthy, have convinced themselves that without Trump, all is lost. They’re tripping over their sneakers to ingratiate themselves with the former president and his enablers in Right-wing media, flinching at every threatening possibility that he might send the dreaded “RINO” accusation their way. Having lost any semblance of a consistent message to offer the American people and without the ability to define themselves as a salient opposition to President Biden and the Democratic Party, they’ve chosen to court a perpetuation of a toxic relationship that has sunk the party’s prospects and credibility.
The new McCarthyism is doubling down on fecklessness, on inconsistency, and on a sure and steady march to marginalization and defeat. The old McCarthyism, lest we forget, led directly to twenty-six years of unified Democratic control of Congress. The politics of fear and the embrace of demagoguery may give extreme spikes of power at certain times, but in the long run, such stances have put political parties on the outside looking in with a steep climb back to gaining the trust of the American people. That is a matter of historical record.
God gave signs to the Children of Israel in order to lead them away from the Gods of Egypt so that they might embrace the God of Abraham and follow His prophet, Moses, to the promised land. Instead, they ignored those signs and embraced dumb idols, dooming themselves to wander forty years in the desert.
Will Republicans heed the signs they’ve been given? Will they put off the false idols of demagoguery and populism and reassert their roots of limited government, basic decency, and fiscal responsibility? Will they see the awful situation that Trump and Trumpism have placed both conservatism and its erstwhile vessel, the Republican Party, in and change course? Or, will they embrace the new McCarthyism and continue to live in fear, turning to demagoguery and populism in a vain hope of achieving power instead of trusting in the strength of what they claim to believe? Will we wander in the desert of impotence until the next generation rises untainted of the new McCarthyism, able to reestablish the high ground we willfully squandered and refused to reassert?