At the opening of the 118th Congress, the embarrassing mess within the Republican majority in the House of Representatives was so predictable that many Democrats came with buckets of popcorn to watch the spectacle.
After two days of gridlock, it is still not clear who the House speaker will be. Although Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the presumptive Republican leader, has already started moving boxes into former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s old office, his chances of settling in are slim. As for the chances that whoever occupies that office will even be able to effectively lead the House, they appear to be zero.
This shambles is a prelude to what promises to be a chaotic legislative session in the House, which is currently under the nominal control of a fragile 222-212 Republican majority in a party that remains deeply affected by the master of chaos himself, Donald Trump, despite the fact that Trump has been unable to convince his supporters to back McCarthy.
This is the first time in 100 years that a speaker has not been chosen on the first ballot. In 1923, it took nine rounds. The record was set in 1855 with 133 rounds of voting spanning several weeks.
McCarthy himself said he was ready to go above and beyond to overcome the resistance of 20 members of his party. It probably won’t come to that, but the insurgents seem determined to sink McCarthy despite concessions he has made to them.*
A Taste of Things To Come
Regardless of how this tug-of-war plays out, it is virtually certain that the Republican leadership in the House will be extraordinarily weak.
For the most part, Republican elected officials will be content to stonewall the Biden administration and initiate phony investigations into largely imaginary scandals. This will ensure that they get plenty of coverage on Fox News, which will allow them to tap into their supporters’ savings to bankroll their reelection.
The Party of Chaos
These early days demonstrate that the Republican Party is not motivated now by any clear convictions – the ideas of McCarthy’s supporters are as incoherent as those of his critics – but by an ideological nihilism driven by nothing more than the dismantling of the state and gaining power as an end in itself.
For the current Republican Party, heir to the Trump years and to decades of conservative dogmatism, politics has become a form of performance art where one can succeed by capturing the attention of the right-wing media echo chamber and exploiting the division, resentment and disillusionment of voters.
The symbol of this approach to politics is unquestionably the new Republican representative from New York, George Santos (if that is even his real name), who was elected after brazenly lying about every aspect of his past and whom his Republican colleagues refuse to denounce, just as they have always refused to denounce Trump’s lies.
One of the lessons to come from the chaos in the Republican Party is that denying the legitimacy of the state, which is the fashionable basis of the nihilistic conservatism of much of the right today, cannot be a viable governing philosophy.
*Editor’s note: As of Jan. 6, Rep. McCarthy has lost 11 rounds of voting for speaker of the House.