The election of Kevin McCarthy brought back the treason and heroism in the fight for Congress. However, the Republicans haven’t been this divided since the eve of the Civil War.
Just as it was two years ago, yesterday on Jan. 6 we saw the confrontation of two Americas: the America of justice and loyalty, and the America of treason and lies. We should get used to this rivalry in the West’s leading democracy because now that Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy has finally been elected speaker of the House, his most difficult work begins: governing over an already challenging legislative process without the requisite credibility and authority. For a new speaker with a razor-thin Republican majority, it will be almost impossible to counteract the right wing hard-liners who voted against him, humiliated him, and mistreated him right to the bitter end, even after having deprived him of the last shreds of power in exchange for their votes.
The setting after the election and all the problems, remains ever American. McCarthy recalled his humble origins and the equally humble origins of Democratic Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, evoking the great opportunities of the American Dream. He promised to work for the people and appeared sincerely moved. However, the point is not simply sentimental. We mention this because, in order to find a divide within a party as pronounced and as petty as we have seen up until yesterday with the Republicans, you need to go back 164 years to 1859, when there was a similar impasse in Congress shortly before the Civil War that would set the young American nation on fire.
Today, what is most worrying is the shift from extreme polarization between the two parties to the polarization actually within a party. Here’s one example. After having made his final concessions, including the one authorizing a single GOP member to move for a vote to remove the speaker, and the one that would permit financing an inquiry into the Department of Justice and Joe Biden, McCarthy was said to be triumphant for having cobbled together a majority. However, when it got to Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz’s vote, the house of cards collapsed. Gaetz betrayed McCarthy, who lost that round by one vote. Pandemonium broke out in the chamber. McCarthy confronted Gaetz. Another House representative threatened violence. It took a phone call from Donald Trump to pick up the pieces and, by means of a technicality, return to a 15th vote and McCarthy’s win — something that naturally put the former president back in the middle of the political equation for the 2024 primaries, while at the same time allowing him to hold McCarthy hostage.
The biggest concerns for McCarthy’s tenure, however, arise from recent experience in the party’s history, stemming from cases in which the extreme right managed to hoodwink and backstab two of McCarthy’s predecessors. Take Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan in 2015 — intelligent, good-looking, potential presidential material — who took everyone by surprise in 2019 when he decided to give up both the presidency and politics at 48 because he could no longer bear the provocation at the hands of the Freedom Caucus. “If politics has become seeking division instead of unity, it’s no longer for me,” he said.* With that, he disappeared from the scene.
Before Ryan, there was the drama of House Speaker John Boehner, a nice guy from Ohio, quickly moved to tears when talking about his rise from nothing, a man clearly motivated by an intelligent honesty. But for the very same Freedom Caucus, his leadership was weak; it wasn’t nasty enough with the Democrats. And they massacred him. Boehner, appointed in 2011, threw in the towel in September 2015. Boehner himself said that he caught the majority leader by surprise when he told him of his decision to leave. “I had to tell him five times before he really believed me,”* Boehner recalls.
As it turns out, that majority leader happened to be McCarthy — which is to say, the man is fully familiar with the nastiness of the Freedom Caucus and its determination to humiliate its adversaries. There is no doubt that this congressional group is currently destroying the Republican Party’s credibility and that if the extremists had the restraint to wait to humiliate Ryan and Boehner after they were elected speaker, here, for the first time, they struck in advance. Imagine what will happen when the budget and appropriation bills will come up for a vote.
However, let us not forget the America of justice and loyalty. We witnessed this at the White House only yesterday. Twelve people who defended American democracy in Congress and elsewhere two years ago on Jan. 6 received one of the highest civilian awards, the Presidential Citizens Medal, from President Biden. It was very moving, especially when the award was received by the widows and parents of those who paid with their lives on that dramatic day. And when you compare the dignity of those guardians of liberty with the treason of the Freedom Caucus and contemptible personalities such as Gaetz, there can be no doubt as to who will prevail in this internecine rivalry. Especially since our future depends on it.
*Translator’s note: Although accurately translated, this remark could not be independently verified.