By defying Trump, MAGA gained a new hold on Republicans

Just 213 days ago, former President Donald Trump wasn’t just a member of the Republican Party — he was the face of the Republican Party.

Polls put him as the party’s top candidate for president. Republican primaries were defined by who supported him more than the other. And those he endorsed were widely accepted as the right cast for the GOP of the future.

That included then-House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, who 213 days ago, on June 4, 2022, on the cusp of an expected red wave, won Trump’s approval for another term in Congress, a move to end the whispers build against him to silence dissent.

“In Congress, Kevin is a tireless advocate for the people of Bakersfield and the Central Valley,” Trump wrote on Truth Social at the time. “He’s working incredibly hard to stop inflation, provide water solutions, and hold Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi accountable for their catastrophic mistakes and derelictions of duty. Kevin McCarthy has my complete and unreserved approval.”

It did not work. After his party’s stunning performance in the 2022 midterm elections, McCarthy once again drew the wrath of his party’s right flank and drew open challenges from hardline members of the House Freedom Caucus, despite the party’s moderates and even Trump himself.

“I love President Trump. I will vote for him in 2024. I will campaign hard for him. But HR wasn’t always his best thing,” Florida representative Matt Gaetz, a rival of McCarthy, told Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk in December.

“We should have an option from the House, which is the conservative center of our group,” adds Gaetz. “I will be for Trump for President. But I will not follow him in supporting Kevin McCarthy as a speaker.”

About 20 others — according to an initial vote on Jan. 3 — agreed, pledged their allegiance to Arizona Republican Andy Biggs and deprived McCarthy of a clear route to the speakership.

At first glance, the vote appeared to be a defection from the former president by nearly two dozen figures who had most supported him. But in reality, the vote reflects the inflection of factional politics that will likely define the new Republican majority of the 118th Congress as it did during the tenure of Republican leaders like Eric Cantor, John Boehner and Paul Ryan.

“Factions can potentially have more influence when majorities are small and their members manage to stay together,” said Danielle Thomsen, professor of political science at the University of California-Irvine news week. “We see this group of conservatives testing the limits of their influence and strength from the start. One goal is to force concessions on the rules, but another goal is to lure front-page media coverage into playing hard on the establishment.”

Call it the MAGA movement incarnate, call it the Tea Party 2.0.

People like University of Oklahoma professor Rachel Blum — author of the 2020 book How the Tea Party conquered the GOP– already seen.

“The Freedom Caucus stance that existed before MAGA and that gave MAGA maybe some structure is still there and is still trying to assert itself,” Blum said news week. “It’s basically telling the party, ‘You forgot about us, and the party still ain’t where it should be.'”

Entering the day’s poll, some wondered where it had already fallen short.

McCarthy offered numerous concessions to those who opposed his leadership in a series of meetings with members of his group over the weekend. Previously, his agenda closely resembled calls from party activists, including planned investigations by President Joe Biden’s FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.

Speaker for House candidate Kevin McCarthy surrounded by Representatives Andy Biggs (top left), Chip Roy (top right), Lauren Boebert (bottom left) and Matt Gaetz. Everyone voted against him as speaker of the House of Representatives on Tuesday.
Newsweek photo illustration/Getty Images

In recent years, McCarthy has also provided a larger platform for outspoken members of the conference, such as Georgian Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, a leading figure on the far right who has since allied himself with McCarthy.

So what are the party hardliners looking for? Part of that is trying to give the impression of being above the swamp of DC politics.

With a Democratic president and a Democrat-controlled Senate, Republicans in the House negotiate from a position of weakness, as their ability to govern inherently requires the ability to compromise — something McCarthy has achieved as effectively as a minority leader as his Minority allowed the first two years of Biden’s tenure.

His harshest critics, meanwhile occupying some of the country’s safest and reddest counties, whether drawn to their advantage by GOP-led state houses or by the sheer nature of their region’s politics. That way, they’re almost primed to fight with the lead.

“Conventional wisdom tells us that members of Congress are single-minded for re-election, which is a bit mundane, but they have their own career aspirations because they’re there,” Blum said. “What has made this faction in the Republican Party truly unique is that it has consistently sought to fight for the soul and identity of the Republican Party in an uncompromising manner.”

That alone could hurt the Republican brand, though.

While party hardliners have declared that less compromising politics is key to their party’s success nationally, many of the party’s candidates for the US House of Representatives and Senate this cycle have faltered as they attempted to Defending GOP priorities on issues like abortion, which ultimately tempered Republicans’ expectations of a “red wave” in this year’s midterm elections.

Pulling the party further to the right with additional litmus tests could be a good way to avoid primary elections in the country’s reddest counties, notes Steven Teles of Johns Hopkins University, but it also creates a race to the bottom that weaker members may have can not win .

“Moving up the status hierarchy within that ideological space is a bit like being in a horror movie,” he said. “With every movie you watch, you need more extreme things to have the same impact as the last one you watched.”

“You have to go deeper and deeper into that zone of things that were previously unthinkably extreme,” he added. “Because if everyone else is doing the same thing, you can’t really stand out.”

Congress has survived factions before. Democrats who followed the “blue wave” of 2018 had to navigate their party’s progressive wing to draft passable legislation, while President Joe Biden struggled to win progressive support on the campaign trail.

In the last Congress, moderate Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema used their position in their party’s slim majority to win numerous concessions from the party leadership.

As with the Democrats in 2018, the new conservative faction could force the leadership to pull the party further to the right to effectively command the Republican conference — at the risk of their ability to govern.

“Whatever McCarthy offers will not suffice because they have publicly pledged to oppose the ‘swamp’ and have spent the last few months bashing McCarthy as RINO,” wrote political factions expert Ruth Bloch Rubin at the University of Chicago an email. “For other people, maybe it’s about winning reject orders, or they just don’t like or trust the guy and see an opportunity to pull off a win.”

“The problem for McCarthy is that his opponents have managed to stick together despite different end goals,” she added. “Often a source of leverage for leaders is having different goals — you can co-opt people. That’s what Pelosi did last time to secure her speakership. But this is where McCarthy fought.” By defying Trump, MAGA gained a new hold on Republicans

Rick Schindler

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