In both cases McCarthy never acted on his fears. Which is reviving a familiar argument from commentators: That Republicans fully understand the threat Trump poses, but are too cowardly to do anything about it.
This is partly true, but it misses another part of the story. I’m talking about the degree to which Republicans have refrained from holding Trump and his allies accountable for their crimes against democracy for cynical instrumental purposesas an affirmative act designed to accomplish a concrete end: Keeping his voters engaged and in the GOP coalition.
Carlson’s angry rant on Fox News about McCarthy on Tuesday night helps illustrate the contours of this. What enraged Carlson was McCarthy’s suggestion on the audio that Twitter perhaps should have canceled GOP Reps. for trafficking in rhetoric that might result in violence.
“Can’t they take their Twitter accounts away, too?” McCarthy wondered aloud.
“Kevin McCarthy is a puppet of the Democratic Party!” roared Carlson in response.
Carlson lambasted McCarthy for wanting social media companies to “censor more conservative Republicans.” He called on conservatives to “get their act together” to prevent McCarthy from becoming the next House speaker, saying they should not be “satisfied” with his “leadership”:
What’s key here is Carlson’s effort to mobilize conservative voters against the GOP leadership and McCarthy in particular. This might fail — McCarthy seems to have solid support in the GOP conference — but he does have to worry about efforts to turn millions of Trump voters against him with charges of disloyalty to Trump and the MAGA movement.
What McCarthy seems to have discovered soon after the Capitol riot is that, to avoid antagonizing or alienating those voters, he must above all refrain from treating that event as an extremely grave moment requiring a serious political response.
This isn’t what McCarthy thought at the outset. Traitor to Trump that he is, he initially seemed genuinely appalled by the horrifying and deadly violence and the possibility of more to come.
For instance, on the latest audio, McCarthy said several days after the attack that far-right lawmakers were “putting people in jeopardy” with incendiary attacks on Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) for thinking Trump should be held accountable for the violence. McCarthy also seemed sincerely rattled that rioters brought “rope,” and by the number of House Republicans that attended the rally.
Soon after, of course, McCarthy realized the error of his ways, and has spent the last year minimizing and helping to cover up those events. This is what gets widely denounced as cowardice, with the claim usually being that GOP leaders would like Trump to disappear but won’t say so:
But this cannot be the whole story. Sure, Republicans do fear blowback from Trump and his voters if they treat Jan. 6 as a crime against the country.
But something more strategic may be going on here: A deliberate decision to actively downplay and cover up Trump’s culpability. This is an affirmative act, a way to make a positive appeal to the Trump base. In this understanding, Republicans don’t want Trump to disappear; they might want him to tone it down once in a while, but they also know his pathologies are helpful in keeping his voters energized in the GOP coalition.
How else do you explain it when Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (RS.C.) explicitly declares that Republicans should not follow Cheney’s cues because the GOP “can’t grow” without Trump? Or when the RNC officially censures Cheney as a statement of party principle, and affirms that Jan. 6 constituted “legitimate political discourse?”
This is an old story in Republican politics. Again and again, Republican and conservative elites winked at or actively encouraged extremism in their ranks to mobilize political masses, from the toleration of John Birch conspiracists to the embrace of Sen. Joe McCarthy’s witch hunts to the humoring of “states’ rights” opposition to dismantling white supremacy.
Nicole Hemmer, the author of “Partisans,” a new history of the GOP, notes a key tension here. After tolerating such extremes, these elites sometimes did try to purge them from the conservative movement.
But elites often faced extreme blowback for it, Hemmer says. This led them to the realization that “you can’t purge your base,” since the “GOP needs those people to win elections,” and “that’s where the energy in the party is.”
In this sense, Hemmer notes, McCarthy’s handling of this situation, and Carlson’s attacks on him over his perceived lapse into taking Jan. 6 seriously, are not outside the historical norm for the GOP.
“McCarthy had a genuine visceral reaction to the events of Jan. 6,” Hemmer told me. But, she added, “Republicans who pointed to Jan. 6 and said, ‘this is an outrage,’ found themselves in the midst of a pretty overwhelming backlash.”
As a result, Hemmer noted, McCarthy “learned very quickly that the base didn’t have a problem with Jan. 6,” leading Republicans to “continue to downplay” those horrors.
You can call that “cowardice” if you want. I say it’s a whole lot worse.