How low has the Party of Lincoln fallen? In answering this question, it is instructive to look at the example of Kevin McCarthy, a seven-term California congressman who, since 2019, has served as the House Minority Leader. Until Donald Trump appeared on the scene, McCarthy wasn’t regarded as particularly conservative—at least by the standards of today’s Republican Party. When, in 2015, he abandoned a bid to become Speaker of the House, some Tea Party activists celebrated.
In the summer of 2016, McCarthy endorsed Trump for President, but only after the interloper from New York had sewn up the nomination. A year later, it emerged that, in June of 2016, McCarthy had told some of his fellow-members of the House Republican leadership that he believed—“swear to God”—that Trump was in the pay of the Russian President, Vladimir Putin. When the Washington Post eventually reported about these comments, McCarthy tried to laugh them off as a joke.
The nature of the accommodation that McCarthy made with his conscience, when he jumped onto the Trump train, can only be speculated upon. It’s perhaps fair to assume that he didn’t realize exactly where the tracks would lead, but, given his comments in 2016, it’s also clear that he didn’t harbor any illusions about the man he was endorsing.
In any case, after McCarthy took over as House Minority Leader, he followed Trump’s wishes so slavishly that the President started to refer to him as “my Kevin.” On Friday, McCarthy took the ultimate Trump-loyalist move and threw his backing behind the President’s outlandish bid to overthrow the 2020 election result. Along with a hundred and twenty-five other Republican representatives, McCarthy added his name to an amicus brief supporting the lawsuit filed by Ken Paxton, the attorney general of Texas, and backed by seventeen other Republican state attorneys general, that requested the Supreme Court throw out the duly certified election results from Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
On Friday night, the Court dismissed this scurrilous lawsuit on the grounds that Texas had no standing to challenge election results in other states. (My colleague Amy Davidson Sorkin has more on the Supreme Court ruling.) And how did McCarthy respond to this rebuke from the Court? On Friday night, he said nothing. On Saturday morning, he maintained his silence, but tweeted out a video of himself talking to Senator Tim Scott, of South Carolina, the lone Black Republican senator. “The Republican Party is the Party of Lincoln, grounded in the values of freedom and equality for all people,” McCarthy said in the tweet.
The gall of McCarthy and his fellow Trump toadies in the Republican Party is only surpassed by their irresponsibility and fecklessness. In taking their oaths of office as members of Congress, they swore that they would “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” And, yet, here they were, supporting a Trump venture that the attorney general of Pennsylvania, in a brief opposing the Texas lawsuit, described as a “seditious abuse of the judicial process.” The gambit amounted to a flagrant effort to overturn the most basic liberty enshrined in the Constitution: the right of the people to choose their leaders. In the unlikely event that the lawsuit had succeeded, the country would have been plunged into chaos, and Trump would have succeeded in his reckless effort to defy the rules of democracy.
The only conceivable defense for the actions of the Republican signatories is that they supported the Texas lawsuit in the sure knowledge that it would fail. Terrified of incurring the wrath of an enraged Bully-in-Chief, they postured for him, and for the maga mob. But what sort of defense is this for politicians elected to a body that likes to see itself as a model for the world? A pitiful one at best, and not one that would stand up in any court of law or any court of history. One lesson of failed democracies is that when officials or institutions genuflect before would-be authoritarians, in the hope that somebody else will head them off, or control them, the results can be disastrous.
After the events of the past few weeks, it is easy to sympathize with the editorial writers of the Orlando Sentinel, who published a column on Friday expressing regret to their readers for the support they afforded one of the Trump minions, Representative Michael Waltz, of Florida’s Sixth District, going into November 3rd. “We apologize to our readers for endorsing Michael Waltz in the 2020 general election for Congress,” the editorial said. “We had no idea, had no way of knowing at the time, that Waltz was not committed to democracy.”
A fair reading of the G.O.P.’s record of gerrymandering and voter suppression over the past couple of decades, and its abject servility toward Trump during the past four years, is that its commitment to democracy has long been subservient to its desire to retain power. But even for an organization as tarnished as this one, the decision by so many Republican congressmen, and so many state attorneys general, to support the Texas lawsuit marked a new low.
And it’s not over yet—it never is when you put your lot in with a pathological narcissist who has no regard for you, your party, or democracy, beyond the services that they can render to him. On Saturday morning, Trump tweeted, “WE HAVE JUST BEGUN TO FIGHT!!!” Later in the day, en route to the Army-Navy football game, the President’s Marine One helicopter flew over Freedom Plaza, at Pennsylvania Avenue and Fourteenth Street, where thousands of alt-right activists were holding a “Stop the Steal” rally, demanding that the results of the election be overturned.
On Monday, the Electoral College will meet and officially cast its votes to elect Joe Biden, who won by three hundred and six votes to two hundred and thirty-two. But Trump isn’t quite done. His eyes are on January 6th, when Congress will hold a joint session to ratify the work of the Electoral College. In the coming days and weeks, he will, doubtless, demand that Republicans in Congress reject the vote counts from a number of states, which could cause bedlam. How will McCarthy and his colleagues react to Trump’s next entreaties? Anyone hoping for a belated display of character and commitment to democracy is likely to be disappointed.