COMMENTARY

Kevin McCarthy's anti-democratic demise: How Donald Trump successfully sabotaged the modern GOP

Kevin McCarthy's post-insurrection journey reflects the larger anti-democratic shift among GOP voters

By Amanda Marcotte

Published April 22, 2022 2:11PM (EDT)

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. (Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. (Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Once again, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has made a public fool of himself.

As Heather "Digby" Parton recounts at Salon, the New York Times published reports this week of how McCarthy spent the immediate aftermath of the January 6 insurrection trying to push Donald Trump out of office for inciting it. McCarthy, who has since overcome his temporary Trump animus to return to his natural supplicant state, responded with a whiny statement declaring that the report is "totally false and wrong." Of course, he was lying, as Digby notes, because the New York Times reporters had receipts: A recorded January 10, 2021 phone call between McCarthy and Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., in which McCarthy promised he would urge Trump personally to resign. Instead, McCarthy ended up rallying to Trump's side and becoming one of the most stalwart opponents of any effort to hold Trump or any of his cronies accountable for attempting to overthrow democracy. 

McCarthy's journey is not a surprising one. The man has always been a coward and a lickspittle. He was no more going to discover a spine and a conscience after January 6 than a zebra would turn into a unicorn. No doubt he's still pretending to oppose the violence of the day, but on the whole, his journey from being anti- to pro-insurrection was entirely predictable. What makes this latest public humiliation of McCarthy interesting is not what it says about him, which we already knew, but how it reflects the larger trend in the GOP. 

RELATED: Kevin McCarthy caught on tape: Trump won't forgive him this time

In the past year, the average Republican has transitioned from someone who ostensibly denounced the Capitol riot to someone who romanticizes it as a glorious revolution — which is exactly what Trump wanted.

The evolution of the polling data shows a clear trajectory.

What makes this latest public humiliation of McCarthy interesting is not what it says about him, which we already knew, but how it reflects the larger trend in the GOP. 

In the weeks after the Capitol riot, with the images of violence and mayhem still fresh on people's minds, most Republicans opposed — or at least told pollsters they opposed — what had gone down that day. While Republicans polled would often try to both sides the story, pretending that "antifa" was as much to blame as right-wing militants, they still generally opposed the riot. A mid-January poll showed that, in the immediate aftermath of the attack, a substantial minority (43%) of Republicans called the rioters "patriots," but it was still a minority. By March 2021, a poll found a slim majority, 53% of Republicans, said that the rioters were not justified in their anger or their actions. And more than three-quarters of Republicans agreed that the rioters should be prosecuted in another poll conducted at the same time.

In the year and change since then, however, those numbers have shifted dramatically.


Want more Amanda Marcotte on politics? Subscribe to her newsletter Standing Room Only.


From March to September 2021, Pew Research found that support for prosecuting the rioters dropped from 79% to 57% of Republicans. (It's likely even lower now!) The share of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who said Trump bears no responsibility for the insurrection increased from 46% in January 2021 to 57% in January 2022. Most chillingly, a recent poll shows a full 57% of Republicans now describe the insurrectionists as "patriots." Likely, the true number is even higher and only muted by the social desirability bias that makes Republican voters wary of being too openly fascist when talking to a pollster they assume works for the "liberal media." But even among those who admit it, we've seen a dramatic swing of 14 points in a year, from minority Republican support to majority Republican support for the insurrection. 

Trump himself has been sending a series of strong signals that he's proud of inciting the insurrection, wants more credit for what he did.

None of this should be a surprise.

In the past 15 months, there's been a massive propaganda push on the right to reframe the insurrection not as the violent attempt to overthrow democracy that it was, but as an act of "patriotism." The rioters themselves have been romanticized not as the modern-day brownshirts that they are, but as noble warriors fighting to "save" America. ("Save" it from democracy, natch, though they will never say so outright.) Conspiracy theories, often contradicting each other, have been floated to give everyday Republican voters permission to shift from opposing the riot to supporting the insurrectionists. The insurrectionists who are in jail awaiting trial have been recast as "political prisoners" and Ashli Babbitt, who was shot by Capitol police in order to prevent her from leading a mob to run down fleeing Congress members, has been lionized as a martyr

RELATED: "If I do this, what do I have to lose?": New documents show Trump feared no consequences for a coup

Most importantly, Trump himself has been sending a series of strong signals that he's proud of inciting the insurrection, wants more credit for what he did, and expects his followers to see the violence in the same laudatory light he does.

He keeps bragging about how many people he convinced to riot on his behalf that day. He's eagerly participated in the beatification of Babbitt. He defended the crowd's attempts to find and execute his then-vice president Mike Pence. He's suggested he will pardon people convicted of crimes committed during the insurrection. With all these signals coming from Trump and Fox News to suggest that the insurrection was a good thing, it's no surprise that the GOP base has shifted from disapproval to celebration.


Want more Amanda Marcotte on politics? Subscribe to her newsletter Standing Room Only.


Trump is not subtle about the pride he takes in the insurrection, or his belief that he is entitled to overthrow American democracy to install himself as ruler. There's simply no way to support Trump without supporting the broader anti-democratic agenda. And there's no way to oppose democracy without embracing the violent enforcement of a fascist ideology, which is ultimately what the insurrection was about. 

This is why it's so dangerous to have outlets like the New York Times downplay the rise of anti-democracy sentiment in America by using euphemisms like "impassioned about electoral issues." As uncomfortable as it may be to admit that the majority of Republican voters now oppose democracy, talking around the issue only serves to normalize what amounts to a growing fascist movement. Exposing McCarthy's sliminess and dishonesty is all good and well, but his shift is only part of a much bigger, more frightening story about how the larger GOP is turning its back entirely on democracy. 


Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

MORE FROM Amanda MarcotteFOLLOW AmandaMarcotte


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Commentary Donald Trump Gop Gop Voters Jan. 6 Kevin Mccarthy Polls Republicans Trump's Big Lie