Kevin McCarthy's embarrassing lesson: MAGA torches everything it touches — and will destroy itself

Democrats get it: Don't get in the way when your opponents are self-destructing

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published October 4, 2023 6:01AM (EDT)

Kevin McCarthy and Matt Gaetz (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Kevin McCarthy and Matt Gaetz (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

In the wake of Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., moving to vacate Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., from the Speaker of the House seat, the punditry was awash in advice for Democrats: Don't help McCarthy! Or do help him, but only for concessions! Half-help him by voting "present" instead of in support! Save him without concessions, because heaven only knows how much worse the next guy will be! 

The good news is, but for the "help him, no conditions" suggestion, Democrats were awash in excellent options. Most of the choices available served the main Democratic goal in all this: weakening Republicans by stoking the infighting. Congressional Democrats are blessed these days in their opponents, a cantankerous bunch of back-stabbers. Republicans have become too obsessed with hurting each other to remember to be trouble for the Democrats. 

In the end, Democrats went with the most satisfying option and refused to help McCarthy. Between a united Democratic front and the handful of Republicans who opposed him, McCarthy didn't have enough votes to keep his position. His speakership is deader than Donald and Melania's marital relations. 

"This is what MAGA has done," former Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock of Virginia told MSNBC as the vote was happening. "Matt Gaetz and his merry band of misfits," Comstock said, are "a destructive force" with no plan for what happens after this. 

She then warned that, even if Gaetz is crowing about his victory, this would be "the demise of MAGA."

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

Comstock might be wrong about most things, but in this, she's right: The MAGA movement is simply unsustainable. It cannot help but destroy everything it touches. Right now, it's the GOP they're ripping apart. But eventually, this urge to ruin everything will take out their own movement. (Hopefully sooner rather than later!) Taking out McCarthy, even though he's been an ass-kissing MAGA loyalist, illustrates this reality. 

There are many flavors of fascism, and MAGA is an especially nihilistic one. The right-wing media ecosystem rewards trolling above all else — especially over intra-party unity. In a competition for attention, adoration, and donations from the MAGA base, the quickest and surest route is to become a Joker-like chaos agent. MAGA loves a bad guy because it lets them pretend they're "rebels" who are "taking on the system." In reality, they are locusts swarming a field until nothing is left. 

Republicans have become too obsessed with hurting each other to remember to be trouble for the Democrats. 

The trolling-based economy on the right also incentivizes a politics of far-right purity. Republicans squabble over who can be the biggest MAGA of them all — with everyone else being deemed a "RINO." When McCarthy passed a budget bill, however short-term, it created just the pretext Gaetz and his fellow travelers needed to continue their contest of MAGA one-upmanship. 

That is why the MAGA movement is so prone to self-destruction. They're all competing with each other in an endless purity contest to win the Most MAGA prize. That may be good for individual brands of politicians like Gaetz, but, as was seen this week, it seriously damages the party's ability to stick together. 

The press kept trying to frame the GOP infighting this past month as somehow substantive, like a disagreement over spending levels. But for Gaetz and his cronies, it was always an empty power grab, undertaken for the most fascistic of reasons: To show they can do it. As Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., explained on "Pod Save America" Tuesday, McCarthy spent weeks trying to placate members of his own party, offering deep spending cuts that are politically unpopular. Nothing worked — because the budget negotiations were never about the budget. It was always just about humiliating McCarthy for the sake of it. Once McCarthy realized they were going to move to vacate his seat, "one way or another," Jayapal argued, that's when he sucked it up and passed the budget with Democratic votes. 

It was always just about humiliating McCarthy for the sake of it.

Not that anyone should feel sorry for McCarthy. He's a major part of the reason that the modern GOP values bullying and showboating antics above everything else. At every turn, McCarthy has propped up and promoted Donald Trump in his role as de facto Republican leader. In doing so, McCarthy sent a signal that this is what the Republican Party is now: A bunch of jackasses who don't care about policy, about governance, or about anything but burnishing their own brand and giving people swirlies. That his head would be the one shoved in the toilet eventually was inevitable. 

Jayapal also revealed a great irony in how the MAGA movement's race to the bottom works: Gaetz, in order to make some "point" about the evils of working with Democrats, reached out to Democrats, hoping he could get their support in his efforts to oust McCarthy. Gaetz, who claims he opposes making concessions to Democrats in order to get things done, made a number of concessions to Democrats as he wooed them, including waiting until the continuing resolution to fund the government was passed before bringing the motion to vacate McCarthy's seat. 

We need your help to stay independent

Gaetz, in all his mighty opposition to Democrats, also ended up making a speech destined to run in President Joe Biden's 2024 campaign ads. 

Gaetz hates Democrats, unless he can use them to stick it to McCarthy, at which point he comes begging with his hat out. Gaetz hates Democrats, but he's doing everything he can to get them elected. That's what MAGA has done to the GOP. Republicans have become so focused on fighting each other that they are practically inviting Democrats to come help them rip the GOP apart.

The good news is Democrats certainly seem to have learned the lesson not to interfere when your opponents are self-destructing. Granted, they were in a real win-win situation. Fishing McCarthy out of the pool of MAGA hate he's drowning in would have been a perfectly fine option. They could have extracted concessions, and in the process, dialed up the amount of vitriol Republicans are flinging at each other. But the option they went with, to push McCarthy's head underwater, was perhaps an even stronger choice. The House Minority Leader, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., repeatedly emphasized that it's not on Democrats to save Republicans from themselves. 

Smart messaging that conveys that the GOP is being crippled by its devotion to MAGA extremism, while also reminding people that it's Democrats who are calm, competent adults. Plus, even if McCarthy had survived this particular motion to vacate, nothing has changed. Gaetz and other GOP trolls still believe their funding and fame depends on portraying themselves as stalwart MAGA soldiers, in contrast to the supposed quislings who run the party. If Democrats had stepped in to save McCarthy this time, they would find themselves in the same situation again, in very short order. 

The trolling and competitive redhat theatrics are the most immediate reason that the current iteration of the GOP is destroying itself. But there's a bigger issue at stake, which is that the MAGA movement is fundamentally incompatible with democracy. It's a fascist movement that backs a leader, Donald Trump, who attempted to overthrow a presidential election. Of course they can't function within a system they want to tear down. That's what happens when you put a bunch of arsonists in power:  They will eventually set everything on fire. 

By 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 Marcotte