House GOP in total chaos: So much for fascist order and discipline!

Aren't far-right movements supposed to make the trains run on time? GOP can't elect a speaker from its own tribe

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published October 13, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

Marjorie Taylor Green, Lauren Boebert, Steve Scalise and Jim Jordan (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Marjorie Taylor Green, Lauren Boebert, Steve Scalise and Jim Jordan (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Nearly eight decades after the end of World War II, the thing we ought to understand most clearly about Nazi propaganda is not to believe a word of it. The images pumped out by Hitler's messaging apparatus depicting a healthy, thriving and prosperous Germany were blatant lies used to paper over a horrifying genocide, as well as a self-destructive war that left much of the nation in ruins. But there's one historical claim made by fascists that gets accepted at face value by people who ought to know better: The idea that authoritarian regimes are models of order and discipline. Videos of goose-stepping soldiers and myths about full employment and the trains running on time have persisted in the cultural imagination. The belief that the far right is ruthlessly efficient and well organized terrifies its opponents and emboldens its supporters, then and now. 

If you still buy any of that, consider the Republicans in Congress, who are behaving like a sackful of trapped weasels over what should be a simple task: Picking which one of the indistinguishable MAGA-monsters gets to be speaker of the House. 

Calling this a "clown show" really undersells the situation, and is unfair to the skill and training of actual clowns. All of this kicked off last January, when it took the smaller-than-expected Republican majority 15 ballots to elect Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California who had spent his entire career in politics aiming for that moment. It didn't go well: McCarthy's stint with the gavel lasted less than nine months, the shortest tenure for any speaker since Michael Kerr died in office in 1876. He was ousted, of course, by Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida and seven other renegade Republicans, motivated more by a desire for airtime on Fox News than any coherent grievance against McCarthy. 

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So it's not a huge surprise that the House GOP's efforts to elect another speaker are going poorly, even though there are officially only two candidates: Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio. It was announced Wednesday that Scalise, previously McCarthy's No. 2 in House leadership, had won a secret ballot vote at the GOP caucus meeting. But the prospect that Scalise could actually win a floor vote for the speakership fell apart quickly, after some of the most camera-hungry members of the GOP have refused to go along with the party's vote. By Thursday, Scalise had enough and dropped out of the race

Adding to the tumult is the behavior of the alleged adults involved. Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., is trying to leverage his vote for a promise that he won't be expelled, despite his 23 felony indictments for various kinds of fraud. (His fellow New York Republicans have finally had enough and want him gone.) Then there's Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., who paraded around on Wednesday wearing a scarlet "A" on her shirt to make ... some kind of point about how she's the real victim in all this. (Her real point, clearly is, "Look at me" — and she definitely hasn't read "The Scarlet Letter.")

The Beltway press keeps trying to make sense of this, grasping desperately for any hint that some debate over policy or government philosophy driving the conflict. But let's not pretend that actual ideological differences or competing viewpoints are at the heart of this. All the bickering House members agree, virtually without exception, that they're all in on the GOP's authoritarian march to the right. Like McCarthy before them, both Scalise and Jordan are champions of Donald Trump's pseudo-fascist agenda. All three are members of the "Sedition Caucus" who voted to give the Jan. 6 rioters what they wanted by rejecting the results of the 2020 election. Trying to tell them apart is like winding up in an ice cream parlor where all the flavors are Fascist Vanilla, with slightly different sprinkles on top. 

Veering hard toward the radical right hasn't made Republicans more cohesive or more disciplined. On the contrary, it's this rightward shift that is fueling the ugliness. Contrary to popular belief, authoritarianism brings chaos, not order. 

The reasons for this are multi-layered. The top layer is about personality. To put it bluntly, authoritarian movements valorize assholes, mistaking cruelty for strength and showboating for passion. Republicans have created and embraced a system in which being as toxic and mean-spirited as possible is the fastest route to political power. It shouldn't be surprising that when you throw a bunch of nasty people together, they start taking out their aggression on each other. 

But the issue runs even deeper than "these people are the worst." These incomprehensible power struggles are a direct outgrowth of the internal logic — if you can call it that — of authoritarianism. At the risk of oversimplifying things slightly, authoritarianism is at heart a movement that rejects and despises the ideals of rationality and democratic power-sharing. Its adherents embrace an absolutist view of power, one where "truth" is handed down on high from authority, power is its own justification and any form of reasoned debate is a sign of weakness. 

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In theory, that leads to a follow-the-leader mentality, and that can work for a while when there's a leader with sufficient power to keep everyone else in line. (Donald Trump, of course, has largely accomplished this in the GOP, even now that he holds no institutional power.) But in many cases, it ends up sowing the seeds of ugly power struggles, like the one we're seeing right now in the House. Everyone may agree, in the abstract, that they want an authority figure who rules with an iron fist. But a bunch of them also imagine that they'd look awfully nice wearing that crown, or at least being the kingmaker to whom all favors are owed. 

To be sure, every political party and every ideological faction is shaped by ambition. Even the biggest-hearted and most progressive Democrats in Congress got where they are because they like to give speeches before enthusiastic crowds. But what those tired old Enlightenment values of democratic discourse can offer, among other things, is a way to distinguish between all those ambitious people, rewarding those who can persuade others that they'd be good at the job. 

This incomprehensible power struggle is a direct outgrowth of the internal logic of authoritarianism, a movement that rejects and despises the ideals of rationality and democratic power-sharing.

Republicans these days suck at the whole discussion-and-debate aspect of politics, because they've rebuilt their party around the idea that only soy-sucking wimps care about girly stuff like winning over actual humans with the strength of your arguments. Of course people who are hostile to democracy can't handle a basic vote for a leader. In the authoritarian mindset, the legitimacy of power flows through conquest, not consent. Choosing a leader through negotiation and horse-trading and a majority vote isn't satisfying. These folks would probably be happier if they could throw the contenders into a cage match and let them fight, with the gavel awarded to whoever is left standing. 

It's here where I remind readers that Hitler understood this very well. His "Night of the Long Knives" was a series of assassinations of other Nazis, not of socialists, Communists or liberals. In authoritarian systems, you gain power by crushing — or literally killing — your competitors, or even just your perceived competitors. The Nazis weren't actually masters of efficiency or coordination. They were mainly just ruthless murderers. It's true that killing people to keep them from talking back may work in the short term, but it's not exactly a model of spine-stiffening order and collective morale. Ask the people who have to mop up the blood. 

That's why the shelf life of Republican House speakers has gotten shorter as the party has moved further toward the radical right. Consider Newt Gingrich, John Boehner, Paul Ryan and now Kevin McCarthy: All were ousted in some form of intra-party warfare, often by people who probably couldn't have told you what the actual disagreement was about, in substantive political terms. (The other Republican speaker of those years was Dennis Hastert, who held the job for eight years — and later went to prison on federal charges relating to the sexual abuse of underage boys.) The GOP is an authoritarian party that discourages real debate and fetishizes domination. One way for pack animals to prove their power is to take out the top dog. Whoever finally gets the speaker's gavel next will no doubt feel powerful in that moment — but he should also know that he just stuck a bullseye on his back. 

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.

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

Authoritarianism Commentary Congress Fascism Jim Jordan Kevin Mccarthy Matt Gaetz Republicans Steve Scalise