They are fresh-faced, suited and booted, the National Mall behind them and the world at their feet. Congressmen Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan smile out from the cover of Young Guns, their co-authored 2010 book about the next generation of conservatives. “This isn’t your grandfather’s Republican party,” said publicity material at the time.
Thirteen years later, the trio is neither young nor the future. Cantor (“the leader”) became Republican leader in the House of Representatives but lost his seat to a nascent rightwing populism. Ryan (“the thinker”) became speaker but retired early to escape a toxic political relationship with President Donald Trump. And this week McCarthy (“the strategist”) was ousted by some of the extremists he helped elect to Congress but could not tame.
The men’s careers chart the Republican party’s journey from disciplined machine to dysfunctional malaise. Like Britain’s Conservative party, Republicans were once admired and feared for their ability to fall into line and ruthlessly consolidate power. But on Tuesday, as eight rebels joined Democrats to visit humiliation on McCarthy, the party of Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan was in turmoil – and nearly came to blows.
“I’ll be really candid, I think if we had stayed together in the meeting last night, I think you would have seen fists thrown,” Congressman Garret Graves, an ally of McCarthy, told CNN. “And I’m not being dramatic when I say that. There is a lot of raw emotion right now.”
Such a scene would have been unthinkable two decades ago when Republicans were effective at wielding power and pushing through laws relating to everything from foreign wars and domestic surveillance programmes to Medicare and the No Child Left Behind schools policy. Tom DeLay, House majority leader from 2003 to 2006, was dubbed “the Hammer” because of his willingness to crush dissent.
Kurt Bardella, a former Republican congressional aide, said: “They were a legislative juggernaut. But that changed in the 2010s with the emergence of the Tea Party. The disruptive factions within the Republican party began to splinter away from the traditional, more pragmatic conservatism that we saw in the 2000s.
“Whether it was [Speaker John] Boehner, Cantor, Paul Ryan or Kevin McCarthy, none of them was equipped to be able to manage that. None of them was equipped to prevent their own demise. It’s basically a Maga hitlist at this point, when you look at Cantor, Ryan and McCarthy on the cover of that book.”
McCarthy had, as campaign chairman, played a central role in 2010 in recruiting dozens of Tea Party conservatives who took control of the House. He shared their views on fiscal restraint but underestimated their darker impulses: distrust in government, racial hostility to Barack Obama and a conviction that the base had been betrayed by the elites.
It was fertile territory for Trump, who in 2015 and 2016 fused celebrity culture with economic discontent and white grievance to knock the Republican party back on its heels. Joe Walsh, a former Tea Party conservative who served in Congress, said: “The one thing Trump got right was he understood how weak the party establishment was, and so they were in no position to fight him.
“When he came on the scene in 15 and 16, the base was pissed off. The establishment ignored the base for years. People like me inflamed the base, so when Trump got there the base was ready to just dictate shit. The donors in the establishment have never understood that.”
Republicans at the time such as Tara Setmayer, a former communications director who worked on Capitol Hill for seven years, believed the party needed to reach young voters, women and minorities to survive. But the ascent of Trump sent it spinning in the opposite direction, with consequences that still reverberate today.
“That was the inflection point,” Setmayer said. “It was political expediency instead of standing up for what was right. If enough people had stood up to Donald Trump they could have beaten him back. But they didn’t, and they let it get away from them. They mistakenly thought they could control him and it was a case of a political Frankenstein’s monster.”
Ryan, then the speaker, clung to the hope that Trump would mature, moderate and become “presidential” once in office. It proved to be folly. Ryan appreciated the tax cuts and military spending but, after two years, had to accept that the “Make America great again” forces could not be contained. He bowed out of public life.
The baton passed to McCarthy, who had an advantage: with Democrats in control of the House, Republicans had reason to bury their differences and unite in opposition to Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But last year’s midterm elections sowed the seeds of his downfall.
Republicans emerged with a much thinner majority than opinion polls had predicted. In January it took McCarthy 15 rounds of voting to be elected speaker after cutting a deal with the far right, including a rule change that would let any member of the House to seek his removal. Nine rocky months later, after averting a government shutdown with Democratic help, he became the first speaker in history to be ditched.
Democrat Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, said on Wednesday: “All three of them were chased out. Speaker Boehner, Speaker Ryan and now Speaker McCarthy have all learned the same lesson: you cannot allow the hard right to run the House, or the country.”
McCarthy’s nemesis was Matt Gaetz, a Florida congressman egged on by former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, who hosts an influential podcast (Gaetz was a guest on it a day after McCarthy’s demise). Critics say Gaetz is taking advantage of an era in which, instead of working their way up the ranks one committee at a time, politicians can build their brand, “go viral” and raise money by flaunting their extremism in the rightwing media ecosystem.
Rich Lowry, editor-in-chief of National Review magazine, wrote: “Republican backbenchers used to be people such as Jack Kemp and Paul Ryan, who became something by promoting ideas that they carefully developed, sincerely believed, and persuaded their colleagues to embrace. Now, the emphasis is on becoming a micro-celebrity via constant outrage.”
Bardella, a former spokesperson for the conservative Breitbart News who is now a Democratic strategist, added: “Matt Gaetz isn’t the cause. He’s a symptom of the complete radicalisation of not only the Republican party a the conservative rightwing media sphere in general.
“Their deliberate decision to amplify the most extreme voices and give them a platform and give them a microphone and give them an audience every single night of the most ardent Republican primary voters to watch it, absorb it, paved the way for the chaos that has engulfed the entire Republican party right now.”
It seems likely to get worse before it gets better. Without a speaker, the House cannot fully function to pass laws or fund the government. Steve Scalise, the majority leader, and Jim Jordan, the judiciary committee chairman, are the two leading candidates to succeed McCarthy and frantically chasing endorsements ahead of a vote among Republicans expected on Tuesday.
A long, divisive struggle could ensue while Democrats remain united, making a mockery of the temptingly alliterative headline “Dems in disarray”. Now the roles have been reversed. Even Trump wondered aloud: “Why is it that Republicans are always fighting among themselves?”
Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, said: “We now see [that] the kind of authoritarian populism that talks about taking control, bringing order and strongman rule is an utter fiction.
“That rhetoric has led to anarchy and the breakdown of governance and, just to bring it full circle, we’re now almost assuredly going to hear Trump and other Republican presidential candidates running on the promise to bring order to Washington to solve the very disorder they created.”
He added: “We are in some very weird Alice in Wonderland politics here. The problems created by the fanatics in the Republican party have created a disorder that they are claiming they can solve.”