The new Republican establishment
By Nate Cohn
In the final account, the rise and fall of Kevin McCarthy might read like the familiar tale of a Republican congressional leader toppled by a small but uncompromising right-wing faction.
But even if the story ultimately ends like any other Republican congressional drama in Washington over the past decade, something different and important has already happened: The right wing didn’t just bring down a House speaker. Its members also made a credible bid at claiming the gavel for themselves.
A founder of the House Freedom Caucus, Jim Jordan, won 99 votes in the House Republican conference vote Wednesday, good for about 45% of congressional Republicans. It wasn’t enough to defeat Steve Scalise, the conservative congressman from Louisiana who still faces a daunting path to the post, but it’s a serious showing — especially for someone whom John Boehner once called a “legislative terrorist.”
For all of the quotes about “inmates running the asylum” in the press over the past decade, the ultraconservative wing of the Republican Party has never won anything like actual power. In January, Andy Biggs won a mere 14% of Republicans against McCarthy in the House Republican conference vote. That’s enough to make life miserable for a speaker with a five-vote majority, but it’s nowhere near leading the caucus. Getting up to 45%, on the other hand, starts to make the gavel appear tantalizingly close.
The swelling congressional support for Jordan didn’t make him speaker, but it might nonetheless herald the emergence of a new, alternative Trumpist governing elite — one authentically loyal to Donald Trump’s pugilistic brand of politics, and one that would pose a fundamental challenge to what remains of the beleaguered Republican “establishment.”
As recently as the beginning of the year, this establishment — the party’s traditional Washington governing elite of political leaders, business interests, donors, journalists and so on — looked as if it had almost managed to survive the Trump era. Yes, it was in tatters. Yes, it had to kowtow to Trump. But by bending the knee, the establishment still held nearly all of the significant — if hardly dominant — positions of power in Washington. Mitch McConnell and McCarthy still reigned in Congress. The likes of William Barr and Elaine Chao still staffed the Trump administration. Donor money continued to flow to mainstream candidates, even if it wasn’t worth as much as a Trump endorsement.
It’s hard to remember now, but there was even a moment earlier this year when Republican politics almost seemed reminiscent of the Obama era. McCarthy’s fight with the Freedom Caucus over budgetary tactics certainly read like an Obama-era tale. And the likes of Glenn Youngkin and Ron DeSantis seemed to earn the kind of broad praise from activists and donors that made it seem as if post-Trump Republicans had cracked the code to unifying the base and the establishment.
Apparently not. Trump’s continued dominance of Republican politics has dashed any establishment hopes of a return to the way things were. Instead, his strength has started to pose a more lasting threat to what remains of the old elite, by promoting a group of loyalist outsiders who might soon have the numbers to defeat the insiders at their own game.
Jordan’s bid for speaker is perhaps the most visible indication of this growing counterestablishment, especially since Trump’s endorsement may have been a major reason for his strength — but it’s not the only one. There’s the reporting that a second Trump administration would be staffed by conservatives with personal loyalty to Trump — something that was essentially impossible eight years ago. There’s the transformation of conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation into MAGA hotbeds. And there’s also the endorsement race in the presidential primary. With so many Trump loyalists now in the Republican ranks, Trump almost looks like an establishment candidate. He has an overwhelming lead in endorsements; his rivals have virtually no endorsements at all.
It’s hard to imagine calling someone like Trump or Jordan the “establishment,” and they certainly aren’t the actual establishment quite yet. To the extent that they threaten to win power, it mainly appears attributable to Trump. That’s not a sustainable basis for rule in Washington. The usual connection to big donors and business interests isn’t yet so evident yet, either.
But if Jordan and Trump still aren’t the establishment, they’re not mere outsiders anymore. As they build and cement power in Washington, Trumpism’s grip on the Republican Party will only tighten.