In the hours after the House of Representatives’ historic vote to oust Kevin McCarthy from the speakership, a photo began circulating online of the cover of Young Guns, the splashy policy treatise authored by then-Reps. Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy in 2010. The irony of the photo was clear enough: The book, which featured a gleaming group portrait of the three self-declared standard-bearers of the Republican Party, was intended to introduce the rising stars of the GOP to the American people — but now, just 13 years after its publication, the book had become a visual obituary for the party’s past.
When I called Theda Skocpol — a political scientist at Harvard University who’s written extensively about the rise of thetea party and the transformation of the Republican Party — shortly after the House kicked McCarthy out of the speakership, she was staring at this same photo.
“I’m sitting here looking at a picture on my iPad of the three ‘Young Guns’ from that iconic cover of their book,” she said. “All three of them were felled in succession by the popular anger of the tea party base.”
The tea party that Skocpol was referring to no longer formally exists as a faction in Congress, its erstwhile allies having been subsumed into the far-right Freedom Caucus or into the generic “America First” wing of the GOP. But according to Skocpol, the history of the tea party remains essential to understanding the forces that ultimately led to McCarthy’s political demise.
“It represents the culmination of [the tea party movement],” said Skocpol. “All the research that I and other political scientists have done on the movement shows that by the 2010s — just before Donald Trump emerges — the tea party had taken the shape of a just-say-no, blow-it-all-up, don’t-cooperate, do-politics-on-Twitter faction — and this is the perfect expression of it. This is where it leads.”
In some respects, Skocpol’s argument is counterintuitive. In the late 2000s and early 2010s, McCarthy and the other Young Guns rose to power by harnessing the grassroots power of the tea party movement, promising to slash government spending, constrain federal power and foil the Obama administration’s policy goals. But though McCarthy and the other Young Guns rose to prominence by allying themselves with the tea party movement, Skocpol said, their banishment from the GOP doesn’t mark a break with the movement’s legacy. Instead, it shows that the Young Guns never really understood the forces that they helped unleash.
“The fact that McCarthy and the other Young Guns were once called tea party people because they dallied with the movement,” Skocpol said, “does not mean that the tiger wasn’t going to consume them in the end.”
The following has been edited for clarity and concision.
Ian Ward: You’ve written extensively about the history of the tea party movement and its aftereffects for the Republican Party. How does the vote to oust Speaker McCarthy fit into that history?
Theda Skocpol: Shortly into Barack Obama’s presidency, we saw this explosion of tea party demonstrations and a remarkable degree of grassroots organizing — a couple thousand local tea parties, according to our research. There was a lot of writing at the time claiming that this organization was motivated by the same thing that people now claim drives the Republican Party when they shut down the government — cutting the deficit. But it was never about cutting the deficit. The popular side of the tea party was about anger and fear of a changing country in which a guy with ‘Hussein’ as his middle name and black skin could be elected president. The tea party — especially at the grassroots — was trying to pressure the Republican Party and its elected leaders not to compromise with a changing country or with Democratic Party politicians in Washington.
Ward: How did the Young Guns fit into that mobilization?
Skocpol: The tea party mobilization made a big difference electorally in 2010 in installing a Republican Congress, and probably even more importantly in installing Republican-dominated state legislatures. But it was especially potent after that in undoing any effort at compromise over immigration. Our research shows that polarization over immigration between the two major parties has played out recently and piled on top of the polarization over the civil rights revolution of the 1960s. By the time you get to the period at the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, he’s trying to find a way to incorporate long-present immigrants from Mexico and Central America and give them a path to citizenship — and that effort falls apart in 2013 and 2014. Remember that election in which David Brat in central Virginia shockingly felled Eric Cantor, who at that time was seen as the kind of rising golden boy on the Republican right? It was anger over the potential of immigration reform that played a big role in that.
And then you have Paul Ryan, who inherited a Congress where the Republican caucus was increasingly riven by the rise of this angry, just-say-no style that the tea party always favored. They wanted to make sure that people were angry about changes in the country and wanted to make sure Republicans were not compromising about those. Paul Ryan was [from] Mr. Koch’s network. I think that House Republicans thought that by making him their leader, they would cement their right-wing Republican credentials— and it did with the elites around the Republican Party at the time. But among the populist right — who make up more than half of Republican base voters and the most loyal primary voters —they never liked what he had to offer. So he was gone before long.
And now finally, we get to Kevin McCarthy, who is just an example of the final transmogrification of the tea party anger, which was given a national focus and much more potency by Donald Trump. Donald Trump didn’t create all this. He’s just been very good, ever since 2015, at giving it permission and focus.
Ward: McCarthy and the other Young Guns who rose to power during that tea party moment in the late 2000s and early 2010s gave voice to one interpretation of the tea party movement that you mentioned, which is that it was all about fiscal conservatism and small government. Why do you think they so dramatically misunderstood the energies behind the movement?
Skocpol: We have to understand the radicalization of the Republican Party as a process that has been underway since 2000. Act 1 of that radicalization was the rise of the Koch network, which was itself motivated by displeasure with what the Republicans under Bush junior and senior had been doing — for example, passing Medicare expenditures. The Koch network outflanked the Republican Party, and they put a lot of pressure on candidates and officeholders to hew the line on cutting taxes, cutting regulations and disabling public sector unions. These Young Guns were initially in tune with that — and why wouldn’t they be? They thought that’s where the money came from and where the business community had gone.
But that wasn’t satisfactory to a lot of base voters around the Republican Party, who were much angrier about social changes in the country and much more upset about immigration.
So I think the Republican Party was first hollowed out at the top, and then the tea party crystallized when Barack Obama was elected president and then it ended up being given further expression during the immigration reform battles and the rise of Donald Trump. I call it the bottom-up radicalization of the Republican Party, and I think it caught a lot of these Koch network darlings, including all three of these Young Guns, by surprise — although in McCarthy’s case, I think he has done his best to ride the tiger. He’s tried to have it both ways.
Ward: Why do you think McCarthy was able to ride that tiger for longer than the other two?
Skocpol: He’s a shapeshifter, and that’s given him staying power — up until the moment he had Democratic votes to keep the government open and then went on TV over the weekend and trashed the Democrats.
The shape shifting is both a strength and a weakness. It’s a strength in that, a little bit more effectively than Paul Ryan before him, he’s been able to have it both ways — to condemn Donald Trump and then embrace him, to say he’s about cutting the deficit and he’s about cracking down on the border. If the Republican Party really had wings — and I don’t think it does at this point — he might have been able to bridge them. But by the end, he got to the point where nobody trusted him. I don’t think anybody in the Republican Party trusted his word, and Democrats definitely couldn’t.
Ward: Given the fact that McCarthy rose to power during the tea party moment, is there any sense in which his ouster represents a repudiation of the tea party legacy?
Skocpol: No — it represents the culmination of it. I think most people in the in the media thought the tea party was about cutting the federal budget deficit because that’s what a few elite spokesmen on TV said it was about. But our research always showed that at the grassroots, it was about popular anger over a changing country and fury at a Republican Party that was not responding to that desire. All the research that I and other political scientists have done on the movement shows that by the 2010s, just before Donald Trump emerges, the tea party had taken the shape of a just-say-no, blow-it-all-up, don’t-cooperate, do-politics-on-Twitter faction — and this is the perfect expression of it. This is where it leads. The fact that McCarthy and the other Young Guns were once called tea party people because they dallied with the movement does not mean that the tiger wasn’t going to consume them in the end.
Ward: The conflict between the tea party and the Obama-era Republican Party reflected some real ideological differences between those two factions, especially on issues like immigration. Do you think the conflict between the far-right, anti-McCarthy wing of the party and McCarthy’s backers reflects a similarly robust ideological fissure? Or does it just boil down to rank obstructionism?
Skocpol: I think it’s post-ideological. One of the things that Trump’s presidency accomplished was to give national expression to populist ethno-nationalism and anger at “business as usual” in Washington, D.C, and you get to a certain point where there aren’t many moderates at all in the Republican House caucus. There certainly are some people who are cross pressured because they come from Biden districts, but most of them have been enthusiastic supporters of the same kinds of issues that Matt Gaetz is speaking to. This is a disagreement over whether you should ever settle for less than 100 percent of what you want, even when you’re in a position where you don’t control more than one chamber.
Ward: So if the conflict is essentially about tactics and the real energies behind the far right are cultural, why do people like Gaetz still lean so heavily on the language of fiscal conservatism? After all, this most recent incident was partly set off by McCarthy’s unwillingness or inability to slash spending levels.
Skocpol: You’re not going to like the answer I’m going to give you.
Ward: Try me.
Skocpol: It sells with the Washington press corps. Why anybody believes this is beyond me. Did you see what Donald Trump did when he was office? Did you see what Republicans did when they controlled the entire Congress? They don’t cut anything, except taxes. And that keeps a certain number of billionaires — and even Charles Koch himself — happy.
There are two strands that have played out in the Republican Party during recent years. One of them I call “McConnellism.” McConnellism is clever. It’s about using every lever of power to make sure Republicans get the federal judiciary full of judges who are going to disempower Democratic initiatives, and it’s about doing everything you can to shape the electorate, both by encouraging your own voters and discouraging the other guys’ voters. It’s at the edge of what’s legally and constitutionally legitimate. Then there’s Trumpism, which at this point has gone from bullying and threatening to actual calls for violence. One of them is very powerful in the House, and the other is very powerful in the Senate.
But it’s a tactical difference. It’s not as if there’s a huge difference of policy. I think there might be some differences in policy over immigration, but those don’t really come up because nobody’s talking about legislating on immigration.
Ward: So what does all this mean for the future of the Republican Party? What are the ramifications of the argument that you’re making — that there’s a fundamental continuity between the tea party movement and the MAGA movement?
Skocpol: Well, everything depends on whether Donald Trump is reelected president, and I don’t think that’s impossible. I really don’t. As for the House of Representatives, I really do not know how they’re going to find a new Kevin McCarthy who can promise enough because the promises that are being demanded are impossible to fulfill.
Ward: Based on the traditional tea party playbook, though, what do you think the endgame here is for the far-right faction in the House?
Skocpol: Well, I think Matt Gaetz himself wants to get on TV, raise a lot of money and run for another office. That’s true of a number of the people who make up this very small group of people who were in a position to pull the hook on the grenade. But I don’t think we know how this is going to come out. If you’ve got people in power who are backed by a large number of voters who are angry, fearful, limited in the information they get about what’s going on and thinking that it would be better to blow America up than to save it — I think you’re in uncharted territory. We are in uncharted territory.
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