OPINION - Open revenge, payback and blood hatred in the race for Speaker of the House: this is Republican politics

Congressman Matt Gaetz with his wife Ginger (LuckeyGinger/Twitter)
Congressman Matt Gaetz with his wife Ginger (LuckeyGinger/Twitter)

Almost every aspect of current Republican Party politics defies historical precedent and obvious logic. Even in the House of Representatives, where, traditionally, a save-our-jobs mentality has always maintained a relative stability, Congressional Republicans, over the past several weeks, have publicly broken down in comic and operatic ways.

Technically, this results from a no-votes-to-spare Republican majority (ahead by only four) that has given functional veto power to a minority band of Right-wingers full of performative swagger, media savvy and an opportunistic mind meld with Donald Trump. But even this decided, if noxious, direction has now been countered by the quite unexpected and uncharacteristic refusenik fury of the milquetoast majority. It’s open revenge and payback and blood hatred. It’s a complete breakdown.

The job at hand is to elect the Speaker of the House, a position without which the body can’t procedurally function. Ten months ago, after the Republicans retook a bare majority from the Democrats, Kevin McCarthy, the ranking Republican, a solid Right-winger loyal to Donald Trump, was elected speaker after an unheard of 15 ballots (more than one ballot is unheard of). He had to make outlandish promises to those further Right than even he is, including that the more-Right could get rid of him at will. That in fact occurred three weeks ago after McCarthy’s Republican majority collaborated with Democrats on approving a stop-gap spending measure (that is, a small procedural compromise to continue government operations while the spending debate continued).

Matt Gaetz is a poster child for the new politics wherein standing up to your own disgrace is the ultimate power move

McCarthy was brought down most of all through the determination and joie de guerre of one Matt Gaetz, a 41-year-old, soap-opera handsome congressman from Florida. It is almost impossible to explain how politics, that basic expression of conventional wisdom and middle-class behaviour, accommodates someone like Gaetz. Charges of real estate and campaign finance corruption, together with a drink-driving arrest (no charges were brought), would otherwise have tainted his political career, if not ended it. But overshadowing those messes was a vast and baroque story of sexual excess, a Florida nightlife bacchanal, years of it, including orgies, charges of under-age girls and sex trafficking, claims of using campaign monies to facilitate all this, and then trying to seek a Trump pardon (even Trump baulked at this). Gaetz has denied all the charges, the case of sex trafficking was dropped, and authorities threw out a complaint against him for misusing campaign funds.

No matter, he has become one of the most influential House Republicans, his fealty to Trump making him among the best-known Republicans nationally. He is a poster child for the new politics wherein standing up to your own disgrace is the ultimate power move.

After Gaetz pulled down McCarthy, not least of all because McCarthy had refused to spare Gaetz an ethics investigation, the speaker race centred on two hardcore Right-wing figures: Steve Scalise, second to McCarthy as the House Majority leader — somewhat further to the Right than the already substantially Right McCarthy — and Jim Jordan, below, yet a bit further to the Right than Scalise. The relevant point here is that, practically speaking, there are no political differences at all among the prospective Speakers. They are all firmly of the new (far)-Right populist-nationalist-religious catechism, and all have expressed abject loyalty to Trump. Scalise was selected as the more logical choice of the majority of Republicans, and therefore the party’s candidate, largely because the Speaker is a role of accommodation and consensus, even in partisan times, and Jordan is a figure almost exclusively of acrimony and disruption.

But the Speaker, while a creature of the ruling majority party, still needs, with the other party voting unanimously for its own candidate, a majority of the full House. While Jordan was defeated in his party’s caucus, his supporters were still able to deprive Scalise of a majority in the full House vote.

Jordan now went back to the well — this time, without meaningful opposition, getting his exhausted party’s support.

Jordan, next only to Gaetz (and of course Trump), is a singular example of political inexplicability and senselessness. In his 16 years in Congress, he has succeeded in passing no legislation, indeed he has hardly tried. A fiery, implacable, fist-pounding Trump defender and television presence — for the once hopeful Olympic wrestler, pugilistically doffing his jacket has become his signature move — he is certainly the most prominent member of Congress with no credits whatsoever to his name. All hat and no cattle. And, at the centre of his resumé, what he is most known for is having been a key figure in one of the most brazen sexual exploitation scandals in American sports. Jordan was a wrestling coach for 10 years in the Eighties and Nineties at Ohio State University when the team’s doctor, Richard Strauss, systematically and quite openly abused a decade of Ohio State athletes. Coach Jordan, with a long list of wrestlers testifying as to how impossible this would have been, saw, heard, and knew nothing. Jordan, unyieldingly and pitilessly, and against the evidence, proudly powered through the scandal.

If you can tolerate chaos, if you see it as an opportunity, then it’s an exciting time, the more chaos the better

The good news is that Jordan was then resoundingly rejected by the House, with 20 milquetoast Republicans showing uncharacteristic revulsion (quite an astounding measure of how truly revolting he is). The bad news for functioning government is that by early this week there was no clear candidate left standing. The most likely of the unlikely possibilities, Tom Emmer, the current whip, was targeted by a never-Emmer faction for his insufficient Trump devotion (a 216-page dossier on his past minor deviations from far-Right and Trumpian faithfulness now in secret circulation) and he folded his candidacy before it was hardly launched. Last night he was superseded by Mike Johnson, a surprise or no-one-cares-anymore choice, who seemed to have a dim future for uniting the party.

Politics is a set of bets you make on who the winner might be and the ways in which you might adapt to variable outcomes. But if there are no winners, then there is only chaos. For most politicians, this isn’t politics, and they are forced to the sidelines, emotionally and professionally shutting down, sleepwalking until the chaos passes (hopefully passes). But if you can tolerate chaos, if you see it as an opportunity, as even a distraction from your own failings, moral or otherwise, then it’s an exciting time, the more chaos the better.

Michael Wolff is the author of Fire and Fury and The Fall: The End of the Murdoch Empire