The Republican party is in meltdown again – but this time the impact could be felt in Ukraine

The ousting of House speaker Kevin McCarthy shows the power of the oddballs, conspiracy theorists and election-deniers who fly the flag for Donald Trump, writes Jon Sopel. But with support for Kyiv on the line, it’s time to take them seriously

Saturday 07 October 2023 18:37 BST
The Republican Party is unmanageable and ungovernable, as it proved by ousting Kevin McCarthy
The Republican Party is unmanageable and ungovernable, as it proved by ousting Kevin McCarthy (AP)

The story of Kevin McCarthy is the parable of the appeaser; the man who keeps feeding morsels to the crocodile hoping it will eat sufficiently well that it won’t gobble him up in its deadly jaws, but – snap – eventually it does.

And with one sickening crunch on Tuesday afternoon the teeth of the ultra-Maga Republicans in the House of Representatives sunk into McCarthy – and he was done; well and truly chewed up and spat out by the people he’d spent nine months bowing down to, accommodating, and trying to please.

Unlike the UK system where the speaker is essentially a kind of referee – the neutral umpire upholding the Commons’ rules – it is more instructive to think of the speaker of the House of Representatives as akin to our prime minister. You are responsible for deciding what legislation to introduce, directing what the House committees investigate – and just like the PM, the speaker is chosen by the party that holds a majority. And after the 2022 midterms that was the Republicans (with the squeakiest of majorities). McCarthy’s long-cherished dream was within sight.

But it took him an unprecedented 15 rounds of voting to be awarded the speaker’s gavel, and he only got there by handing over more and more power to the Trump ultras – the oddball bunch of fruitcakes, conspiracy theorists and election-deniers who held his future in their hands.

The Republican Party is unmanageable and ungovernable – and gives flesh to the quote of PJ O’Rourke that “Republicans are the party that says that government doesn’t work, and then they get elected and prove it”.

At the weekend, with the promise of a government shutdown looming and millions of federal workers about to be laid off, McCarthy did the responsible thing: he cut a deal to avert the impending crisis. But that was the final straw for the far-right. Using a procedure hitherto unused in US history, they put down a “motion to vacate” – in other words a vote of no confidence – and McCarthy became the first speaker ever to be booted out. He also became the shortest-lived speaker since some bloke in the 1870s who died of tuberculosis.

In other words, Kevin McCarthy has – rather unenviably – become the Liz Truss of US politics.

Her fall – and his – can to a large extent find their origins in the seismic shocks of 2016: of Brexit in the UK and the election of Trump in the US – and the polarisation that sprang from both.

The fall of Truss may have had a terrible impact on people’s mortgages and the cost of borrowing, but the ripples didn’t reach much beyond the shores of the UK – except for maybe a collective eye-roll over what had become of Britain. The same cannot be said for what is unfolding in the US.

Yes, there are elements of this that are pure soap-opera psychodrama, but it is much more than that.

To try to keep the government open, McCarthy knew he’d have to make massive concessions to his Trumpian tormentors. And he did. In the finance deal that was eventually passed to keep the government in funds for another 45 days, he stripped out all future financial support for Ukraine. But even that wasn’t enough. The tormentor-in-chief, Matt Gaetz, was convinced there was a side hustle that McCarthy had agreed with Biden which would keep the flow of essential support to Ukraine going.

The frontrunner to replace McCarthy – an Ohio congressman, Jim Jordan – is making a central pitch of his candidacy a promise to starve Ukraine of all future funds. And what happened after he said that? Donald Trump came out and gave Jordan his crucial endorsement. Among the other Republican candidates vying for the party’s nomination to run for president, support for Kyiv is – at best – tepid. And, as I say, all of this can be traced back to Trump’s victory in 2016.

One of the standout memories of those four years was being in the room with Trump and Putin at their joint news conference in Helsinki in 2018. President Trump was asked if he believed his own intelligence agencies or the Russian president when it came to allegations of meddling in the 2016 election. Without hesitation he replied “President Putin says it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be.” At a stroke Trump had sided with Moscow over the unanimous view of the CIA, FBI and the director of national intelligence.

Among some on the far-right of the Republican Party there is almost a misty-eyed romanticism about Russia which is hard to fathom. Russia is a place where men are men, and women know their place. Gay marriage is not accepted, and it is a sprawling land free of wokeness and Western, liberal decadence. Putin is a tough guy. And Donald Trump loves a tough guy.

McCarthy had a fleeting moment as a man of muscle.

After the riots of January 6, the then-minority leader in the House stood up and made a speech denouncing Donald Trump: “The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters.” And he went on to say, “he should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding”.

Except a couple of weeks later, McCarthy was summoned down to Mar-a-Lago to see the exiled king. And McCarthy kissed the ring, bent the knee and showed he had all the backbone of an overcooked piece of spaghetti. He withdrew his criticism of Trump in particular, and said everyone was to blame for January 6.

No wonder European leaders meeting this week to discuss support for Ukraine are looking at what is unfolding in the Republican caucus of the House of Representatives with absolute horror. It’s almost as though Vladimir Putin is controlling the crocodile’s jaws.

Jon Sopel is the presenter with Emily Maitlis of the podcast, ‘The News Agents USA’, and was the BBC North America Editor

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