The history of the Empire is a monotonous story of the intrigues of priests, eunuchs and women, of poisonings, of conspiracies, of uniform ingratitude, of perpetual fratricides,” wrote a 19th-century historian. He was describing the Byzantine Empire, but the quote — minus the details about the eunuchs and poisonings — applies about as well to the House Republicans.
The last three decades have seen an endless succession of coups, scandals, and humiliations, at times reducing the position of Speaker of the House to a hollowed-out title hardly anybody of note even wanted to claim. By this point, the rituals of plotting and counterplotting are so deeply ingrained that every new Republican Speaker is greeted with built-in opposition and ready speculation as to who will take over as the next Speaker after the newly inaugurated one is inevitably deposed.
The congressional Republican fratricide era began with the rise of Newt Gingrich (more on him shortly). But its intellectual roots stretch back to the early 1960s, when the upstart conservative movement first crawled out of the primordial ooze and set out to seize control of the party.
A key document of the movement is A Choice Not an Echo, Phyllis Schlafly’s 1964 book that the Barry Goldwater campaign embraced as a manifesto. Schlafly argued that the Republican Party had endured a series of defeats since the 1930s because “a small group of secret kingmakers, using hidden persuaders and psychological warfare techniques, manipulated the Republican National Convention to nominate candidates who would sidestep or suppress the key issues.” The party could have won all these elections, she argued, but it lost instead because its leaders had an interest in sustaining the status quo and manipulated the party to suppress a frontal right-wing challenge.
Schlafly’s analysis created a familiar template for conservative thought. Political defeat could never be rationalized as a normal part of political conflict nor corrected by aligning the party more closely to the beliefs of the political center. Any political setback was the result of betrayal by a shadowy Establishment, and the solution was to pry the party free of its nefarious control and win a cataclysmic final struggle against the forces of liberalism.
While Goldwater lost in 1964, his movement, undeterred, slowly took over the party from the bottom up. An inflection point occurred in 1990, when Gingrich, leader of the insurgent conservative wing of the House Republican caucus, drove the party’s old-line leader, Bob Michel, into retirement. The 1994 elections handed Gingrich’s Republicans control of the House, which they promised to use as a launching point for a “Republican revolution” that would roll back the New Deal and reorder American society.
The obstacle they immediately encountered was that their party only controlled Congress, and the president, Bill Clinton, refused to go along with their plans. The logic of the revolution propelled them to escalate their methods, shutting down the government repeatedly and then impeaching Clinton. But as Gingrich’s methods failed and his heady promises went unfulfilled, his troops grew restless and eventually overthrew him, just as he had overthrown Michel.
Gingrich’s successor, Robert Livingston, was quickly deposed, too. (He had been exposed for having an extramarital affair, a very Byzantine plot twist.) But the pattern set in that new insurgent Republican leaders would seize power and promise great conservative victories, only to find their troops eventually turning on them. John Boehner, Paul Ryan, and now Kevin McCarthy have all succumbed to the pattern. (Ironically, the only Republican Speaker to surrender his post peacefully during this period was Dennis Hastert, who later turned out to have sexually abused boys.)
A natural consequence of this pattern has been to drive House Republicans to constantly employ more extreme methods: shutting down the government, threatening to default on the national debt, impeaching Democrats with or without evidence. McCarthy used all these methods against Biden at the behest of his right-wing rivals. When they inevitably failed to produce the expected victories, the radicals preferred to get rid of him rather than admit that their own strategy was misconceived.
This method of grabbing power within the GOP has applications beyond the House. A decade ago, Ted Cruz seized upon the demand that Republicans shut down the government in order to force Barack Obama to repeal his signature health-care law. Cruz obviously understood this would never work, but the idea was to identify himself as the true conservative and his enemies as the Establishment.
Donald Trump used the same motif to present himself as the real fighter. In Trump’s rhetoric, every Republican who opposes him is “the Establishment” or “the swamp” or a “RINO.” Trump has managed to defy the historic pattern of insurgent leaders being deposed by newer and more radical insurgents. Ron DeSantis has tried to use this style of politics, casting Trump as a loser who became part of the swamp. But Trump has proven uniquely immune to insurgency, perhaps because his unhinged communication style and fanatical pugilism makes it impossible for the Republican base to believe he’s been co-opted by the Establishment.
But Steve Scalise, Jim Jordan, or whoever manages to seize the crown will not enjoy Trump’s invulnerability. Some group of insurgents will demand they take radical steps, and when the new Speaker either refuses or, more likely, those steps fail to work, the insurgency will start up again.
The House Republican caucus has been so thoroughly radicalized that it is almost impossible to discern any coherent ideological fault line separating the insurgents from the leadership. They are fighting over points of legislative doctrine so inscrutable that outsiders can barely understand them. The main hope held by the rest of us is that the House Republican majority — which rests on a handful of seats that could easily flip in the next election — will finally, like the Byzantines, collapse.