old fire alarm
Photo credit: Bmb / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

A different kind of disaster — the train wreck that is the politics of the United States — has been going on, in super slow motion, since the day Bush v. Gore was decided in December 2000.

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People who have been fortunate enough to survive such disasters as a train derailment or a car going off a cliff generally report that they experienced the event in slow motion, a perception I can confirm from personal experience.

A different kind of disaster — the train wreck that is the politics of the United States — has been going on, in super slow motion, since the day Bush v. Gore was decided in December 2000. 

It’s almost certainly not done yet, but you could definitely hear the thud! yesterday as we broke new ground for stupid and dysfunctional with the ousting of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA).

While McCarthy himself is no beacon of statesmanship, the chaos agents who engineered his demise, led by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), seem to have nothing on their minds besides destruction. As one lone voice from the Republican side of the aisle blurted out to no one in particular, immediately following the vote to cashier McCarthy, “Now what?”

Gaetz & Co. — the far-right, ultra-MAGA extremists who, along with such specimens as Rep. George Santos (R-NY), constituted McCarthy’s “working” majority — took the drastic and indeed unprecedented action of moving to vacate the speaker’s chair.

They did it because McCarthy relied on Democratic as well as Republican votes to stave off the government shutdown desired by Donald Trump.

That — bipartisanship, negotiation, compromise — is now, in train wreck America, politically speaking, a capital crime. Steve Bannon’s hellacious “vision” seems to be triumphing over that of Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison.

The Democrats, for their part, could have saved McCarthy but took a hard, if anxious, pass — a move some have questioned. But, as John Stoehr put it: 

“They [the GOP] knew they were giving the Democrats a gun, but never believed they’d pull the trigger.” 

They seemed to think the Democrats had somehow contracted in perpetuity to be the adults in the room, cleaning up every GOP mess, and would save McCarthy “for the good of the country.”

Perhaps if McCarthy had been someone the Democrats could trust. But not only did he spend the nine months of his speakership keeping his ultra-MAGA flank happy by incessantly punching Democratic noses and pulling the rug out from under Democratic feet, but this very weekend, from his cell on political death row, he actually accused them — the party that voted 209 to 1 to fund the government, bailing him out in the process — of being responsible for what would have been a disastrous government shutdown had he not prevented it. Whatever.

Along the way, having promised that there would be no Biden impeachment inquiry without a floor vote, he launched one unilaterally by decree, want of evidence be damned. That was just last month: the first order of business when the House returned from its recess. 

He did that, as he did so many other unseemly things, to appease Gaetz & Co. — and Trump. But he had to know they were coming for his scalp and that ultimately, being ultra-MAGA terrorists, they were unappeasable. Which made the Democrats his only hope of rescue. Except that danged impeachment thing wasn’t going to win him a lot of friends across the aisle.

So, thinking one move ahead on this not very complicated chessboard, the time to stand up to Gaetz & Co. was right there, while he still had a half-chance of a Democratic bailout. After the impeachment launch, he was a dead man walking.

Kevin McCarthy, Tsai Ing-wen

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Photo credit: 總統府 / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

So much for McCarthy and Gaetz — who, incidentally, is universally despised by his congressional colleagues and whom even Newt Gingrich insists they must expel. They have contrived, between them, to leave the House speakerless, with not even dim prospects of a viable (and sane) successor. 

While A-list contenders Steve Scalise (R-LA) and Jim Jordan (R-OH) duke it out in the cloakrooms and watering holes of DC, the nation’s business — funding the government, Ukraine, national security, the US credit rating — will just have to wait… and wait. 

If you’re looking for silver linings, just about the only good to come of all this is that Patty Murray (D-WA), president pro tempore of the Senate and a serious and capable person, is now second in line of succession to the presidency.

Should we be shocked, shocked that the country is ungovernable? Not really. If you look at the forces at play, the twists and turns and bumps and bruises, going back to Bush v. Gore, a strong case could be made that it had to come to this. Hillary Clinton was mocked for her invocation of a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” but she was, if not in the bullseye, not far outside it either. It took a lot of hard work and determination to land us here — a relentless warping of the girders of democracy.

Others have traced the steps along the way: the think tanks, the media takeovers, the SCOTUS appointments and decisions, the gerrymandering, the stripping of Democratic governors’ powers, the voter suppression, the disinformation, the cult of Trump. I myself charted the series of electoral shocks and anomalies that brought key Republicans to power, from the White House to Congress to the courts to state legislatures.

Among them — buried deep in the rubble of the 2020 election, and the ongoing, post-election Stop the Steal campaign of Trump — were the uncanny results of the competitive House contests of that year. The politically neutral Cook Political Report, along with The New York Times, identified 27 House races as “toss-ups” that year. 

Somehow, Republicans won every single one of those, as well as picking off six more seats rated “lean-Democrat,” while losing none rated “lean-Republican.”

These were all heavily polled and analyzed contests, so that 27-for-27 (plus) table-run should have been absolutely shocking — and perhaps would have been, had not Trump’s Stop the Steal circus snarfed up every atom of oxygen from the electoral post-mortem. As would the fact that both pre-election and exit polls gave Biden a popular vote margin nearly 6 million votes greater than the official vote count. 

The results of the 2020 election allowed for only two possibilities: the “loss” of millions of Democratic votes during either the casting phase or counting phase or both; or a massive, systemic polling failure (of all polls, tracking and exit), yet to be adequately explained. My own analysis identified non-polling based anomalies that suggested the former.

Whatever happened to the votes (and attempts to vote) in 2020, one consequence of Biden’s bizarrely negative coattails was the displacement of what was expected to be a robust Democratic House majority with a scrawny one (222–213), vulnerable to reversal in the first midterm, 2022, where the president’s party, with only rare exceptions, could expect a major loss of seats.

This came, predictably, to pass, though the GOP — hampered by the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade and by Trump’s endorsements of certain far-right election deniers — notably underperformed. The result was that McCarthy’s majority was as frail as that of his predecessor as speaker, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) — so frail that there could be no thought of expelling indicted fraudster Santos, blot though he is upon the party’s good name.

It is possible that a more adroit politician might have been able to swim his way through these shark–infested waters, but not likely. The sharks, though few, were too emboldened, too frenzied, too inspired by the Great White of Mar-a-Lago.

Unfortunately for McCarthy, and for America, that razor-thin GOP House majority, unlike Pelosi’s genuinely working majority, depended on the votes of Gaetz & Co., the ultra-MAGA, far-right extremists with little interest in governing or institutional norms and a Trumpian thirst for political blood. To become speaker, on the 15th ballot, McCarthy had to sell his soul to the crazies and, as some recognized then and many more in the months since, was in deep trouble from the moment he took up his gavel.

It is possible that a more adroit politician might have been able to swim his way through these shark–infested waters, but not likely. The sharks, though few, were too emboldened, too frenzied, too inspired by the Great White of Mar-a-Lago. Who, because by some constitutional quirk speakers do not have to be elected House members, is slated to be exuberantly nominated — by the illustrious Rep. Troy Nehls (R-TX), when the House reconvenes from its well-earned recess next week — to become the next House speaker.

Won’t that be a hoot?

At precisely 2:18 p.m. EDT today, our phones (and radios and TVs) screeched loudly as the Federal Emergency Management Agency conducted a test of the National Emergency Alert System, a relic of the Cold War, repurposed for whatever catastrophe might one day be in store for us. 

Then a voice came on and we were told, “This is only a test. No action is required by the public.”

How reassuring.

Jonathan D. Simon is a senior editor at WhoWhatWhy and author of CODE RED: Computerized Elections and the War on American Democracy.


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