Kevin McCarthy is just another brick in Trump’s crumbling wall

Kevin McCarthy is taking back comments he said about Donald Trump and the Jan. 6 insurrection. That’s just how Trump likes it.

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House Minority Leader McCarthy Holds Weekly Press Conference

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) answers questions during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol on January 09, 2020 in Washington, DC.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Call it the dictator’s paradox: By demonstrating weakness, you affirm the Big Man’s power. By groveling, you gain standing. Pretending to believe what’s patently false, you affirm manly independence from what Jonathan Swift mockingly called “the vulgar dictates of unrefined reason.”

It’s not a question of true or false; it’s a matter of who’s in charge, a form of moral cowardice common in the pre-civil rights South: say, the Alabama of George Wallace or the Arkansas of Orval Faubus. Cowering acknowledges respect for the way of the world, enhancing one’s standing.

Up until the rotten edifice collapses, that is, when the ambitious sycophant may suffer a bad fall. Hard-core segregationists became hard to find down south after the Civil Rights Act.

So it is with Trumpism. What happens if the Big Man’s strength proves more illusory than real? After all, everybody with sense enough to come in from the rain knows that Donald J. Trump didn’t merely lose the 2020 presidential election; he lost it by 7 million votes.

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What if something like that happens again, as appears quite likely? Whatever will become of the Rep. Kevin McCarthys of the world, who have turned themselves upside down and inside out to affirm Trump’s most preposterous lies?

Once upon a time (on June 15, 2016), the California congressman who yearns to be speaker of the House was overheard in a conversation with a group of fellow Republicans. A recording was obtained by the Washington Post.

“There’s two people I think [Russian dictator Vladimir] Putin pays: [Rep. Dana] Rohrabacher and Trump,” McCarthy said.

None of his listeners objected. Plays a bit differently today, doesn’t it? But then Trump went on to win the GOP presidential nomination, McCarthy made nice, and the two became allies.

His most recent series of blunders have made McCarthy look even weaker. Basically, he jumped into his own trap. Excerpts from a new book by two New York Times reporters, titled “This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden and the Battle for America’s Future,” began to circulate around Washington last week. It quoted McCarthy describing Trump’s role in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot as “atrocious and totally wrong.”

He’d even gone as far as inquiring about using the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office and put Mike Pence in his place.

On Jan. 10, the Times reported, the minority leader held a telephone conference with his leadership team. Regarding Trump’s conduct on Jan. 6, McCarthy told the group: “What he did is unacceptable. Nobody can defend that and nobody should defend it.”

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Responding to a question from Rep. Liz Cheney about the likelihood of Trump resigning, McCarthy said he planned to phone Trump about the Democrats’ forthcoming impeachment resolution. He said he would tell the president that “I think [the resolution] will pass, and it would be my recommendation you should resign.”

The Times report stipulated that its reporters had “reviewed the full recording of the conversation.”

Seemingly panicked when the Times story broke last week, McCarthy ignored the blinking red light and blundered on. He and his press spokesman put out dueling statements denying everything. The Times story, McCarthy insisted, was “totally false and wrong.”

Bad move.

Reporters Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns went on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC program that same night and played the audiotape.

Uh-oh. How could McCarthy not suspect that Cheney would keep a recording of the call, and that she might be disinclined to keep his secrets after he’d purged her from House leadership to please Trump? (Cheney denied recording the call or leaking the audio.)

After all, history records that only days after President Joe Biden’s inauguration, McCarthy had hurried down to Mar-a-Lago to roll on his back like a puppy before the former president.

So now the Very Cowardly GOP Leader has had to do it all over again. Knowing a sycophant when he sees one, Trump has gone out of his way to appear magnanimous. McCarthy, he told the Wall Street Journal, had changed his mind “when he found out the facts.”

“I think it’s all a big compliment, frankly,” Trump said about Republicans who doubted him after Jan. 6 but later changed their minds. “They realized they were wrong and supported me.”

That’s just how Trump likes it. He has a downright canine understanding of who’s the Big Dog in any relationship. “Trump actually prefers it when people oppose him and then have to beg for his forgiveness,” blogger Digby Parton has written. “It shows dominance. And if there’s one thing we know, dominance tastes sweeter to him when he forces it with his boot on his rivals’ necks.”

But it’s all dependent upon the perception that Republican voters remain in thrall to the Big Loser. And there are growing indications that his hold over the base could be waning. Upcoming GOP primaries in Pennsylvania, Ohio and particularly Georgia don’t look so good for Trump-endorsed candidates.

Ruling by fear only works when there’s something to be afraid of.

Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President”

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