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Kevin McCarthy’s CPAC panel shows how the GOP has devolved into a Trump personality cult

McCarthy contorts himself to praise Trump, as Trump reportedly considers denouncing him anyway.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy speaks at CPAC on Saturday.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

If you watched House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s Saturday panel discussion at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) after spending four months in a coma, you’d not only think that there was no January 6 insurrection aimed at overthrowing former President Donald Trump’s election loss, but that Trump actually won a second term.

McCarthy’s remarks in particular — and CPAC 2021 in general — illustrate how whatever second thoughts the Republican establishment had about Trump following the insurrection have fallen by the wayside. And they were a reminder that although Trump did lose reelection, he remains a popular, and therefore powerful, figure in the Republican Party.

McCarthy didn’t make the former president the focus of his remarks, but was quick to praise Trump early during his event, crediting the former president for Republicans picking up seats in the House of Representatives following last November’s election.

“President Trump worked on all these races,” McCarthy said, later adding, “Even when President Trump was sick with Covid ... he would do these rallies over the phone for each district, and he would have the candidate on and then he would talk, and he would turn out the votes.”

“Listen — we’re gonna continue to do exactly what we did in the last election,” McCarthy said at another point.

The rest of CPAC has been similar in tone. In fact, despite President Joe Biden’s decisive popular vote and Electoral College victory over Trump — and Trump’s shameful efforts to overthrow the election during the transition period to a new administration — CPAC 2021 has served as a cultish celebration of the former president. None of the few remaining prominent anti-Trump Republicans were invited to speak, and no criticism of the former president has been brooked.

Along these lines, perhaps the most revealing remark during McCarthy’s panel discussion came from Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN), who, like many of his Republican colleagues, skipped the vote on the Covid-19 relief bill so he could appear at CPAC.

“The most popular Republican figure in Congress today is Kevin McCarthy,” Banks said. “Let me tell you who the least popular Republicans in the party are today — they are those very few Republicans who want to erase Donald Trump and Donald Trump supporters from our party.”

Banks’s observations about anti-Trump Republicans may be technically true, but what he didn’t mention is that Trump has dragged down the popularity of all GOP officials. A recent Forbes piece by Andrew Solender explains:

Republicans have the lowest ratings [of national politicians], with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy down by 20 points, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) down by 30 points and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell suffering a staggering deficit of 44 points, with just 17% favorability and 61% unfavorability.

Nonetheless, there’s a political calculus in McCarthy’s decision to stand behind Trump, even after he criticized him in the days following the insurrection.

Trump may not be popular in general, but he remains overwhelmingly popular with the GOP base — a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll found 79 percent of Republicans viewed Trump favorably, while McCarthy received just 34 percent support among Republicans. And a recent USA Today/Suffolk University study found 46 percent of Republicans said they would leave the GOP should Trump start his own political party.

It is Trump who can decide the fate of the GOP, and of individual lawmakers, and he has made it clear in the past that he values those lawmakers who are loyal to him. But there are also indications that the level of loyalty McCarthy has shown thus far, as fawning as it may be, may not be enough for Trump.

Trump is reportedly thinking about denouncing McCarthy during his CPAC speech on Sunday

McCarthy initially had some doubts about Trump.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, for instance, he was recorded saying he believed Trump was literally on Vladimir Putin’s payroll. But during Trump’s tenure as president, McCarthy — who served as House majority leader until Republicans lost the majority in the 2018 midterms, then became House minority leader — emerged as one of Trump’s staunchest congressional defenders.

McCarthy concocted far-fetched arguments to defend Trump during his first impeachment, including that there is a precedent against impeaching presidents in their first term, and went as far as to patronize and promote Trump’s private business. He echoed Trump’s lies about the FBI investigation into his relationship with Russia being tantamount to “a modern-day coup” and, while sitting next to Donald Trump Jr. at last year’s CPAC, farcically cited Wikipedia edits as evidence that big tech companies are biased against Republicans.

Even after Trump lost the election last November, McCarthy went on Fox News and held up his disastrous coronavirus response as an example of “remarkable” governance. He defended a recorded phone call of Trump trying to bully the Georgia secretary of state into throwing out his loss there as evidence that he’s “always been concerned about the integrity of the election.”

For a brief moment after the deadly January 6 insurrection Trump encouraged, however, McCarthy’s tune changed a bit. While McCarthy joined 146 other Republicans in voting to overthrow the election results, on January 13 he gave a speech on the House floor saying Trump “bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress.”

But as it became clear that the Republican base was sticking with Trump, McCarthy quickly fell back in line. Just eight days after he said Trump “bears responsibility” for the insurrection, McCarthy said basically the exact opposite thing during a news conference.

“I don’t believe he provoked it,” McCarthy said, referring to the January 6 insurrection.

But that remarkable flip-flop apparently wasn’t enough to keep McCarthy in Trump’s good graces. Trump is now reportedly steamed that McCarthy stood by House Republican Conference Chair Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) even after Cheney voted for Trump’s second impeachment.

The GOP split between the large MAGA faction McCarthy represents and the much smaller anti-Trump faction led by Cheney was illustrated in a scene on Wednesday, when, during a news conference, McCarthy told a reporter that he thinks Trump should be speaking at CPAC. He was immediately contradicted by Cheney, who was standing behind him and said, “I don’t believe [Trump] should be playing a role in the future of the party.”

“On that high note, thank you all very much,” McCarthy quipped, before walking away from reporters.

Trump is reportedly bothered that instead of purging Cheney from the party, McCarthy supported her in retaining her leadership position in the House Republican caucus — leading to awkward scenes like the one from Wednesday. Tara Palmeri provided the full context in the Saturday installment of Politico Playbook:

Three people close to Trump tell me that he’s stewing anew over KEVIN MCCARTHY. It’s become so frequent that his advisers think the House minority leader may be in for a public reprimand. That’s even after the powwow at Mar-a-Lago where McCarthy tried to patch things up after he denounced Trump for the violence on Jan. 6.

The reason for Trump’s displeasure: an emboldened Cheney.

Each time Cheney criticizes Trump from her leadership post as the No. 3 House Republican, he’s reminded that it was McCarthy who pleaded with his conference to keep her on as chair — despite her vote to impeach Trump. The latest trigger came Wednesday, when Cheney said at a press conference that Trump should not lead the party going forward while McCarthy awkwardly stood by.

McCarthy in particular, and CPAC speakers in general, have sided against Cheney in this dispute. On Friday, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) claimed during his speech that Cheney would be booed if she showed up at CPAC, and he’s not wrong. But that Trump is even considering publicly castigating McCarthy just because he won’t work to purge the handful of House Republicans who voted for Trump’s impeachment reflects the extent to which the party has devolved into a personality cult — one that’s endured even after the leader was defeated.

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