The Right’s Total Loss of Proportion

Support an attack on Congress? No problem. Vote for Biden’s infrastructure bill? You’ve betrayed your country.

Illustration of the U.S. Capitol with red and blue.
Getty; The Atlantic

Updated at 8:55 a.m. ET on November 11, 2021.

You can tell a lot about a group of people by what makes them angry.

Consider the furious way many conservatives are reacting to the passage last week of a $1 trillion infrastructure bill backed by President Joe Biden—and then compare it with their reaction to the January 6 insurrection.

After some House progressives refused to vote for the package, Speaker Nancy Pelosi relied on 13 Republicans to help eke the plan through. Suffice it to say that those 13 Republicans—mostly moderates or those representing swing districts—have not been hailed as exemplars of pragmatic policy making. Democrats have little incentive to praise their political opponents. Voters have sent them vitriolic and threatening messages, which is no less acceptable for the fact that it is utterly predictable.

But all of that is relatively mild compared with the incensed backlash that has come from fellow Republicans in Congress and the conservative press.

“Any Republican that votes yes to an infrastructure bill that helps Biden pass his agenda when bumbling Biden doesn’t even know what he’s doing, then that Republican is a traitor to our party, a traitor to their voters, and a traitor to our donors,” Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene said ahead of the vote. Afterward, she accused the 13 Republicans of backing “Joe Biden’s Communist takeover of America.”

Though it is customary to note at this stage that Greene represents the extreme fringe of the GOP, she had lots of company here. “I can’t believe Republicans just gave the Democrats their socialism bill,” Representative Matt Gaetz fumed. Representative Madison Cawthorn promised to support primary challengers to Republicans who backed the bill. National Review’s Philip Klein thundered that “every Republican who voted for this monstrosity who is not already retiring should be primaried and defeated by candidates who will actually resist the Left-wing agenda.” At The Federalist, Rachel Bovard wrote that “betrayal … is not too strong a term.”

Now Punchbowl reports that Republican leaders are “bracing for rank-and-file lawmakers to attempt to strip committee assignments from the 13 Republican lawmakers who voted for the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill.” The Twitter account of the House GOP caucus also tweeted, then deleted, that “Americans won’t forget” who voted for the bill.

The depth of the fury is perplexing on its own terms. Start with the common name for the bill—the BIF, or “Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework.” As the name implies, the bill was developed by members of both parties, and it passed the Senate in August by a wide 69–30 margin, including not only squishy moderates like Mitt Romney and Susan Collins but also Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Trumpier senators like Kevin Cramer and Chuck Grassley. Donald Trump blasted McConnell at the time but happily welcomed Grassley to a rally in Iowa two months later. Outside of Mar-a-Lago, McConnell remains popular and powerful among Republicans.

Trump’s anger at the BIF’s passage—“All Republicans who voted for Democrat longevity should be ashamed of themselves,” he scolded Sunday—is obviously not credible, because he tried and failed to move infrastructure spending when he was president. Many Republicans were ready to back an infrastructure package when Trump was pushing it, though they had the good luck that Trump was too ineffectual to get a package to the floor, where they’d actually have to record a vote on it.

Besides, as the conservative writer Allahpundit notes, Democrats were going to find a way to pass the bill, one way or another, and Republican votes may actually help divide Democratic opinions on a second, larger spending bill. And given that the bill was going to pass, voting for it was probably good politics for many of these members. Representative Don Bacon of Nebraska, who’s in a swingy district, told Axios that the bill was popular back home—and that he helped write it. McConnell on Monday called the package “a godsend for Kentucky.”

Democrats have had their own fractures in the course of the infrastructure negotiation, and more acrimony will come as they try to pass a second spending bill. Depending where you look, you can find people raging against Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, the House moderate bloc led by Josh Gottheimer, or the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Sinema in particular has been targeted for harassment by activists, but among elected Democrats, these feuds have mostly played out in passive-aggressive comments to reporters, rather than purge attempts. In the end, Gottheimer and CPC Chair Pramila Jayapal were literally side by side on the BIF vote. In part, this is a tribute to Democrats’ thin margins; they cannot afford to cast anyone out if they want to pass legislation, whereas Republicans are in the minority now but sense they will be in the majority soon, making the defectors inessential. As a big-tent party, Democrats always have to work this way, but there is a perhaps more salient difference at this moment: They have no figure like Trump or movement like Trumpism to enforce purity tests.

The National Review editor Rich Lowry defended the backlash against the infrastructure supporters by citing his magazine’s long-standing opposition to infrastructure spending. “It’s not tribalism to oppose what we’ve always opposed,” he wrote. Lowry is right: National Review criticized Trump’s spending plans too.

What is missing here is not consistency but proportion. Fiscal conservatives have every reason to be angry about spending, but one would hope to see the same sort of anger directed at President Trump’s attempt to steal the 2020 election, his fomenting of an insurrection on January 6, and the members of Congress who abetted him. There’s no use in arguing over the finer points of budgeting if you don’t have rule of law and a functional democracy to begin with.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the members who have been noisiest about the BIF vote are those like Greene, Cawthorn, and Gaetz, who most staunchly stood by Trump. For Greene, anyone who votes against the House Republican Party’s voting preference is a “traitor,” whereas people who literally attempted to subvert the constitutional process are “patriots” and “political prisoners.” (Trump allies have not failed to notice that four of the 13 Republicans who voted for the BIF are also among the 10 who voted to impeach Trump in January.) Some of National Review’s writers have condemned January 6, but they seem more interested in litigating whether it should properly be called an insurrection. The answer is yes, but this deflection into semantic chin-stroking mostly illustrates how the magazine continues to struggle to reconcile its historical commitments with the former president’s domination of the GOP.

Even as Republican members clamor for their colleagues to be stripped of their committee assignments, the only Republican member who has been formally punished by the caucus in the aftermath of January 6 is Liz Cheney, who committed the cardinal sin of joining Democrats’ select committee to investigate the attacks. When House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s poison-pill appointments of pro-insurrection lawmakers to the panel were rejected, Cheney broke ranks. She was quickly removed as House GOP conference chair. (Cheney, for her part, voted against the infrastructure bill.)

If you find it easier to know what you think about a spending bill than an attempt to overturn an election, or if the former makes you angrier than the latter, you’ve decided that party matters more than country.

This article originally misstated Kevin McCarthy’s title.