The GOP Is a Circus, Not a Caucus

The speaker pays off his debts to the extremist base.

Kevin McCarthy sits in a leather chair at a microphone, holding his right hand aloft. The stripes of the American flag are his backdrop.
Kevin McCarthy takes the oath of office at the U.S. Capitol on January 7, 2023. (Olivier Douliery / AFP via Getty)

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Kevin McCarthy has begun his job as speaker by servicing the demands of the most extreme—and weirdest—members who supported him, thus handing the People’s House to the Clown Caucus.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.

The Ringmaster

Now controlled by its most unhinged members, the Republican Party has returned to power in the People’s House. Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the ringmaster of this circus, is happily paying off his debts by engaging in petty payback, conjuring up inane committees, threatening to crash the U.S. economy, and protecting a walking monument to fraud named George Santos, who may or may not actually be named “George Santos.”

In the enduring words of Emerson, Lake & Palmer: Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends.

Politics, in Washington or anywhere else, is about deals. No one should have expected McCarthy to make his way to the gavel without signing a few ugly promissory notes along the way. Sometimes, friends are betrayed and enemies are elevated; an important project can end up taking a back seat to a boondoggle. Just ask Representative Vern Buchanan of Florida, who got pushed out of the chairmanship of Ways and Means in favor of Jason Smith of Missouri, a choice preferred by the MAGA caucus. “You fucked me,” he reportedly said to McCarthy on the floor of the House. “I know it was you, you whipped against me.” Buchanan, a source on the House floor told Tara Palmeri at Puck, was so angry that the speaker’s security people were about to step in. (McCarthy’s office denies that this happened.)

It’s one thing to pay political debts, even the kind that McCarthy accepted despite their steep and humiliating vig. It’s another to hand off control of crucial issues to a claque of clowns who have no idea what they’re doing and are willing to harm the national security of the United States as long as it suits their political purposes.

Let us leave aside the removal of Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell from the Intelligence Committee. The republic will not rise or fall based on such things, and if McCarthy wants to engage in snippy stoogery to ingratiate himself with the MAGA caucus and soothe Donald Trump’s hurt feelings, it is within his power to do so. In his letter to Democratic Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, the speaker claimed his decision was all about “integrity.” This is not just the death of irony; it is a North Korean–style, firing-squad-by-anti-aircraft-gun execution of irony. Worse, McCarthy even has the right to channel, as he did, Joseph McCarthy, and smear Swalwell by alluding to derogatory information that the FBI supposedly has about him. It might not be honorable or professional, but he can do it.

McCarthy’s shuffle of the Intelligence Committee pales in comparison to the creation of two new committees, both of which were part of the Filene’s Basement clearance of the new speaker’s political soul. One of them, on the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, is a continuation of the Republican assault on science that predated Trump but reached new heights with the former president’s disjointed gibbering about bleach injections. The committee will include the conspiracy theorist and McCarthy’s new best friend Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Ronny Jackson of Texas, the former White House physician who assured us in 2018 that Trump only weighed 239 pounds and was in astoundingly good health.

The COVID committee is unlikely to move the needle (if you’ll pardon the expression) on public health. No one’s mind will be changed if Jackson and Tucker Carlson bloviate to each other about things neither of them really believes. Most of the damage from such a committee will likely be concentrated among the vaccine refusers, who already seem determined to get sick and die to make a political point.

The “weaponization” committee is worse, and likely to do far more damage to the United States, because it is starting from the premise that the machinery of the United States government—law enforcement, the intelligence community, and federal agencies—has been turned against the average American citizen. Jim Jordan, who stands out even in this GOP for his partisan recklessness, will serve as chair. The committee will include members whom I think of as the “You-Know-Better-Than-This Caucus”: people with top-flight educations and enough experience to know that Jordan is a crank, but who nevertheless will support attacks on American institutions if that’s what it takes to avoid being sent back home to live among their constituents. Two standouts here are Thomas Massie (an MIT graduate who apparently majored in alchemy and astrology), and the ever-reliable Elise Stefanik (Harvard), whose political hemoglobin is now composed of equal parts cynicism and antifreeze.

The committee will include other monuments to probity, such as Chip Roy; Dan Bishop, who has claimed that the 2020 election was rigged; Harriet Hageman, the woman who defeated Liz Cheney in Wyoming; and Kat Cammack of Florida, who alleged that Democrats were drinking on the House floor during the speakership fight. All of them will have access to highly sensitive information from across the U.S. government.

Jordan and his posse are styling themselves as a new Church Committee, the 1975 investigation into the Cold War misdeeds of American intelligence organizations headed by Idaho Senator Frank Church. This dishonors Church, whose committee uncovered genuinely shocking abuses by agencies that had for too long escaped oversight during the early days of the struggle with the Soviet Union. Church himself was a patriot, unlike some of the charlatans on this new committee, but even Church’s investigation did at least some damage with its revelations, and some of the reforms (especially the move away from relying on human intelligence) undertaken later based in part on its findings were unwise. In any case, his fame was short-lived: He was defeated for reelection in 1980 and died in 1984. (Full disclosure: I spoke at a conference held in Church’s honor many years ago and met with his widow.)

The Church Committee was, in its day, a necessary walk across the hot coals for Americans who had invested too much power and trust in the executive branch. I suspect that the Jordan committee will not look to uncover abuses, but rather to portray any government actions that it does not like as abuses, especially the investigations into Trump. It will be the Church Committee turned on its head, as members of Congress seek to protect a lawless president by destroying the agencies that stand between our democracy and his ambitions.

Kevin McCarthy will be fine with all of it, as long as he gets to wear the top hat and red tails while indulging in the fantasy that he is in control of the clowns and wild animals, and not the other way around.


Today’s News

  1. President Joe Biden announced that he would send M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, and Germany announced that it would send an initial shipment of 14 Leopard 2 tanks.
  2. The arraignment of the suspect in the Half Moon Bay, California, mass shooting was postponed until Feb. 16.
  3. School officials were warned on three separate occasions that a 6-year-old who later shot his first-grade teacher in Virginia had a gun or had made threats, according to an attorney for the teacher.


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Evening Read

An illustration showing a piggy bank with a French flag flying from it
Getty; The Atlantic

Why the French Want to Stop Working

By Pamela Druckerman

If you want to understand why the French overwhelmingly oppose raising their official retirement age from 62 to 64, you could start by looking at last week’s enormous street protest in Paris.

“Retirement before arthritis” read one handwritten sign. “Leave us time to live before we die” said another. One elderly protester was dressed ironically as “a banker” with a black top hat, bow tie, and cigar—like the Mr. Monopoly mascot of the board game. “It’s the end of the beans!” he exclaimed to the crowd, using a popular expression to mean that pension reform is the last straw.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break

Guslagie Malanda staring directly at the camera while seated in a courtroom in "Saint Omer"
Neon Films

Read. Transformer: The Deep Chemistry of Life and Death, by Nick Lane, explains why life may be exceedingly rare in our universe.

Or pick up another one of these seven books that will make you smarter.

Watch. Saint Omer, in theaters, turns a true crime into a complicated elegy.

Play our daily crossword.


The Church Committee revealed outrages (including assassination plots) that today might seem like they were taken from bad spy-movie scripts. But such things were deadly serious business, as the United States moved from World War II into the Cold War determined to do whatever it took to defeat Soviet communism. For decades, Americans romanticized spies and spying as glamorous and exciting, but in reality, espionage was a nasty business. Our British cousins knew this better than we did, which is why British spy fiction was always grittier than its American counterpart. (The James Bond novels are pretty dour, sometimes even sadistic; Hollywood cleaned them up.)

But just because we lost our innocence about spying doesn’t mean we can’t still enjoy the culture it produced back in the day. In that spirit, let me recommend to you Secret Agent, an offering on a wonderful, listener-supported San Francisco–based internet radio station called SomaFM. There are plenty of great channels on SomaFM—I especially like Left Coast 70s, which is just what it sounds like—but Secret Agent is a lot of fun, a mixture of 1960s lounge and light jazz, soundtracks, and other tidbits, with the occasional line from 007 and other spies spliced in here and there. It’s a nice throwback to the days when espionage was cool, and it’s great music for working or a get-together over martinis, which should be shaken and … well, you know.

— Tom

Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.