Leadership: Kevin McCarthy, Mo Brooks, Dick Cheney, James Curley, Ilhan Omar

Last year, Ryan O'Toole was a staffer for Kevin McCarthy. He was on the House floor on the day of the insurrection, horrified-- I think he has used the word "dismayed"-- that Alabama white nationalist Mo Brooks was, in his words, "cheering on" the rioters who had broken through the police lines and were flooding into the Capitol screaming that they wanted to kill Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi, while some-- not all-- were defecating in the in hall ways and smearing it on the walls. (Aside: Alabama Republicans will soon send Mo Brooks to the U.S. Senate to represent them there.)

At the time, O'Toole was the Republican cloak room director for McCarthy, a job that required him to run the procedure operations for House Republicans. He told Jake Tapper yesterday that before they were evacuated, "Republican members were fearful for their lives. Republican members themselves... men crying... As we escaped the chamber, to what sounded like gunshots, to the secure location, I think people were still scared, members and staff were still scared and not sure what was happening."

"You did have some members," he said, "express a different view. One member, Mo Brooks, for example was glad. He was cheering on the fact that the 117th Congress had started this way. And that was much to the dismay of others in the room."

He also said that McCarthy ignored his staff entirely, while, he said Pelosi and Hoyer did thank the Republican staffers for the job they had done assisting members and continuing the democratic process.

Tapper dug down, hoping to figure out McCarthy's leadership posture-- first blaming Trump directly for the mob and then leading the whitewashing of it. O'Toole went right tp a classic quote which doesn't just describe McCarthy, but most politicians who aspire to be "leaders," He said, "There's a great leadership quote that former Boston Mayor (James) Curley is useful for: 'There go the people; I am their leader. I must follow them.' And I think that really describes Leader McCarthy's leadership strategy in that there's not one. His leadership strategy is dictated by the most extreme wings of his party. And so, when Marjorie Taylor Greene or Matt Gaetz put their thumb on the scale, that’s what he responds to. And that drives the House Republican Conference into the arms of somebody like Donald Trump… The leadership that enables that behavior is continuing today, as we’ve seen."

O'Toole, when asked, told Tapper that he couldn't "speak to why McCarthy's changed his position since Jan. 6. As you alluded to, in the weeks after he came onto the floor and said the president bears responsibility for this." He said he couldn't speak to a change in McCarthy's values or what his calculus was. He said that after January 6th, his own "conscience and values were clear: we need to be loyal to the constitution and I made a choice to leave and go work for somebody [Liz Cheney] who did believe in that. After January 6th Kevin McCarthy went to Mar-A-Lago and I think that says things pretty clearly for the American people."

I can't recall a top House staffer ever ratting out his former boss before-- at least not when he was still working on the Hill. One senior Hill staffer told me that "I'm not sure most Americans will fully appreciate how truly extraordinary this interview is. It is ingrained in Capitol Hill staff to defend the boss and to stay in the background. So to break two of these cardinal rules in order to do the right thing and share his story tells you just how beyond the pale all of this is. O'Toole isn't some disgruntled intern who had a bad experience working for an elected official. He was the cloakroom director for the House Minority Leader. It is one of the more important jobs on the Hill and he had a lot of responsibility in that role. He is likely as conservative as they come-- not some closeted Democrat looking for an opportunity to stab the GOP in back. In other words, he has everything to lose by leaving that position and speaking out. I have often refrained from being overly effusive in my compliments for Republicans who stand up to Trumpism. In my view, defending democracy is the bare minimum we should expect from elected officials and public servants. But in this case I think Ryan deserves a lot of credit. And kudos to Rep. Cheney for hiring him and letting him go out and tell his story. I will fight these guys tooth and nail when it comes to social policy or healthcare or climate-- but when the Republic is on the line I'm happy to take any allies I can get in the fight against fascism."

Ye, you're not the only one who realizes... these are extraordinary times. A couple of days ago Ruth Ben-Ghiat reminded her readers that "A century ago, Benito Mussolini called Fascism a 'revolution of reaction,' and strongman figures like Il Duce and Donald Trump hold appeal when nations undergo profound social progress that is experienced as a crisis of White Christian male authority. In the case of America, eight years of governance by the first African-American president, Barack Obama, who legalized same-sex marriage and pushed through gender equity in the military, readied the country for an anti-Obama: a White supremacist and misogynist brute who boasted about shooting someone in January 2016 and was rewarded for his lawlessness with the Republican presidential nomination... Whatever we call Jan. 6 --an insurrection, a coup attempt, or a riot-- it was a counterrevolutionary action. Its goal was not just to maintain Trump in office, but also to keep the forces of social and racial progress, like Vice President Kamala Harris, out of power. They didn’t succeed in Jan. 2021, and it is up to us in 2022 and beyond to show the reactionary forces now mobilized in our country that they cannot stop the movement of history toward freedom for all."

This morning, Juan Cole noted that even as odious a figure as Dick Cheney, recognizes that the Republican Party has metastasized into something extremely dangerous to our country. Cheney was quoted at the 1/6 commemoration ceremonies yesterday-- one of just 2 Republicans in attendance-- that "It’s not leadership that resembles any of the folks I knew when I was here for 10 years." He released a statement saying, "I am deeply disappointed at the failure of many members of my party to recognize the grave nature of the January 6 attacks and the ongoing threat to our nation."

Cole wrote that "Cheney, was there to give support to his daughter and to slap minority leader Kevin McCarthy around for his ass-kissing of Donald Trump. People keep saying McCarthy kissed the ring, but Trump is not the Pope and we know what McCarthy is really kissing. Dick Cheney was seen talking to Nancy Pelosi and other representatives. Except for Liz, all the others at the ceremony were Democrats. That’s how pusillanimous the Republicans are... [G]ood for him that he stood with his daughter and with Nancy Pelosi to condemn the Trump conspiracy against America. But he is part of a longer-running such conspiracy that he had never renounced or apologized for, which makes his stand on Thursday ring a little hollow."

Let's conclude by looking at Ilhan's 1/6 statement that her office released yesterday. She said that she'd "never forget the experience of fearing for my life, my fellow members, and staff on a day designed to show the strength of our democracy. I will never forget the call I made to the father of my children, asking him to tell my children I loved them if I couldn’t."

But the insurrection of January 6th was not solely significant for the havoc that it caused, the property destroyed, or the lives it cost. No, January 6th was significant because it was an attack on the seat of our democracy, specifically designed to undermine, interrupt and overturn the most fundamental of democratic processes-- an election-- on the day its results were to be certified. With each passing day, it becomes more and more clear that the outgoing President of the United States planned and executed the coup attempt, refusing a peaceful transition of power, pressuring election officials and his own administration to overturn results, and organizing a rally and march on the seat of government when his other efforts failed.
I know personally what happens when a government fails, civil strife takes hold, and people are displaced. And I know that coup attempts are rarely one-time affairs.
In fact, as we speak, Donald Trump’s allies in statehouses across the country are seeking to erect barriers to voting-- largely affecting low-income people, people of color, and seniors. If that’s not enough, they are stripping power from nonpartisan election officials and rewriting state laws to seize partisan control over election certification.
The next coup is not only possible; it has already begun.
But the causes of the attempts to overturn our democracy run much deeper than Donald Trump. For decades, our institutions have been failing to meet the needs of the people they are tasked to represent. Inequality has skyrocketed, as has the cost of basics like healthcare and education, while the average American’s wages have not kept pace. Self-interested elites have prioritized profit and greed over the common good. Trust in our government’s ability to tackle the biggest problems we face-- from healthcare to climate to food insecurity-- has cratered as a result. Borrowing from demagogues around the world, authoritarians like Donald Trump filled the void, offering false promises while scapegoating immigrants, and religious and racial minorities.
A democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience,’ John Dewey once said.
To stop the next coup, we must reinvigorate the democratic experience. That requires, at a minimum, passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and strengthening election laws around the country to prevent the next coup. But it also requires reforming our institutions so that they are once again responsive to the core demands of our constituents. That requires abolishing fundamentally antidemocratic elements of our system like the Senate filibuster and the electoral college, and it requires major investments in childcare, education, health and climate like the Build Back Better Act.
“The coup attempt on January 6th was a warning for what’s to come if we don’t act. The work to prevent the next coup begins now.