Heather Cox Richardson
Today is one of those days when the main story is not what’s on the pages, but what the stories say when they are themselves seen as a pattern.
This morning the Associated Press ran a story by national political reporter Brian Slodysko titled “The Republican leading the probe of Hunter Biden has his own shell company and complicated friends.” It told the story of how Representative James Comer (R-KY), the chair of the House Oversight Committee, has a financial history that looks a great deal like that of which he accuses the Bidens, including a shell company that appears to ethics experts to have problematic connections to a campaign donor.
Comer is leading the House impeachment effort against President Joe Biden, an effort that Philip Bump of the Washington Post eviscerated today when he took apart Republicans’ accusations point by point. The Associated Press story is interesting not because it tells us something we don’t know—the story of Comer’s shell company is what led him to attack Representative Jared Moskowitz (D-FL) as a “Smurf” last month—but because of how far and wide it spread.
By this evening, Slodysko’s story had been reprinted by ABC News, the Los Angeles Times, and a number of smaller outlets.
The strength of that story, after years in which the Republican narrative was largely unchallenged in popular political culture, reminds me of the rise of the so-called muckrakers of the Progressive Era. That is, journalists from the 1870s onward wrote a lot about the shift in power during the Gilded Age toward the very wealthy and the politicians they bought. But it was only in the 1890s that journalists, writing for magazines like the landmark publication McClure’s Magazine, began to gain traction as cultural leaders.
Key to that shift was the sense that those who had been directing the country for decades were vulnerable, that they might lose their perch on top of the political, social, and economic ladder.
The vulnerability of the dominance of today’s MAGA Republicans has been exposed in part by the fecklessness of House Republicans, whose lack of interest in governing is evident from their focus on passing bills loaded with extremist demands that signal to their base but are nonstarters for actually passing the Senate and getting the president’s signature. Yesterday those same House Republicans voted unanimously to launch an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden although they are unable to identify any reason for that inquiry.
The Larry, Moe, and Curly aspect of their leadership seems to have made them appear to be low-hanging fruit for investigative journalists. When Hunter Biden yesterday stood in front of the U.S. Capitol and called House Republicans out for not daring to let him testify in public while they were using their privileged positions to show naked pictures of him in a hearing, he did the same thing McClure’s writers did: he personalized politicians’ abuse of their power.
That, in turn, makes it easier for people who might not otherwise note the large swings of politics to understand exactly what the Republicans are doing.
The vulnerability of the MAGA Republicans showed up in another way, today, too. Today is the eleventh anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in which a 20-year-old murdered 20 children between the ages of six and seven years old, and six adult staff members. In that wake of that mass shooting, Americans demanded background checks for gun purchases, a policy supported by 90% of Americans. But the measure was killed in the Senate by lawmakers who represented just 38% of the American people.
Since then, Republicans have blocked legislation to regulate guns and have instead offered thoughts and prayers after each mass shooting.
That dominant narrative was turned on its head today when Mothers for Democracy/Mothers Against Greg Abbott released a devastating ad in which a young girl falls into a swimming pool and, rather than jumping in to save her, her mother prays for God to save her while observers—including a man who looks like Texas governor Greg Abbott—offer thoughts and prayers as the child drowns. “Thoughts and prayers are meaningless when you can act,” the ad says. “Act Now. Demand gun reform.”
The vulnerability of MAGA Republicans was also underscored today at the trial of former Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who has already been found liable for defaming Georgia election workers Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss, to determine what damages he owes them.
Giuliani told reporters on Wednesday that he would testify in his own defense, but his lawyer stopped that plan after Giuliani continued to attack the women this week. In his closing statement at the trial, Giuliani’s lawyer could suggest only that the former New York City mayor is “a good man.” “He hasn’t exactly helped himself with some of the things that have happened in the last few days,” the lawyer said, adding, “My client, he’s almost 80 years old.”
Trump’s insistence that he actually won the 2020 election is part of the MAGA Republicans’ need to portray themselves as invulnerable. They must never be seen to lose. Indeed, on Tuesday, Trump once again went on at great length, claiming he won the 2020 election. He also doubled down on the idea that he will become a dictator, feeding the idea that he is invulnerable. But those who participated in his scheme to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election are admitting that Biden won the election or are cooperating with prosecutors, and his own legal cases are speeding up.
Meanwhile, MAGA Republicans are holding up a crucial aid package for Ukraine, insisting that immigration reform is such a grave national security issue it must take precedence over Ukraine aid. In their focus on immigration, they are following Trump’s lead: he is telling crowds that countries are dumping people from their “insane asylums” in the U.S., explicitly referring to the serial killer portrayed in the film The Silence of the Lambs.
And yet, despite that alleged national crisis, the House recessed today for three weeks without addressing it. Several Republicans indicated to Politico’s Playbook that they are not actually interested in a deal, since “polling consistently shows that immigration is the most toxic issue on the campaign trail for Biden. Why take that off the table as an attack on him in 2024?”
Meanwhile, Ukraine is running out of ammunition.
The White House is urging Congress to stay in session to deal with the supplemental funding bill and immigration reform, saying Republicans are “actively undermining our national security interests” to “go on vacation.” Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has kept the Senate in session, saying it will stay and vote on a package next week. For his part, House speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) tweeted that “we must secure our own border before we secure another country’s,“ and that while work should continue on the package, “the House will not wait around to receive and debate a rushed product.”
The House’s holiday recess meant that former House speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) left Congress today, rather than waiting for the end of his term. MAGA Republicans led by Matt Gaetz (R-FL) made history in October by engineering his ouster from the speaker’s chair and grinding the work of the House to a halt. On his way out, McCarthy suggested that Gaetz has reason to be concerned about an investigation by the House Ethics Committee into his alleged sexual misconduct and misuse of funds.
In the 1890s, once the dominant narrative cracked, an entire industry rose as journalists investigated those whose access to power had for decades protected them from scrutiny.