Former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy speaks with reporters at the U.S. Capitol (OSV News photo/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters).

A few hours before the House of Representatives passed a short-term funding bill to avert a government shutdown, former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy reportedly elbowed Tim Burchett, one of the eight Republicans who voted to oust McCarthy from the speakership. It was “a clean shot to the kidneys,” Burchett claimed.

That same day, during a hearing on labor unions in the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Markwayne Mullin, a first-term senator and former mixed-martial-arts fighter, challenged Teamsters president Sean O’Brien to a fight. “Stand your butt up,” Mullin yelled, over objections from committee chairman Bernie Sanders. “You’re a United States senator,” Senator Sanders said, banging his gavel. “And God knows the American people have enough contempt for Congress.”

Sanders is right about the contempt. Nearly 85 percent of Americans disapprove of Congress, according to a Gallup poll, and more than half of the country has little or no confidence in the institution’s ability to execute its duties. Underneath this contempt, however, festers a darker desire for more, not less, of the kind of brutish behavior recently on display within the halls of Congress—particularly on the Right. An October Public Religion Research Institute survey asked participants if they believed that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” A third of Republicans agreed, compared to 22 percent of independents and 13 percent of Democrats. The survey arrives a year after a right-wing conspiracy theorist attacked the husband of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the couple’s San Francisco home and less than three years after insurrectionists stormed the Capitol to try to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

That all three candidates are currently polling ahead or within striking distance of President Biden a year before election day is more than concerning. It’s enraging.

If there were any doubt about whether Donald Trump still controls the Republican Party, the latest unruliness from Republican lawmakers, coupled with the rising anger of the party’s supporters, should finally put the issue to rest. Both are crude expressions of the same violent, rage-filled rhetoric Trump first employed during his 2016 presidential campaign and continues to use today, though at a much more troubling authoritarian pitch.

At a campaign event on Veterans Day, the former president—who previously called for shoplifters to be shot and insinuated that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff should be executed for treason—pledged to “root out the communists, Marxists, fascists, and radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country.” Trump’s speech coincided with a New York Times report outlining his draconian plans to detain undocumented people in camps and use the Justice Department to “take vengeance” on his political adversaries, if he wins the 2024 election.

Taking Trump seriously and literally, we can now say without reservation that the former president, who regularly celebrates authoritarian leaders like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Viktor Orbán, wants to return to the White House with the unchecked power of a strongman. Rather than alienating voters, his authoritarian rhetoric and anti-democratic policies are rallying a base increasingly eager for the kind of physical intimidation and political retribution Trump and his party promise. Gov. Ron DeSantis, Trump’s closest competitor in the 2024 Republican primary, has similarly vowed to “slit the throats” of federal bureaucrats on the first day of his administration and, more recently, to “use deadly force” against drug smugglers at the U.S-Mexico border, while Nikki Haley, the moderate alternative to Trump and DeSantis, has proposed sending U.S. special forces into Mexico to “eliminate” drug cartels.

That all three candidates are currently polling ahead or within striking distance of President Biden a year before election day is more than concerning. It’s enraging.

Published in the December 2023 issue: View Contents

Miles Doyle is Commonweal’s special projects editor.

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