On July 14, a conservative group began releasing a series of undercover videos showing officials from Planned Parenthood negotiating, in blunt and sometimes callous terms, the sale of fetal tissue for medical research. The videos set off a chain of events that culminated, strangely enough, in John Boehner’s resignation as Speaker of the House of Representatives. And so a journalistic sting operation intended to expose the alleged depravity of social liberalism instead wound up exposing the fragile psyche of the American right, which remains unable to handle the realities of holding partial power in a divided government without regularly freaking out.
The intermediary steps in that bizarre sequence involved a now-familiar procession of political rituals. The videos instantly catapulted Planned Parenthood to the top of conservative activists’ hierarchy of intolerable evil, thus triggering an ingrained response to shut down the federal government, as had been threatened over Obama’s immigration policies and carried out over Obamacare. Most Republicans, including Boehner, regarded this plan as horrendously misguided. Some recent NBC–Wall Street Journal poll numbers help explain their reluctance. Americans dislike the Republican Party quite a lot: Only 29 percent view it favorably, 45 percent unfavorably. They regard President Obama more favorably (46-40) and Planned Parenthood more favorably still (47-31). Another poll found that only a fifth of the public would rather shut down Washington than maintain funding for Planned Parenthood. The proposed strategy — an unpopular party using an unpopular tactic against a popular president in order to defund a popular organization — understandably struck Boehner as ill-advised.
Faced with the Speaker’s reluctance to join in their suicidal gesture du jour, his tormentors resorted to the only leverage at their disposal: threatening to depose him. (Boehner’s party controls 247 of 435 seats, meaning a defection of just 29 agitated Republicans could, in theory, take the gavel out of his hand.) The ritual of demands, threats, and nervous pacification proceeded much as it has many times before, until it climaxed with Boehner’s unexpected announcement that they could take this job and shove it.
This was something new. The activists in the House had not just flexed their muscles but achieved a win. Far from delivering them a cherished victory, however, Boehner’s announced resignation threw the rebels into disarray. This became clear in the ensuing days, during the succession struggle over the party leadership. The activists briefly rallied around Daniel Webster, a Floridian, as a potential Speaker, an effort that quickly collapsed. When Kevin McCarthy, the incumbent majority leader, solidified his position to succeed Boehner, some insurgents mustered a brief flurry of enthusiasm for Trey Gowdy of South Carolina to fill McCarthy’s job. Gowdy decided instead to stay in the comfort of his chairmanship of the Benghazi Committee. Tellingly, neither Webster’s or Gowdy’s supporters expressed any belief their leadership would fulfill the demand that precipitated Boehner’s resignation. (For those who have already lost the thread, that would be shutting down the government over Planned Parenthood.)
The disappearance of the issue that had triggered the entire meltdown provided an important clue to the unusual nature of the confrontation. The rift dividing Boehner and his antagonists was not ideological or even necessarily substantive, and the rebel demands were not merely extreme — they were implacable.
Anti-Boehner Republicans described themselves as “conservatives.” (Representative Walter Jones: “I don’t really know Kevin [McCarthy] that well, but I know that conservatives are not ready to have him.”) But Boehner is also a conservative — barely less so, if at all, than his opponents. He came to power in the House as an original lieutenant of Newt Gingrich, who helped Republicans discover that their party’s only chance of power lay in withholding cooperation and instead attacking the Democratic majority. Boehner vociferously opposed all of Obama’s major undertakings during the president’s first two years in office, and when he became Speaker, he advocated for their repeal and advanced proposals that would roll policy dramatically in the opposite direction. Major legislation ground to a halt, with the two parties at odds on health care, taxes, regulation, and the general role of government.
That is to say that, contrary to the recriminations of Boehner’s Republican critics and the nostalgia-tinged accolades heaped on him by moderates, Boehner did not preside over an era of compromise or bipartisanship. The overwhelming thrust of his tenure was one of obstruction. But obstructionism meant stalemate, and stalemate meant maintaining the status quo. Having deemed the status quo after two years of Obamaism a socialist monstrosity, the rebels demanded that the GOP bend the president to its will. Lacking the two-thirds majority required in both chambers to override a veto, however, it never had a chance to do this. None of which prevented bitter recriminations. The ultimate source of right-wing anger at Boehner was the Obama administration’s continued existence.
Fury over not having enough power to force your leader to wield more power than is constitutionally possible is not an emotional state conducive to stable coalition-building. Over the years, right-wing discontent has sundered the party into a number of ever-shifting sub-factions. The “Republican Study Committee” used to serve as headquarters for those most dedicated to annoying their party’s leaders. In 2010, the “Tea Party Caucus” formed, overshadowing the RSC before fading away. This past January, believing the ranks of the RSC had swollen with too many halfhearted members, a core of true believers split off to form the “Freedom Caucus.” Perhaps eventually the Freedom Caucus will give way to a Blood-Dimmed Tide Is Loosed Coalition.
Like the Weather Underground of the ’70s, the Freedom Caucus keeps the identity of most of its members secret. Around 40 Representatives are believed to belong, though only nine publicly disclose their membership. “It’s like Fight Club,” said Jim Bridenstine, one of the nine. David Frum, a moderate-conservative commentator, has mockingly summed up the beliefs of these fundamentalists as “If people don’t appreciate what we are saying, then say it louder,” but the Freedom Caucus’s most specific strategic contribution is literally that. “Many members want the leadership to be more vocal across the board,” Ted Poe of Texas explained to the Washington Post. “Things we bring up need to have more enthusiasm. Back home, they wouldn’t mind a little more fire and brimstone.”
In 2011, during a strangely pervasive swell of dissatisfaction among Barack Obama’s erstwhile supporters, I wrote that liberals have trouble handling authority. In general, we are much more comfortable fantasizing about power; the sensation of holding and using it seems to unsettle us, and we curl into ourselves with disappointment. Conservatives displayed far less grumpiness toward George W. Bush than liberals have toward Obama until the very end, when Bush’s presidency collapsed so irretrievably the right had to hastily abandon its largely worshipful pose and write him out of the conservative tradition in order to contain the fallout.
Conservatives in the Freedom Caucus suffer from a similar but different problem: They do not seem capable of comprehending a world in which they exert less than total power. This failure to compute leads to bursts of angry behavior that is ineffectual by design. No scalp will satisfy, not when any new head starts to look like another scalp. No Freedom Caucus member who finds himself in the party leadership can be anything but a sellout, since betrayal is the only explanation for the failure of the right-wing agenda.
Earlier this week, House Republicans met to plan their post-Boehner future and came away with nothing more than a generalized agreement as to the need to be “more aggressive” and “play offense.” Representative Carlos Curbelo told the Washington Post, “It was a therapy session.” Therapy, not a new Speaker, may be exactly what Republicans need.
*This article appears in the October 5, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.