McCarthy’s Rebellion & The Greene-Gaetz Civil War

mtg, boebert, gaetz
Republican Reps. Lauren Boebert, Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor-Greene. Photo: Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images
Tina Nguyen
December 21, 2022

It appears there will be no holiday reprieve for Kevin McCarthy in his increasingly frustrated endeavor to get himself elected Speaker of the House, raising the odds for a chaotic floor battle when a new Congress convenes on January 3. Earlier this week, an aggrieved McCarthy went on the offensive by compiling a list of 54 supporters who have declared themselves “Kevin Only,” including Marjorie Taylor Greene, in an attempt to break the resistance of the five or so #NeverKevin holdouts that are effectively blocking his bid. Instead, it appears to have had the opposite of the intended effect. 

Hours after providing the list to Axios, Rep. Matt Gaetz, the loudest of the McCarthy holdouts, took the stage at Turning Point USA’s AmericaFest to fully double down. “I take no joy in sharing this with you but I’m going to tell you now what every single Republican member of Congress knows in their heart, whether they’ll admit it or not,” he thundered in front of a crowd of 11,000 screaming youth activists on Monday. “Kevin McCarthy believes in nothing. I’m serious about that.” 

Gaetz, in fact, had just recruited a new ally to dial up the pressure: Rep. Lauren Boebert. Boebert, the freshman from Colorado with her own diehard MAGA following, is technically on Team Motion To Vacate—a separate but allied bloc of seven far-right Republicans who say they’ll only support McCarthy if he agrees to restore a parliamentary rule (“motion to vacate the chair”) that empowers members to force a vote to remove a Speaker. 

In practice, of course, this is the equivalent of asking McCarthy to strap on a suicide vest and give Boebert the detonator—not exactly the best concession to make, considering a “motion to vacate” vote led to the downfall of John Boehner in 2015. (Nancy Pelosi altered the rule in 2018.) “This is third in command for the presidency of the United States of America,” Boebert declared in an interview with the conservative channel Real America’s Voice, joining Gaetz in the same interview. “And we are going to strip away the one check-and-balance that members of Congress have?”

In conversations I’ve had with Freedom Caucus allies and insiders, Boebert is hardly an outlier. “My understanding is that there are 10 to 15 almost-close-to-hard-‘nos,’ probably around the same level as Lauren, who have strategically decided to to be quiet right now, but they’re coordinating behind the scenes and trying to find a challenger” to McCarthy, an activist with ties to the Freedom Caucus told me. “The point of the five [Never-Kevins] is to draw the fire while they find someone who can actually do it.” Indeed, right after we spoke, Rep. Scott Perry published an op-ed also declaring himself on Team Motion to Vacate—another sign, perhaps, that McCarthy’s offensive maneuver had only provoked a worse reaction, and that his antagonists are closer to finding an alternative.

The potential expansion of the #NeverKevin alliance, especially as a reaction to McCarthy flexing his endorsements, is illustrative of McCarthy’s current dilemma as he tries to scrape together enough votes to secure the speakership. While he’s offered up dozens of initiatives that could comfortably fit in the America First agenda—ramping up border security, scaling back Ukraine aid, stripping loathed Democrats of their committee assignments, launching investigations into the C.I.A. and F.B.I., etcetera—McCarthy is still viewed with deep suspicion by diehard elements of the MAGA base. “I mean, he just doesn’t have the votes,” a second longtime conservative activist told me. “So he’s fighting to get them, and that makes sense, but I don’t see the path forward.”

In my conversations, there are two opposing views within the MAGAsphere over the McCarthy issue. To wit, the McCarthy alliance—which includes Greene, Jim Jordan, and a growing number of conservative media influencers and commentators—believes that as much as they dislike McCarthy, he is undeniably good at fundraising, willing to entertain their demands (or, at the very least, can be arm-twisted into listening), and would be a more reliable ally than, say, Mitch McConnell in the Senate. The Never Kevins, on the other hand, argue that there is no way that McCarthy can be trusted to be a true populist, given his background as a Republican leader, his previous attacks on Donald Trump after Jan. 6, and his onetime support of Liz Cheney against attacks from Gaetz. Perhaps most notably, the five Never Kevins—Gaetz, Andy Biggs, Ralph Norman, Matt Rosendale, and Bob Good—come from the type of America First districts where they’re unlikely to face any serious, McCarthy-backed challengers. 

The Greene-Gaetz civil war also illustrates the two divergent paths to power for up-and-coming MAGA politicians these days. “Marjorie is fighting for the MAGA agenda, and she feels like the best way to do it is by having a relationship with leadership,” remarked one G.O.P. consultant not involved in speakership races. “Whereas Matt believes that fighting for the MAGA agenda means that you just need to completely destroy leadership.” 

Enter the Bari-verse

It’s been a banner few days for Bari Weiss as her new digital media company, the Free Press, went live and immediately started pissing people off, as is consistent with Weiss’s anti-Trump, anti-woke, self-consciously provocative personal brand. First, there was her reporting on the “Twitter Files”—internal documents casting light on the decisions by Twitter staff to down-rank or censor certain conservative views—which had been made available to media personalities handpicked by Musk for their heterodox, anti-mainstream media reputations. That episode was almost immediately followed by Weiss criticizing Musk for arbitrarily suspending the Twitter accounts of her fellow journalists. Musk, in typical wounded fashion, accused Weiss of “virtue signaling to show that you are ‘good’ in the eyes of the media elite to keep one foot in both worlds.” Weiss, who was previously a star columnist at The New York Times before alienating and aggravating the paper’s more left-wing staff, told Semafor’s Ben Smith that she isn’t afraid to “bite the hand that feeds me.” 

The Free Press’s unique positioning in the alternative media internet space can be traced back to Weiss’s own origin story. Unlike two other “Twitter Files” recruits, Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi, both former left-leaning journalists during the Bush era who pivoted into MAGA-friendly contrarianism and opposition to “wokeism,” Weiss’s ascendance as an alt-media figure dates back to the Intellectual Dark Web circa 2018, a group of public iconoclasts who had come to prominence via academia, podcasts and blogs. Weiss documented the group—which at one point included Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro, Joe Rogan, and Peter Thiel ally Eric Weinstein—for a mostly flattering portrait in the Times.

Though she declined to join the club herself, it was undeniable that this zeitgeist had influenced her work. In 2020, Weiss left the Times to launch a Substack newsletter, Common Sense, which built an audience of more than 200,000 subscribers (about 28,000 of whom are paying) before relaunching as The Free Press. “The initial stirrings around the IDW of 2017 and 2018 was part of, I think, the same feeling or conversation that eventually gave rise to Common Sense and then the Free Press,” contributor Peter Savodnik, now a staff editor for the Free Press, told me. “And that is, I think, a feeling of the parameters of acceptable discourse narrowing, and the things that people were allowed to say and talk about and report on narrowing.”

Since then, of course, Weiss has continued to carve out a “classical liberal” niche that provides a popular—and increasingly profitable—foil to legacy media, attracting alienated liberal centrists and alienated centrist conservatives, alike. In her interview with Smith, Weiss revealed that she’s raised somewhere in the ballpark of $1-5 million, and made, as of last year, over $800,000 in subscription revenue. Indeed, there is an actual business behind The Free Press, with actual full-time staffers and a growing masthead of contributors whose editorial remit has expanded beyond the usual anti-woke “free speech” fixations to include everything from interviews with public figures (like Rep. Ro Khanna) to reportage on the rise of pro-Ron DeSantis Democrats, to essays deriding the declining quality of modern consumer goods (including a long discussion of Target-brand vegetable peelers). 

Indeed, the latest, rebranded iteration of Weiss’s mini-media empire bears more resemblance to conservative media startups like The Bulwark (or even some corners of The Atlantic) than it does to solo-author Substackers like Greenwald or Taibbi. After all, if the company’s premise is to challenge the way mainstream media reports, the focus should be on actual reporting, too. “I know very well what makes us work really, really hard, which is this feeling that there are some really, really important things going on,” Savodnik said. “[There are] people who have different ideas of the realignment of political camps, and so much of the media seems incapable of making room for that or making sense of it.”