WASHINGTON — When former president Donald Trump on Wednesday morning urged Republicans to save Representative Kevin McCarthy’s flailing bid for House speaker, Florida GOP Representative Matt Gaetz quickly defied him.
“Supporting McCarthy is the worst Human Resources decision President Trump has ever made,” Gaetz wrote on Twitter, adding a Trump-style coda for dramatic effect. “Sad!”
As the day wore on, Gaetz and 19 other rebels ignored Trump and handed McCarthy another series of humiliating defeats, depriving the top Republican in the House of the full complement of votes he needs to claim the speakership and fulfill the chamber’s basic functions.
The protracted fight lays bare both the power of the hard right and the depth of its disdain for the transactional political style of McCarthy, a California Republican. But the battle is also revealing the limitations of Trump’s ability to reel in his allies and the burn-it-all-down political style he nurtured as his party’s standard bearer. It’s an indication that, following his own defeat in 2020 and those of key candidates he endorsed in last year’s midterms, he has lost control of the forces he unleashed.
“Donald Trump was a model for never apologizing, never backing down, disrespecting institutions and traditions, the politics of contempt,” said former representative Carlos Curbelo, a Florida Republican. “Frankenstein created a bunch of mini-Frankensteins and they are all grown up and independent now.”
To be sure, the defiance on display from the House’s antiestablishment wing predates both Trump’s presidency and his entry into national politics as a candidate. It has roots in the Tea Party backlash to the Obama presidency and the GOP speakership of Ohio Representative John Boehner. McCarthy himself aborted his 2015 effort to become speaker when Boehner stepped down because of opposition from the conservative House Freedom Caucus. Most of today’s rebels are part of that same group.
“This has been a long time building and a long time coming, the tension on the far right with leadership,” said Brendan Buck, a Republican strategist who was an aide to Boehner and his successor, former House speaker Paul Ryan, who also struggled to keep the Freedom Caucus in line.
But Trump’s brand of bomb-throwing, grievance-fueled politics was an accelerant that rewarded the headline-grabbing defiance of members like Gaetz, Representative Lauren Boebert of Colorado, and Pennsylvania Representative Scott Perry.
“If Donald Trump taught these people anything, it’s that fighting is rewarded,” Buck said.
Trump himself endorsed and embraced many of the rebels, cheering on election deniers like Perry and standing by Gaetz even as he faced a federal investigation over sex trafficking (he has not been charged). Others come from a distinctly Trumpy ecosystem, including freshman Representative Anna Paulina Luna of Florida, who used to work for the Trump-aligned political group Turning Point USA.
And they have used Trump’s own language and tactics, railing about the “swamp” in Washington and all but openly celebrating the fact that they have managed to grind Congress to a halt.
That made the rebels’ brazen defiance of Trump’s McCarthy endorsement all the more remarkable, because it shows how the former president’s brand of politics — Trumpism — has transcended the man himself.
“You can be so Trumpy,” said Republican strategist Doug Heye, “that you don’t need Trump.”
In one particularly topsy-turvy moment on the House floor Wednesday afternoon, Boebert, an ultra-MAGA Republican whose profile page on Twitter shows a gun and a hat honoring Trump, took it upon herself to tell the former president what to do.
“With the campaign smears and tactics to get people to turn against us, even having my favorite president call us and tell us we need to knock this off, I think it actually needs to be reversed,” Boebert said, as she nominated Florida Republican Byron Donalds for speaker.
But she said, instead of telling her cohort to change course, she suggested a different course of action, “The president needs to tell Kevin McCarthy, ‘Sir you do not have the votes and it’s time to withdraw.’ ”
Boebert wasn’t alone in her public rejection of Trump’s entreaties.
“I appreciate what he did for the country, I just disagree with him,” said Representative Ralph Norman of South Carolina.
In his endorsement on social media Wednesday morning, Trump had urged Republicans to “vote for Kevin, close the deal” and said McCarthy would do a “good job and maybe even a great job.” A spokesman for Trump did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Even McCarthy’s supporters acknowledged that having the former president on their side was not helping.
“I think Kevin and the president cut a deal a long time ago, and it was done for a reason,” said Representative Pete Sessions of Texas. “And it didn’t quite work the way they thought it would work.”
McCarthy yoked his fortunes to Trump throughout his presidency, making himself so subservient that Trump sometimes called him “My Kevin.” When a Trump-supporting mob breached the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, McCarthy initially blamed the president in stark terms — only to backtrack once it became clear that much of his conference was sticking by the former president. Before the end of that month, he had flown to Mar-a-Lago, posed for a photo with him, and declared that Trump could help the GOP rebuild its congressional majorities.
But voters in November rejected a swath of MAGA candidates they deemed too extreme, which kept the Senate in Democratic hands and left McCarthy with only a four-seat majority — a turn of events McCarthy’s critics have been quick to link to his current predicament.
“By allowing Trump-ism to fester, McCarthy and GOP leaders blew another lay up and barely squeaked out a House majority,” said Geoff Duncan, a Republican and the outgoing lieutenant governor of Georgia, on Twitter. “By trying to have it both ways, McCarthy lost the trust of both the right and the middle. Now he’s a man (and a party) without a plan or a path forward.”
Or, as former Illinois representative Adam Kinzinger, a Republican, put it in his own Twitter post: “McCarthy’s failure is what happens when you compromise with legislative terrorists.”
The impasse in Congress has left both McCarthy and Trump looking diminished. It is clear that they both still believe they need each other — but not whether that will be enough.
“Trump is just not the 800-pound gorilla that he used to be — maybe he’s a 400-pound gorilla now,” Curbelo said. “He’s still an important figure but his support is no longer decisive and he can no longer command Republicans the way he used to.”
Jim Puzzanghera and Tal Kopan of the Globe staff contributed reporting.