The Rise of Republican Nihilism

The Big Lebowski is not my favorite Coen Brothers film. (That would be Raising Arizona. Second place: three-way tie between Miller’s CrossingFargo, and A Serious Man.) I know why people love it, it’s just not top of my list, although John Turturro’s turn as ace bowler Jesus Quintana is worth the price of admission all by itself.

Nor, contrary to popular opinion, is The Big Lebowski the greatest bowling movie of all time. I put it second to Kingpin (featuring Randy Quaid, prior to his sad, batshit turn to Trumpism) and just slightly ahead of Buffalo 66. (Who knew Vincent Gallo could roll like that?) The less said about 1979’s Dreamer, starring Tim Matheson, the better.

Maybe we count the ending of There Will Be Blood, too, even though it’s not particularly funny.

But there is one moment in The Big Lebowski that has been particularly on my mind lately. It’s when Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) is informed by the Dude (Jeff Bridges) of the political ideology of the kidnappers with whom—they think—they are dealing:

THE DUDE: They were nihilists, man.


THE DUDE: They kept saying they believe in nothing.

WALTER: (chilled) Nihilists! Fuck me!

The scene has been on my mind because there’s another group of nihilists on center stage in the US right now.


You won’t be shocked, dear reader, to learn that I have been among those reveling in schadenfreude at the GOP shit show of last week… know, the one with the jaw-droppingly self-destructive refusal to get its own act together sufficiently even to elect a Speaker of the House? It took fifteen ballots over five days, an imbroglio not seen in the US Congress for literally a hundred years, and even then saw a near-fistfight within the Republican caucus erupt on national television. (“What’s next?” MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle quipped. “Are we gonna streak across the quad?”)

Gee, I’m shocked that a party that not two years ago tried to overthrow the government is unable even to carry out the most basic act of governance—like agree on its own leader—after the American voters inexplicably gave them the chance to do so. It’s almost as if the GOP isn’t fit to govern. Cough, cough.

So why the intraparty chaos? Was it as simple as Gaetz, Gosar, Boebert, Biggs & Co. wanting to torment Kevin McCarthy? Maybe. Other observers, such as former Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.) have suggested that there was in fact a practical motive behind the actions of the Sedition Caucus in terms of leveraging as much power as possible, the way any political faction might, albeit in more extreme fashion. Even so, and whatever the rebels’ broader goals, they very much appeared to be engaging in sheer, performative assholiness for its own sake.  

Any way you slice it, it wasn’t pretty, nor good for the Grand Old Party. 

At one point last week, The Atlantic was running an article called “The Humiliation of Kevin McCarthy” while The New Yorker was simultaneously running one called “Behind the Humiliation of Kevin McCarthy,” even using the same photo of the forlorn-looking would-be Speaker. Meanwhile, over on TBS, they were showing “Battle for the Conquest of Planet of the Humiliation of Kevin McCarthy,” without commercial interruption.

If Kevin is into BDSM, he must have been in heaven. Short of that, I don’t think it’s ever good when your name and “humiliation” are twinned in the Google algorithm.

And all this after McCarthy—who, for a millisecond in the wake of January 6, 2021, appeared to turn on Trump—had quickly reverted to form and groveled before the disgraced god-emperor and his most hardcore, red-hatted, mouthbreathing followers. But as David Graham wrote in The Atlantic, “Kevin McCarthy’s Loyalty to Trump Got Him Nothing.” That was fitting for a spineless bootlicker who would do anything to gain that job—and has—only to find himself rightly loathed by everyone on all points of the political spectrum. Aeschylus, O. Henry, Roald Dahl, and Alfred Hitchcock working together could not have come up with a more delicious fate for the man.

Incredibly, on MSNBC’s website, Commentary’s Noah Rothman came out in praise of Team Gaetz, arguing that this auto-da-fé is actually a sign of the health of the GOP and its robust commitment to democracy. (I’m not kidding, though I’d like to believe Noah is.) It hardly bears pointing out that using parliamentary mechanisms to torture McCarthy isn’t remotely proof that these cretins love democracy, when their whole goal is to gain enough power to destroy it from within.

Of course, even many Republicans were deeply unhappy with this circus—Mike Rogers of Alabama sure was—though I have limited sympathy for them. Very limited. The schism was evident in a cover story last week in the Murdoch-owned New York Post, picturing Gaetz, Boebert, et al under the headline, “Grow Up—Small Group of Republican Saboteurs Blocks McCarthy From Taking Power.” Gee, Rupert was fine with these troglodytes when he perceived them to be helpful to his plutocratic cause. Now suddenly he has a problem with them? The same goes for the rest of the so-called mainstream GOP and their whinging over this self-inflicted crisis.

Because in the end, as we all know, the battle over the Speakership was bad for everyone. Yes, this display of Republican dysfunction calls into question what the hell the American people were thinking in giving the GOP a majority in that House in the first place, razor thin though it is, and yes, it will likely hurt that party going forward. (Or not.) But it also demonstrates, chillingly, that the Big Lie faction of the GOP still retains formidable power in Washington, and what it intends to do with that power over the next two years. 

In that New Yorker piece, John Cassidy wrote:

Over the past few decades, the GOP has gone from being a ruthless and disciplined party of limited government and trickle-down economics to a party of anti-government protest to, now, a party of performative verbiage—in which the likes of Gaetz and Boebert (and, of course, Trump) are far more interested in boosting their follower count, raising money, and appearing on “The Sean Hannity Show” or Newsmax than they are in governance.

So even as we relish McCarthy’s suffering, let’s remember that the people torturing him are even more loathsome and dangerous. As the Washington Post reports, all but two of the 20 House Republicans who voted against McCarthy on Tuesday’s third ballot round are election deniers, and “(o)f the 18 deniers, 14 are returning members who voted against certification of the electoral college count on Jan. 6, 2021.” Indeed, election deniers make up more than three-quarters of the new 222-member House Republican membership. 

In other words, last week’s debacle in the House is only a preview of the dysfunction, grandstanding, and blackmail to come. 


So Kevin McCarthy has at long last reached his lifelong goal of being Speaker of the House at the head of the Leopards Eating People’s Faces Party. I wish him luck—he’ll need it. As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent wrote, “(W)hatever happens to the California Republican, we already know this: The extreme MAGA caucus will essentially be pointing a gun at the head of the House GOP leadership for the next two years.”

And Kevin has enabled it. Clearly he never learned that you shouldn’t negotiate with terrorists, nor the simpler schoolyard lesson of how to deal with a bully….maybe because he’s a bully (and a coward, and a shameless toady) himself.

What is the point of being power-hungry when you have to give up virtually all your power to get that putative position? (“Self-geld” was the memorable term Charlie Sykes used.) Of course, one might just as well ask why any decent person would want to be associated with the Republican Party, let alone be its Congressional leader, in the first place.

McCarthy now faces a Liz Truss-versus-the head-of-lettuce situation, with the smart money suggesting that his days in office are already numbered.  Heather Cox Richardson writes:

McCarthy has allegedly agreed to (the hard-right Freedom Caucus’s) demand that a single person can force a vote to get rid of the speaker, a demand that puts him at their mercy and that he had previously insisted he would never accept. He has also apparently offered members of (the Caucus) two spots on the House Rules Committee, which decides how measures will be presented to the House, and given them control over appropriations bills. He is also said to be considering letting them choose committee chairs, jumping over those with seniority. 

Lawyer and Washington Post columnist George Conway wrote, “I’m no political scientist, but it does strike me that a guy who negotiates by giving stuff up and getting nothing in return probably wouldn’t make a good leader of a legislative body.”

At one point during the voting Gaetz bragged that he’d run out of things to ask McCarthy for. He also claimed that if House Democrats stepped in and tried to elect a moderate Republican as speaker, he would resign. (Can we get that in writing, Matty?) 

Needless to say, this House will now be ungovernable. The Sedition Caucus is emboldened—giddy in fact—and is going to make McCarthy’s life a living hell, and in the process screw the American people as much as possible. 

But as we all know, the Republicans are not really interested in governing, and I don’t mean in the old-fashioned, Norquistian way, where the goal was to convince the public that “government is bad,” such that voters would allow the installation of an unregulated Darwinian state where the plutocrats ran amok. No. The Sedition Caucus has taken that ethos to a new extreme, to a Bannonist destruction of the administrative state full stop, with no cogent plan for what would replace it once the existing structure has been burned to the ground. 

Trump was elected largely because, to a significant chunk of the American electorate, he represented a giant, juvenile middle finger to civility, maturity, and common decency. He said out loud all the racist, sexist, offensive things they wanted to say, hated all the same people they hated, gave voice to all their frustration and alienation and free-floating anger, justified and unjustified alike. 

Since then, that sort of generalized, indiscriminate grievance has become the guiding principle of the entire Grand Old Party. They simply want to oppose, reject, and destroy anything that the consensus of common sense supports. 

Why does the contemporary GOP loathe Volodymyr Zelenskyy with an irrational hatred usually reserved for people who kick puppies or steal money from children’s cancer charities? (You know—like the Trump family.) Why does it self-destructively reject the life-saving COVID vaccine, even as the virus is taking the lives of red state-dwelling Americans faster than anyone else? Why does it mulishly insist that climate change is a hoax? (In that case, I understand that there is a mercenary, mercantile motive in play, but still.) Why is it apoplectic at the notion of people who state their preferred pronouns, as if that will harelip the nation? 

Why? Just because they are contrarians.

Nihilists, some might say.

Therefore, I submit that midterm-era reports of the salvation of democracy are premature. The Know-Nothing, grievance-animated, mob rule movement that we call Trumpism is alive and well and in control of the US House of Representatives, with or without Trump. Ironically, the agonizingly drawn-out vote confirming McCarthy took place just after midnight on the second anniversary of the Insurrection of January 6, one of the darkest days in all of American history.  In other words, the same people who were unable to take control of the Capitol by bear spray, ziptie, and weaponized flagpole two years before, finally succeeded in doing so by different means this past Friday. 


“Show me what you got, nihilists!” 

That’s what the fictional Walter Sobchak yells at the three kidnappers who claim to be holding Bunny Lebowski when he, the Dude, and Donny (an incredibly youthful Steve Buscemi) face off with them in a bowling alley parking lot. 

Donny, pondering whether their foes are Nazis, asks, “Are these guys gonna hurt us, Walter?”

“No, Donny, these men are cowards,” Walter replies.  

When Uli, the lead nihilist, played to deadpan perfection by Peter Stormare, complains that it isn’t fair that they not get the ransom, Walter howls: “Fair? Who’s the fucking nihilist around here, you bunch of fucking crybabies?” 

In the ensuing slapstick fight worthy of a Looney Tunes cartoon, Walter bites off Uli’s ear, spitting it high into the LA night sky, in slow motion. It’s a textbook Coenian moment, nodding blackly to the 1973 kidnapping—and ear-severing—of John Paul Getty III, and maybe to Van Gogh too. Walter then punctuates the ass-kicking by punching Uli in the nose, shouting: “Anti-Semite!”

The Big Lie Republicans who have taken the House of Representatives hostage—and likely any hope of civilized governance for the next two years—deserve a similar fate. 


Photo: Steve Buscemi, John Goodman, and Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski (1998), by Joel and Ethan Coen.

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