When he was governor of California, Ronald Reagan popularized what became known as his 11th Commandment: Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican. In a party riven with factions, divided in the 1960s between liberals, moderates and conservatives, the 11th Commandment worked to limit the damage caused by internecine battles.
Watching Kevin McCarthy’s ouster as speaker of the House — a historic moment that came a mere nine months after he was chosen as speaker on the 15th ballot — makes Reagan’s commandment seem like a relic of a party that no longer exists. And it doesn’t exist. It hasn’t for a long time.
To understand what’s happening now, you first have to understand what happened to the party in the years after Reagan left office. The eat-your-own politics that has come to define the Republican Party began to form almost as soon as Newt Gingrich became speaker in 1995, the first Republican to hold that position in 40 years.
As speaker, he quickly ran into trouble with a faction of his party that would brook no compromise. The True Believers, as they were sometimes known, made it their mission to make Mr. Gingrich miserable. In the process, they helped transform the speakership, once a position of great influence, into a career-ender for Republicans. This is the atmosphere that the new speaker of the House, whether it is the current Republican nominee, Steve Scalise, or someone else, will enter.
This is hardly what Mr. Gingrich or his successors would have anticipated. The Republican wave of 1994 that brought Mr. Gingrich to power did more than flip control of the House: It signaled the end of the right’s war for control of the Republican Party. Though some moderates remained in the party, the right had won the ideological war that had raged for the previous 30 years. Republican liberals were a thing of the past; Republican moderates were a dying breed. It was time to reap the harvest.
Yet the right’s victory did not end the infighting; it accelerated it. As an ideological principle, the big-tent idea of embracing Reagan Democrats foundered. It wasn’t long before it devolved into a far more cramped vision: calling any relatively moderate party member a RINO, a Republican In Name Only. The term, which first appeared in print in 1992, ushered in a new age of purity politics. The RINO charge was particularly popular among the True Believers, a group made up of around 30 or 40 Republican representatives, including newly elected House freshmen like Joe Scarborough and Lindsey Graham.
While they had supported Mr. Gingrich for speaker in 1995, they harbored serious concerns about his conservative commitments. He had, after all, worked with Democrats behind the scenes as minority whip to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 and the crime bill in 1994, which included an assault weapons ban. He had also insisted that the Contract with America, the party’s signature platform for the midterms — an agenda meant to nationalize congressional elections and put a new generation of more conservative Republicans in power — exclude some of the True Believers’ top priorities, like abortion and school prayer.
So nearly as soon as Mr. Gingrich picked up the speaker’s gavel, the True Believers began to grumble: “They believe that he has sold them out time and time again,” a congressional aide told National Journal early in 1995. Mr. Gingrich learned the hard way that even radical tactics would not appease the Republicans to his right. After initiating a government shutdown that was, at the time, the longest in American history, he got stuck.
The shutdown was deeply unpopular, and the public (rightly) blamed Republicans for the impasse. The only way out was to strike a deal with the Democrats. But 15 of the True Believers said no. A nonfunctioning government suited them just fine; after all, wasn’t that the end goal of their antigovernment politics?
A furious Mr. Gingrich struck a deal without them, but his capacity for retribution was limited. He snubbed Helen Chenoweth, a holdout running for re-election in Idaho, by canceling a planned appearance at the last minute (admittedly weak tea, though he was a strong fund-raiser and she was in a tight race). That did little to stop Ms. Chenoweth and others from pushing forward with other schemes, including efforts to orchestrate the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1996 and 1997, long before news broke that he had lied about his sexual relationship with a White House intern. Mr. Gingrich begged the True Believers to stop talking about impeachment in the lead-up to the 1996 election, worried that it would only solidify the party’s obstructionist reputation. But in early 1997, they were back at it, eventually dragging Mr. Gingrich and the rest of the conference to their position.
In the midst of all this, the True Believers sought to oust Mr. Gingrich from his speakership, convening back-room meetings and brokering covert deals that eventually failed. But a few years later, after voters handed Republicans the biggest midterm defeat for an opposition party since 1934, Mr. Gingrich was out. Not just out of the speaker’s office — out of the House altogether. Discussing his resignation with other Republican leaders, Mr. Gingrich put his finger on the problem: “I’m willing to lead but I’m not willing to preside over people who are cannibals.”
For the next several years, the “cannibals” were largely quiet, having sated themselves with Mr. Gingrich’s ouster. Dennis Hastert, the next Republican speaker, would set a record, serving the longest term of any Republican speaker (and then becoming the first former speaker to be convicted, sentenced and serve a term in prison for a criminal case). But as the party continued to radicalize in the Obama era — as the right-wing Republican Study Committee gained further-right-wing competitors in the Tea Party and the House Freedom caucuses — the speakership became a dicier proposition. John Boehner faced repeated coup attempts, and he resigned in disgust in 2015. Paul Ryan, who reluctantly took his place, lasted just over three years before leaving office at 48, an age when most members are just getting started.
Despite the sudden departures of Mr. Boehner and Mr. Ryan, the speakership still held appeal in 2023. Mr. McCarthy had been jockeying for the gavel for years, hungry for the power and prestige he could wield. The caucus he sought to lead, however, had changed. Where Mr. Boehner and Mr. Ryan had commanded significant majorities that allowed rebellions to brew without boiling over, Mr. McCarthy came into office with a whisper-thin majority that empowered a small bloc of Republicans to lord their power over him.
The holdouts who denied Mr. McCarthy the speakership for days and days (a brutal battle that played out in embarrassing fashion in front of the C-SPAN cameras), as well as those who stripped him of the speakership, also had more diverse sources of power than previous House members. Though Mr. McCarthy had a reputation as a prodigious fund-raiser, the holdouts could leverage their social media and online fund-raising to bypass traditional sources of money and messaging.
In an era of weak parties, when both Democratic and Republican politicians can outsource the work parties once did to other institutions, party leaders have fewer tools for disciplining their members. But it is Republican members who have decided that, as they need their party’s infrastructure less and less, they can exert more and more power over its leaders.
Mr. McCarthy’s removal from office makes clear why that is. His nine-month tenure as speaker was a period of never-ending humiliation, his weakness constantly on display. His ouster turned out to be both unprecedented and unsurprising — unsurprising precisely because House Republicans have been in a state of endless internal revolution for the past 30 years. That revolution has radicalized the Republican Party, pulling it further and further to the right, while producing novel instruments of destruction. In other words, the eight Republicans who ousted Mr. McCarthy transformed the speakership even further: from a powerful position that Republican leaders willingly walked away from when it became too much of a headache, to a weak, even ignominious role that could be yanked away at any moment.
Though only a few Republicans were responsible for toppling Mr. McCarthy, this spirit of rebellion now defines the party. The 11th Commandment is a distant memory. Which means that if Steve Scalise does pick up the gavel as speaker, he will not be ascending to the heights of power; he will be submitting, instead, to an unpredictable, uncontrollable group of rebels that holds his fate in its hands.
Dr. Hemmer, the author of “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s,” is an associate professor of history and the director of the Carolyn T. and Robert M. Rogers Center for the American Presidency at Vanderbilt University.