The current notion of a “moderate Republican” is an oxymoron that helps to move the country rightward. Last week, every one of the GOP’s so-called “moderates” voted to install House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who won with the avid support of Donald Trump and got over the finish line by catering to such fascistic colleagues as Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert. Recent news reports by many outlets—including the Washington Post, USA Today, The Hill, Bloomberg, CNN, NBC, Reuters, HuffPost and countless others—have popularized the idea of “moderate Republicans” in the House. The New York Times reported on “centrist Republicans.” But those “moderates” and “centrists” are actively supporting neofascist leadership.
Notably, Joe Biden made this implausible claim while campaigning in May 2019: “The thing that will fundamentally change things is with Donald Trump out of the White House. Not a joke. You will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends.” During his celebratory victory speech in November 2020, Biden bemoaned “the refusal of Democrats and Republicans to cooperate with one another,” proclaimed that the American people “want us to cooperate” and pledged “that’s the choice I’ll make.”
Later, as president, Biden came to a point when—in a ballyhooed speech last September—he offered some acknowledgment of ongoing Republican extremism, saying: “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic. Now, I want to be very clear up front: Not every Republican, not even the majority of Republicans, are MAGA Republicans. Not every Republican embraces their extreme ideology. I know because I’ve been able to work with these mainstream Republicans. But there is no question that the Republican Party today is dominated, driven, and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans, and that is a threat to this country.”
But as with routine media coverage, Biden does not acknowledge that every Republican now in the House is functionally a “MAGA Republican.” Claiming otherwise—calling some of them “moderate Republicans”—is like saying that someone who drives a getaway car during an armed robbery isn’t a criminal. Those who aid and abet right-wing extremism are part of the march toward fascism.
If a handful of—by some accounts a half-dozen, by others as many as 20—House Republicans are “moderates,” then such media framing normalizes and legitimizes their tacit teamwork with the likes of Trump and ultra-right Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene that made McCarthy the speaker. In the process, the slickly evasive language makes possible the continual slippage of public reference points ever-further to the right.
So, during last week’s multiple ballots that concluded with McCarthy’s win, Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska was portrayed in the news as a “moderate Republican” who talked of seeking Democratic votes to help elect McCarthy and of possibly working with Democrats to find a “moderate” GOP speaker. Bacon labeled the anti-McCarthy holdouts “cowboys” and “the Taliban.”
But if Bacon is a “moderate Republican,” it’s odd that he would help lead a rally before the 2020 election with MAGA firebrand and Students for Trump leader Charlie Kirk, which ended with a yell from Bacon: “Making America great again!” Or that he voted both times against impeaching President Trump, including after the Jan. 6 Capitol assault. Or that he cosponsors the extreme Life at Conception Act. Or that he has questioned climate science: “I don’t think we know for certain how much of climate change is being caused by normal cyclical changes in weather versus human causes.”
Looking ahead, you can bet that after years of being touted as “Republican moderates” in Congress, a few will be trotted out in prime time at the 2024 Republican National Convention to assure the nation that the party’s nominee—whether Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis or some other extremist candidate—is a great fit for the presidency. The impacts of such deception will owe a lot to the frequent media coverage that distinguishes between the most dangerously unhinged Republican politicians who dominate the House and the “moderate” ones who make that domination possible.
Applying adjectives like “moderate” to congressional Republicans is much worse than merely bad word choices. Our language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish,” George Orwell wrote, “but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” And dangerous ones.