Leonard Pitts: The Republican Party stands for the Republican Party

Madison Cawthorn went over the line when his antics embarrassed the party.

(Chris Seward | AP) U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., speaks to the crowd before former President Donald Trump takes the stage at a rally Saturday, April 9, 2022, in Selma, N.C.

So it looks like they finally found their red line.

Meaning the Republican Party. Tuesday, the GOP seems to have finally identified the barrier no Republican may be allowed to cross. Many of us had wondered where it was — or even if it was. We were genuinely, if morbidly, curious about what it would take to get the party to rebuke one of its own. Now, thanks to the election and, specifically, to the defeat of Madison Cawthorn, the soon-to-be former representative from North Carolina, we have our answer.

The red line is this: Don’t embarrass the GOP.

It’s OK if you embrace a white-supremacist theory like Rep. Elise Stefanik.

It’s no problem if you are an anti-Semite like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.

It’s fine if you support insurrection like Sen. Josh Hawley.

Just don’t embarrass the party.

One might argue that any or all of the above ought to embarrass the party plenty. But that argument misreads the Zeitgeist.

Consider Cawthorn’s catalog of impolitic behavior: He twice brought loaded guns to the airport; he was shown on one video thrusting his naked genitals in another man’s face and on another partying in lingerie; he was accused of sexual harassment; he issued an apparent call for the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. His controversies ranged from kink to outright sedition, touching several bases in between, yet none of it raised more than mild intraparty reproof. Not so a March podcast wherein he inexplicably claimed to have been invited to cocaine-fueled orgies by his colleagues.

That, said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, was when Cawthorn “lost my trust.” It was also when Thom Tillis, a senator from his state, endorsed his primary challenger. It was when one member of the House Freedom Caucus told Politico anonymously about reactions “across the political spectrum ... saying ‘What the hell ... ?”’ Even at that, Tuesday’s rejection by voters was narrow; he lost by just 1,300 votes out of 88,000 cast.

Not to minimize how stupid it was for Cawthorn to make such an incendiary claim with zero evidence to back it up, but it says something about GOP priorities that this is what it took to get them to make a stand, as opposed to, you know, issues with actual impact on people’s lives. After all, no one will die because of Cawthorn’s accusation. But apparently, it threatened the brand, so something had to be done.

That this turned out to be the red line tells us all we need to know about GOP values. The Republican Party stands for the Republican Party.

In ridding itself of Cawthorn, however, that party provides itself, at best, temporary relief. He is hardly the only loose cannon in their arsenal. To the contrary, the GOP has pioneered a dangerous conceit: that high office, once held to be the proper province of the serious, the learned and the prepared, has now been democratized till it can be fulfilled by any unremarkable twit with the gumption to seek it and the ability to convince the average Joe or Jane that ignorance, immaturity, hostility toward liberal values and lack of impulse control constitute authenticity. No experience required. Apply within.

Hence, Cawthorn. Hence, Boebert. Hence, Greene. Hence, Trump.

And hence, existential threat. How much of this can a democracy absorb and continue to function? We careen toward a moment of truth.

And America better have a red line of its own.

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. lpitts@miamiherald.com