Devin Nunes wasn’t always this way. Eight years ago, amid a threat to shut down the federal government lest it give Americans health insurance, he derided the House’s Tea Party faction — the people who passed for extremists before Nunes helped spearhead a more extreme extremism — as “lemmings with suicide vests.”
Back then, however, he was working for John Boehner, the then-House speaker who did battle with the far right and employed the same sort of colorful epithets. Born into agribusiness and allied with other corporate-minded pols from the San Joaquin Valley and beyond, Nunes was suited to the role of conservative-but-not-crazy clubhouse Republican — the kind of lemming who prefers a fleece vest.
But Nunes has a new boss now. The veteran Tulare County representative and bovine scion announced his departure from Congress this week to effectively become Donald Trump’s full-time shadow minister of information, heading a nascent media firm for the former president that is already, fittingly, under federal investigation.
Nunes is the political embodiment of the Peter principle, the theory that organizations tend to promote people to their respective levels of incompetence. Following a long, steady rise from community college trustee up through the party’s ranks, Nunes’ own “Peter plateau” — the position that finally surpassed his level of competence — was the chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee.
The congressman had the misfortune to be occupying this post as the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russia came under multiple investigations. His slavish water-carrying for the president in that capacity single-handedly undid the panel’s relatively functional bipartisanship and embarrassed Nunes to the point of recusing himself from an investigation being carried out by his own powerful committee.
Nunes didn’t just willingly give himself over to Trump’s purposes. Like a faithful hound, he also came to bear an uncanny resemblance to his thin-skinned, perpetually aggrieved master. He sued, among others, McClatchy over a Fresno Bee story and Twitter over a parody account that ridiculed his dairy farmer bona fides in the character of a cow. The congressman thereby didn’t just file frivolous lawsuits but redefined the whole genre downward.
Nunes’ ignominious exit from public service also echoes Trump’s fear of democracy, preceding as it does a redistricting that could force him to actually win votes. Another reelection could have put him atop the House’s most powerful committee, Ways and Means, but Nunes seems to understand that he has already peaked.
Like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, his fellow San Joaquin Valley congressman, Nunes typifies a GOP that Trump overtook with relative ease and only token resistance. The ability to overwhelm institutional bulwarks — such as, say, a whole political party — is crucial to the success of Trump and other authoritarians who would undermine democracies from within. Nunes and his ilk are a testament to the danger of supposed leaders whose chief impulse is to follow.
After his Intelligence Committee face plant, it was difficult to conceive of a more thorough abasement of such a man. But Nunes has done it, surrendering his only independent claim to power without bothering to finish his elected term — all in the name of following his party and its leader off one more cliff.