Last week, on the eve of his first attempt to become speaker of the House, allies of Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio confidently predicted that his more mainstream and institutionalist opponents would cave rather than resist his ascent.
Jordan’s allies were wrong about that particular caving. But they were right that those same moderates and institutionalists would eventually fall in line with the far-right of the House Republican conference because, on Wednesday, they did just that.
After three weeks of chaos, the House Republican majority finally chose a speaker. The lucky legislator? Representative Mike Johnson from Louisiana’s Fourth Congressional District. A four-term backbencher with little leadership experience, Johnson was too obscure to have enemies, giving him an easy ride to the top after three previous nominees — Steve Scalise, the House majority leader, Jordan, the first chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, and Tom Emmer, the House majority whip — faltered in the face of opposition. After winning a nearly unanimous vote of the House Republican majority (one member was absent), Johnson became the 56th speaker of the House of Representatives.
Mike Johnson is neither a moderate nor an institutionalist. Just the opposite. A protégé of Jordan’s, he comes, as you have doubtless heard, from the far-right, anti-institutionalist wing of the congressional Republican Party. And while he was not a member of the Freedom Caucus, he did lead the Republican Study Committee, a group devoted to the proposition that any dollar spent on social insurance is a dollar too much.
When push came to shove, in other words, the supposedly moderate members of the House Republican conference were happy to defer to their most extreme colleagues on substance, if not on style.
And what does Johnson believe? He is staunchly against the bodily autonomy of women and transgender people and supports a nationwide ban on abortion and gender-affirming care for trans youth. He is also virulently anti-gay. In a 2003 essay, Johnson defended laws that criminalized homosexual activity between consenting adults. In 2004, he warned that same-sex marriage was a “dark harbinger of chaos and sexual anarchy that could doom even the strongest republic.” Last year, Johnson introduced legislation that has been compared to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law and he continues to push to overturn Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015.
If Johnson is known for anything, however, it is for his tireless advocacy on behalf of Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
Johnson wrote one of the briefs purporting to give a legal justification for throwing out the voting results in several swing states. He advanced the conspiracy theory that Venezuela was somehow involved with the nation’s voting machines. On Jan. 6, 2021, he urged his Republican colleagues to block certification of the election on the grounds that state changes to voting in the face of the pandemic were illegitimate and unconstitutional. When questioned, during his first news conference as speaker, whether he stood by his effort to overturn the 2020 election, he ignored the question, and his fellow Republicans shouted down the reporter who asked it.
The new speaker is, in short, an election-denying extremist who believes that his allies have the right to nullify election results so that they can impose their vision of government and society on an unwilling public. He is Jim Jordan in substance but not Jim Jordan in style, which was enough for Republicans to come together to make him leader of the House and second in line to succeed the president of the United States in the case of emergency.
The fractious House Republican majority cannot agree on how to fund the government. It cannot agree on whether to fund the government. It cannot agree on the scope of federal spending. It cannot even agree on whether it should do anything to govern the nation. But it can agree, it seems, to hand the reins of power to someone who showed no hesitation when asked to help overturn American democracy.
During the summer of 2012, President Barack Obama told supporters that if he won the White House again, it would “break the fever” among Republicans. Instead, after Mitt Romney lost to Obama, the party embraced the worst version of itself and nominated Trump in 2016 and 2020. After Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election, he expressed his hope that this time, with Trump’s departure from power, the Republican fever would finally break. Instead, the Republican Party went even deeper into the hole, hailing the former president’s failed attempt to keep himself in office as another lost cause and defending his leadership again and again.
It’s not that the fever won’t break. It’s that there is no fever to break. The far-right extremism and open contempt for democracy that marks much of modern Republicanism is not an aberration. It’s not a spell that might fade with time. It is the Republican Party of 2023 and it will be the Republican Party of 2024. And while Trump may, for either legal or political reasons, eventually leave the scene, there’s no reason to think the Republican Party will revert to a state where the Mike Johnsons are back on the sidelines.
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