Before last week it didn’t much matter that Congressman Mike Johnson was a scary, far-right extremist — an ideological clone of fellow congressman Jim Jordan, without Jordan’s in-your-face demeanor. Johnson’s ultra-conservatism hadn’t attracted much attention because of his obscurity among 434 other members of the House. But now that he’s been elevated to the House speakership, one of the most powerful positions in American government, his radical views are cause for alarm.
His ascension to the speakership — yesterday a nobody, today a heavyweight with considerable influence over all House business — fits neatly into a decades-long process described by Nancy MacLean in Democracy in Chains. If you’ve heeded my frequent advice to read MacLean’s book, you know the case she makes: True democracy is hobbled when the will of the majority is usurped by a coalition of minority factions, none of which on its own could prevail against the majority.
These days those minority factions include mega-wealthy libertarian capitalists like the Kochs, right wing America First politicians, and the Christian right. The upshot: A political nonentity whose extreme beliefs are way out of sync with mainstream America (and even with many Republicans) is now a dominant force in our governance.
I coined a term for the Christian right — WECs, short for white evangelical Christians — in a piece written in 2021 after the Jan. 6 insurrection. I expressed dismay over the control this cabal has over our country and have said the same in subsequent blogs. Here’s a link to one of those pieces:
Watching so-called Christians storm the Capitol, I wondered how the rise of WECs might affect our youths’ view of Christianity and religion as a whole. I decided that WECs turn people off on religion in general and on Christianity in particular and I still believe it.
I’ve spent hours since Johnson’s election stewing over its significance. Then this morning Fitz sent me an article by political historian Heather Cox Richardson that precisely sums it up. Please do yourself a favor and read it even if you decide to skip the rest of my blog. Her piece is important. Here it is:
We now have a man a heartbeat or two away from the presidency who believes we live in a “biblical Republic” despite the fact, apparently ignored, that our republic was founded by a bunch of Deists and Episcopalians, not a bunch of fundamentalists. He is the type of person our Founders were protecting us from when they separated church and state. Johnson’s “biblical worldview” cause him to oppose abortion without exception, same sex marriages, and freedoms of all kinds for the LGBTQ+ community. His career in the law has focused on these issues and little else.
Johnson’s positions on virtually all consequential issues place him at the far-right flank of right wing Republicans. He is anti-immigrant. He is a climate change denier. He is an election denier who played a key role in efforts to keep Trump in the White House. He is pro death penalty. He is anti aid to Ukraine. He is anti gun safety legislation. (Immediately after the latest mass shooting in Maine, he counseled “prayer” and ruled out any legislation to control the proliferation of guns.) He is anti-union. In other words, he is Jim Jordan with velvet gloves rather than bare-knuckles. He is Trumpier than the former speaker, who was a real Trump toady.
Particularly troublesome is Johnson’s bonhomie with his Republican colleagues. He’s made few if any enemies during his four terms as an inconspicuous back-bencher, an advantage for anyone seeking the leadership of a chamber riven by feuding. Now he’s in a position to pull the Republican party in his direction — a Christian nationalist direction. Those other right-wing Republicans who get all the headlines and air time — Gaetz, Green, Bobert, Jordan — are too repellent to garner a following. But a smiling, “not angry,” Johnson can cozy up to moderates and persuade them to vote with the hard-liners.
Many commentators have dwelt on Johnson’s role in Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election. He was at the legal forefront in doing so. Why he’s not at least an unindicted co-conspirator is puzzling. He has deflected reporters’ questions on the subject. No doubt he is a Trump sycophant who can now serve as Trump’s helmsman in the House. While all that is upsetting enough, it would be wrong to think of Johnson as merely a Trump puppet. If you follow the thinking of Nancy MacLean’s or Heather Cox Richardson, Trump is just a bit player in a long and, God help us, as yet unsuccessful struggle to subvert our democracy to the will of the mega-wealthy who will use WECs as a voting machine. Long after Trump goes away — maybe to jail! — people like Johnson will carry on as the foot soldiers of the libertarian right wing.
Mike Johnson’s speakership could turn out to be politically seismic — a certainty if Trump becomes the Republican nominee for president and wins the election. But even if Trump’s candidacy collapses, any other Republican nominee would still have to kow-tow to the party’s extreme right because it controls the base. Although the oft-cited Republican base or the MAGA crowd is estimated to be only a portion of the Republican Party, it can control the House through the threat of primary challenges to incumbents who don’t toe the MAGA line. Those Republican House members, safe in their largely gerrymandered districts, know that they can hold onto their positions as long as they don’t get crossways with the MAGAs. And now that MAGA Mike Johnson is running things in the House, that dynamic only becomes more dominant.
So, if you are not of the MAGA persuasion and saw Mike Johnson’s election with relief because he is not Jim Jordan, please wake up. He is more dangerous than Jim Jordan because he is smoother and less obnoxious. And if the Republicans fare well in 2024 and win back the Senate and the presidency, we will be in a place I don’t ever want to be as a country. And standing against this fate we are counting on a perfectly nice 80-year-old President with an approval rating of 37 percent among DEMOCRATS and an overall disapproval rating among all Americans of 56 percent as of this writing. Google Dean Phillips.