Picture an illustration of the stages of human evolution. It begins with something resembling a chimp dragging its knuckles on the ground, followed by another figure, still much more chimp than man, but a bit less hunched and hairy. And then again, and again, on and on over millennia, until we arrive at homo sapiens—fully upright but etiolated, bald, and flabby.
Not that I’m describing anyone in particular.
We can think of the leadership of the House Republican conference over the past decade similarly.
Evolution in this case begins with John Boehner, an old-guard establishmentarian elevated awkwardly to speaker by a populist Tea Party revolution with which he was never comfortable. Boehner was a party man in the era before Trump, when the GOP was still the political entity to which right-wing voters pledged their highest loyalty. But things had begun to change by the end of his tenure: There was enough populist muscle in the House to pressure him into quitting in 2015.
Next came Paul Ryan, another party man but more of an ideologue than Boehner. Ryan had earned populist cred as an outspoken critic of Obamacare and the GOP’s foremost advocate for entitlement reform. The emerging post-liberal faction on the right loathed him for being soft on immigration, but Ryan proved to be the only member of the House acceptable as speaker to Freedom Caucus purists and traditional Republicans. His ascension represented a step to the right from his predecessor.
Kevin McCarthy’s succession to leader when Ryan retired a few years later represented another step. McCarthy is no ideologue; his chief political talents are back-slapping and schmoozing rich donors. Precisely because he’s so hollow, he was poorly equipped to resist the pressures of becoming the first head of the House conference elected after Trump’s takeover. He became an opportunistic enabler of the right’s worst influences, allying himself with cranks like Marjorie Taylor Greene and faithfully serving Trump throughout the coup attempt of late 2020 and early 2021. Populist influence grew further on his watch.
After McCarthy was ousted, we might have looked at the (d)evolutionary progress of House Republicans and made an educated guess as to what the next stage should logically look like. If McCarthy was an establishmentarian willing to rubber-stamp post-liberalism for his own selfish purposes, we might expect the next leader to be a committed, proactive post-liberal capable of looking and sounding reassuringly establishment.
With Mike Johnson’s election as speaker, that’s just what we’ve got.
In time, I expect, he and McCarthy will be viewed in tandem as transitional figures from classical-liberal dominance of the House GOP to dominance by feral authoritarians. “If you don’t think that moving from Kevin McCarthy to MAGA Mike Johnson shows the ascendance of this movement and where the power in the Republican Party truly lies, then you’re not paying attention,” Matt Gaetz assured Steve Bannon on Wednesday morning before Johnson’s coronation.
I regret to inform you that Matt Gaetz is right.
October 24, 2023, isn’t what you’d point to if asked which date during the Trump era best demonstrates the corruption of the GOP.
But it’s a contender. In the span of 12 hours on Tuesday, House Republicans displayed all of the charming quirks for which the party’s elected officials have become known in the past eight years: cowardice, narcissism, and insurrectionism.
The day began with House Majority Whip Tom Emmer winning the conference’s nomination as speaker, the third Republican to do so this month. He had the leadership credentials members typically demand in a nominee and a reputation for moderation that might have served his party well had he become the face of congressional Republicans. Unlike most of his colleagues, Emmer voted to certify Biden’s victory on January 6. And last year he supported codifying a right to gay marriage, an issue that enjoys 71 percent support among Americans.
Electing Emmer would have been an uncharacteristically rational thing for House Republicans to do, so naturally he ran into trouble. More than two dozen of his colleagues indicated initially that they wouldn’t support him on the House floor. The conference adjourned to give Emmer time to negotiate with them in case fatigue from the speaker process had left their arms susceptible to twisting.
Whereupon Donald Trump went full Leeroy Jenkins by doing what he does best: making Republican politics a litmus test of loyalty to Donald Trump.
Just hours later, Emmer threw in the towel and withdrew from the race, not bothering to lobby the holdouts. Trump’s intervention gave Emmer’s opponents political cover to dig in and doubtless would have scared some of his supporters into switching to “no” if Republicans had insisted on a vote of the full House. Cowardice had won again. It always does.
Narcissism won too. Consider how Trump timed this rhetorical assassination.
It had been clear since Friday that Emmer, the highest-ranking Republican in the race, was likely to win the next conference vote for speaker. So he set about doing what all members of the party must do to advance: sucking up to Donald Trump. “He’s my biggest fan because he called me yesterday and told me, ‘I’m your biggest fan,’” Trump crowed to reporters on Monday, reveling in the humiliation of an antagonist. Emmer was willing to sacrifice his dignity to his ambition and the leader of the party was keen for everyone to know it.
If Emmer was unacceptable to him, Trump could have said so at any point between Friday and Tuesday and spared the conference the ordeal of nominating a candidate who was dead on arrival. Instead he waited to issue his veto until after Emmer had been chosen as nominee, sending House Republicans back to the drawing board again and handing the media another day of embarrassing coverage about the GOP in chaos.
Supposedly, the final straw for Trump came on Monday when Emmer refused to say who he supports in the GOP presidential primary. But, Trump being Trump, one can’t help but suspect that he held his fire over the weekend simply to prolong Emmer’s agony and make the eventual coup de grace that much sweeter. Better to let him come within an inch of seizing the brass ring before snatching it away than to warn him off trying in the first place.
The party’s best interest yielded to his narcissism. Again, it always does.
But not just his. Before Emmer blew up on the launchpad on Tuesday, news broke that none other than Matt Gaetz was quietly whipping votes for him. Bedfellows don’t get stranger than the “Globalist RINO” who opposed the insurrection and MAGA media’s favorite firebreather working hand in glove, but it makes sense if you assume Gaetz is driven less by substantive politics than by vendettas. He bore Kevin McCarthy a grudge so McCarthy had to go; Emmer, a squishier figure by any measure, hadn’t antagonized Gaetz personally and was therefore acceptable.
It’s what we’d expect from a party that’s no longer capable of durable consensus on policy, or that cares much about policy to begin with. McCarthy, Steve Scalise, Jim Jordan, and finally Emmer were all victims to greater or lesser degrees of personal grudges, crabs in a proverbial bucket who kept pulling each other down lest any of them ascend to a job universally regarded as the most thankless in Washington and whose foremost requirement in 2023 is being a loyal valet to Donald Trump. Ultimately it was Mike Johnson’s sheer anonymity—and the conference’s obvious fatigue with speaker drama—that made him acceptable to everyone. He’s too low-profile to have made any real enemies.
Oh, and he’s an insurrectionist. A sincere one, unlike Kevin McCarthy.
Which helped him, of course.
On Tuesday, Marjorie Taylor Greene was asked if Emmer’s vote to certify Biden’s victory in 2021 had influenced her decision to oppose him. Sure did, she replied.
On Wednesday, shortly before the House voted, Democrat Pete Aguilar condemned Johnson in a floor speech as the most important architect of the 2020 coup attempt. “Damn right,” a Republican shouted in reply.
In the end, not one member of the conference treated Johnson’s role in Trump’s plot as disqualifying. Even Ken Buck, who had ruled out Jim Jordan for speaker because of his involvement in January 6, rationalized his way somehow into supporting Johnson on the floor.
Late Tuesday night, after Johnson was nominated for speaker in another vote of the conference, Republicans talked to the press. One reporter pressed him on his involvement in trying to overturn the last presidential election, reasonably enough given that the previous nominee for speaker had crashed and burned over precisely that issue some eight hours earlier. There was even fresh news on the wires at that hour that Trump’s former chief of staff had told prosecutors that he knew the “rigged election” nonsense was baseless at the time and had said as much to Trump.
That’s the whole party in one clip. There’s Johnson, smug at having been not merely absolved by his colleagues for abetting a coup attempt but commended for it with their nomination for speaker. There’s Scalise and Elise Stefanik, two members of leadership leering like gargoyles at the idea that they should care about the party’s turn toward insurrectionism. And there’s Virginia Foxx, one of the elder statesmen in the conference, goading the press to just shut up about it already.
Participants, enablers, apologists: That’s the House GOP. They’ve moved on from their attempt to block the peaceful transfer of power, they’re eager for you to know—unlike a certain someone for whom they’ll all be campaigning three or four months from now.
So now let’s talk about Mike Johnson.
Johnson declared his candidacy for Congress on February 9, 2016, the very day that Donald Trump won the Republican presidential primary in New Hampshire. That was Trump’s first victory of the campaign and the one that established him as a serious threat for the nomination. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call it the day that Trumpism quasi-officially began. Nine months later, on the same night Trump was elected to the White House, Johnson was elected to his first term in the House.
Kevin McCarthy adjusted to the Trump era but wasn’t a creation of it. Mike Johnson is. He’s a “Year Zero” Republican, the first speaker to have Trumpism in his political DNA. And in 2020, he proved it.
As Johnson’s odds of becoming speaker grew more serious on Tuesday, Liz Cheney’s political operation began emailing this New York Times report from last year to reporters. The prescient title: “They Legitimized the Myth of a Stolen Election—and Reaped the Rewards.” Little did we know what sort of reward awaited Mike Johnson.
On the eve of the Jan. 6 votes, [Johnson] presented colleagues with what he called a “third option.” He faulted the way some states had changed voting procedures during the pandemic, saying it was unconstitutional, without supporting the outlandish claims of Mr. Trump’s most vocal supporters. His Republican critics called it a Trojan horse that allowed lawmakers to vote with the president while hiding behind a more defensible case.
Even lawmakers who had been among the noisiest “stop the steal” firebrands took refuge in Mr. Johnson’s narrow and lawyerly claims, though his nuanced argument was lost on the mob storming the Capitol, and over time it was the vision of the rioters — that a Democratic conspiracy had defrauded America — that prevailed in many Republican circles.
“The most important architect of the Electoral College objections” is how the Times described him, honoring Johnson’s attempt to provide lawyerly cover to colleagues looking for a reasonable-ish pretext to block Biden’s victory. Trump’s over-baked theories about mass vote-rigging were hard to defend on the merits; what House Republicans needed was a more sober-sounding procedural objection to justify throwing the country into a constitutional crisis and maybe installing Donald Trump as an autocrat.
Johnson delivered, and not for the first time that winter. A month earlier, he had tried to organize support among his colleagues for the preposterous lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton that sought to block Pennsylvania’s electoral votes from being certified, again for dubious procedural reasons. Trump was “anxiously awaiting the final list” of signatories on an amicus brief supporting the suit, Johnson warned his fellow Republicans, unsubtly.
The Republican Accountability Project maintains a “report card” on every member of the House and Senate GOP based on various key votes and other conduct surrounding the 2020 election. I invite you to guess what grade Johnson got.
Reading all of that and having never heard him speak, you might picture him as a bombastic grandstander in the Matt Gaetz mold. Just the opposite. Johnson is unassuming to the point that even some Senate Republicans were left googling him on Wednesday morning. In interviews, he can sound so sensible and bipartisan as to make John Boehner seem like a Tea Partier by comparison.
He’s that guy. But somehow he’s also this guy:
He can come off like Kevin McCarthy or Donald Trump as circumstances warrant. (Trump loves him, naturally.) On Tuesday I explained why my hatred for attorneys who aided the attack on democracy is special and eternal: They knew better yet chose to help an authoritarian dullard cloak his power grab in the trappings of law. Mike Johnson, by all accounts a very sharp attorney, is Exhibit A. If not for sinister nebbish Jeffrey Clark, he’d have the strongest “banality of evil” vibes of any participant in the 2020 plot.
I would put it this way: As Mike Lee is to Ted Cruz, Mike Johnson is to Jim Jordan. Cruz and Jordan are blowhards and media whores; they’re willing to overturn an election for the sake of being on Fox News. Lee and Johnson are soft-spoken, camera-shy, unfailingly civil in debate, and content to work quietly behind the scenes in applying their considerable intellects toward Donald Trump’s wicked ends. Lee is an admirer of Johnson’s, unsurprisingly. Why, if he had been speaker earlier this year, the senator wistfully observed on Tuesday night, we might have had that catastrophic debt-ceiling crisis we unfortunately avoided.
Johnson’s ability to sound like a traditional Republican while advancing an illiberal agenda is the source of his appeal to the conference, making him tolerable to establishmentarians and populists alike. He’s been a rolling disaster on Ukraine funding, for instance, opposing money for the effort as far back as the earliest months of the war on “America First” grounds, yet alleged “moderates” in the House GOP can’t stop burbling about what a swell joe he is. “He’s a nice, decent person. He’s a man of convictions but he treats people very respectfully,” centrist Don Bacon told the Daily Beast.
A “decent” coup-plotter. Mike Johnson, the good insurrectionist.
It would have been passing strange had Tom Emmer, a figure more centrist than Kevin McCarthy, emerged as speaker in a party whose deranged leader is approaching a 50-point lead in the presidential primary. That’s not the way the devolution in Republican leadership should logically proceed, from someone who enabled Trump’s bid to overturn the election to someone who opposed it.
Logically it should proceed from someone who enabled that bid to someone who actively assisted it. “The twice-impeached former president ordered House Republicans to stop Tom Emmer and elevate a top election denier. Is anyone surprised that they complied?” Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries wondered. Not me: The gratuitous humiliation of Emmer and subsequent elevation of Johnson is true in all particulars to the spirit of Trump and his constituency. It’s the perfect ending to the drama in the House.
Perhaps Johnson will have his moments as speaker. He has a long leash from the right for the moment, partly out of sheer relief that someone was able to unite the conference and partly out of gratitude for his efforts to end American democracy. Maybe he’ll spend some of his political capital on making a deal to avert a shutdown next month, or on even higher priorities.
But if you’re a Republican, you should worry about what Democrats will do with Johnson’s record. And if you’re anyone else, you should worry about the prospect of Speaker Mike Johnson presiding over the House on January 6, 2025, if and when it’s asked to certify a narrow Joe Biden victory over Donald Trump. However much contempt you had for the Kevin McCarthy era in this party, start adjusting to the likelihood that it’s about to get worse. That’s how devolution works, after all.