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Mike Johnson Declines Invitation to Be a Hostage
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Mike Johnson Declines Invitation to Be a Hostage

Without willing hostages, MTG et al. have little real power.

House Speaker Mike Johnson and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene speak to one another in the U.S. Capitol prior to an address by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on April 11, 2024. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

The so-called hard right in the House is learning an old lesson: Life is hard, but it’s harder if you’re stupid. 

There’s a tendency in political rhetoric to talk as though everybody who disagrees with you is stupid. That isn’t true. I don’t agree with, say, Howard Dean—about almost anything—but I can tell you that Howard Dean is not stupid. James Carville and I don’t agree about much (although I think we are approaching one another in nonplussedness regarding our own respective “sides”), and nobody who knows much thinks he is stupid. But there are some genuinely stupid people in our politics—people who think a manila folder is a Filipino contortionist—and you can, in general, get a pretty good idea of how smart somebody is by how they speak and write in their native language. (Years ago, I saw a talk by a brilliant Chinese scientist who spoke English with some difficulty and reminded the audience: “I only sound like a 4-year-old in your language.”) And my impression is that the rogues’ gallery of the populist wing of the GOP is dominated by some room-temperature IQs: Moscow Madge, Matt Gaetz, Paul Gosar—let’s just say you don’t want to ask any of these goobers who is to be found in Grant’s Tomb. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene is the sort of clod who could accidentally lock herself out of a moped. 

And Donald Trump is exactly what you should expect to get when you take a kid with an IQ of 88 and give him hundreds of millions of dollars worth of New York City real estate. I’ve known some dumb trust-funders in my life, and not one of them ever figured out he was dumb until the money ran out. But everybody else figured it out way before that.

Perhaps we should feel about the achingly stupid the way Sen. Roman Hruska felt about mediocrities: “They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they?” I suppose they are entitled to some representation—the asinine, the dull, the dunces, the moronical—but they are abusing the privilege.

Republican Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming famously described the partisan reality of Washington: “We have two political parties in this country: the Stupid Party and the Evil Party. I belong to the Stupid Party.” He was not a suffer-fools-gladly kind of guy—asked on a political questionnaire for his “church preference,” he answered: “red brick.” 

One of the nice things about being a conservative is that so many things look so much better in retrospect: Sen. Simpson wasn’t wrong to call the Republicans of his era the Stupid Party, but putting the Republican leaders he served with up against the current GOP crop is to compare Hyperion to a satyr. One Republican Senate leader Sen. Simpson served under was Howard Baker of Tennessee, a moderate conservative best known to history as the man who asked about Richard Nixon: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” Many conservatives detested the deal-making, consensus-building Sen. Baker, and there are substantive criticisms of his legislative record that are far more important than that famous quotation of his. Sen. Baker was, for example, one of the fathers of the Clean Air Act, a well-intentioned piece of legislation that addressed a needful issue but did so in such a vague and easily abused way that it is practically a model for badly written legislation that functions as an enabling act for entrepreneurial regulators. But Sen. Baker also helped to see much of the Reagan administration’s legislative agenda through Congress and later served as Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff and George H. W. Bush’s ambassador to Japan. Sen. Baker was a Navy veteran, a lawyer (of course), and the first Republican elected to the Senate from Tennessee since Reconstruction; beyond that, he was a board member of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems as well as an amateur photographer with enough skill to see his work published in National Geographic. Not exactly Cleisthenes, or even Dwight Eisenhower, but a useful and productive career for an intelligent and energetic man. 

Moscow Madge is a recently divorced Facebook troll who had been a part-time CrossFit coach. 

Her most recent political project was throwing a tantrum over military aid to three important U.S. allies—Ukraine, Israel, and that little island near China we’re supposed to pretend to regard with “strategic ambiguity”—and threatening to do in House Speaker Mike Johnson. Johnson called her bluff and we all got to enjoy watching Greene doing in public something she is not accustomed to doing at all: learning. What she learned was that she doesn’t have the kind of power she thought she did. 

These people never do. The rest of us need to learn that lesson. 

Greene and her ilk are, essentially, terrorists. I mean that here as an analogy, although to the extent that they were involved in the events of January 6, 2021, you could say they are a species of regular old terrorists, too. Terrorism works from a simple enough principle: If 99 people can be counted on to follow the rules while one guy is willing to break them, then that one guy actually controls the situation. That’s why the histrionic violence of mass shootings is so terrifying: The killers don’t need organization, or exotic weapons, or coherent ideas, or anything like that. They don’t even need guns. They just have to be willing to do the thing and bear the consequences.

Jihadist suicide bombers and manifesto killers are willing to do the thing and bear the consequences because they are, for the most part, intensely unhappy young men who would prefer to be dead, anyway, and terrorism gives them a way to get dead that feels meaningful. Political nihilists such as Greene are willing to bear the consequences for their shenanigans because those consequences are, from their point of view, pretty low-cost: Greene already is a reviled and detested figure, one who has no reputation to damage, and she doesn’t care at all if she undermines the political position of the Republican Party or damages its policy agenda, because she and others like her—let’s not forget this—hate the Republican Party. 

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her kind might be useful rhetorical foils, but the Squad and the Peckerwoods—Greene’s gang needs a catchy gang name, and now they have one—are playing the same game, and they need each other to keep the game going. The people Reps. Greene, Gosar, et al. hate are Republicans: Mitch McConnell, Mitt Romney, the legislative ghost of Paul Ryan, the Reaganites, conservatives, etc. Like the Tea Party movement before it, the Trumpist movement is, first and foremost, an alternative to the mainstream Republicans.

Or, rather, that’s what it was: Having won the field, the Trumpists now are the Republican Party. Mike Johnson—and you can count me right the hell out of his Dispatch “Strange New Respect” caucus—is one of them. He may not be as dumb as Marjorie Taylor Greene or as likely to give you a handjob in public as Rep. Lauren Boebert, but he’s 100 percent organic, non-GMO Peckerwood. Nevertheless, according to the rules of the Peckerwood game, he’s structurally the enemy: Peckerwoods, once they achieve positions such as speaker of the House, cease to be Peckerwoods, and become the Establishment. Remember, this isn’t politics—this is therapeutic storytelling, and the Peckerwoods have only the one story: “We, the Real Americans, have been betrayed, once again, by the Establishment.” That’s their whole thing. 

If you can think more than 48 hours into the future, you can see the problem with this style of pseudopolitics: They have to win elections while losing every policy fight and every major vote. Those of you who are old enough to remember normal politics know that it looked a little bit different from that.

Once upon a time, you could go through congressional roll-call votes and see a bunch of bills that would pass with almost unanimous Republican support—for years, it would typically be every Republican except Rep. Ron Paul voting for something, with Rep. Paul jumping up and down and demanding, “Show me where in the Constitution it says we have an Air Force!” The Democrats had their own version of that, usually some zany lefty voting against a military appropriations bill or protesting that his proposal to have a federal building named after Patrice Lumumba had been once again rejected. If you were a skillful negotiator, you could get 95 percent of your party on board and bring in maybe 30 percent to 50 percent of the guys on the other side and give yourself a resounding legislative victory. And if you could get 99 percent of your guys on board and pull your bill across the finish line with a handful of votes from the other side, you weren’t a traitor—you were good at politics

The notion that a speaker should bring a bill forward only with the unanimous support of his party and—more important—that it is some kind of a political sin to rely on cooperation from the other party to get big things done is absolutely idiotic, of course, but it is necessary to the Peckerwood/terrorist model of legislative life. Back in the day, Ron Paul was always doing his Ron Paul thing, always ready to get in the way, and Republican leaders seldom, if ever, let him actually stop them from getting something done that was important to them. The only substantive reason figures like Greene seem more important right now is temporary: Republicans have enjoyed only a very small majority recently. But the main reason that figures such as Greene have been able to exert so much control is psychological, the fact that Republicans—and the electorate at large—have let them push them around. As Mike Johnson has just shown, there’s no magical juju at work in the Peckerwood Caucus. Terrorism stops working when people stop being afraid of it—or, at least, when they stop being controlled by their fear. 

And the thing is, Johnson et al. don’t have to be afraid of these clowns. Because they aren’t suicide bombers. They’re just going to bitch about the Establishment on Facebook. Let them bitch.

Words About Words

There are some writers who just have certain words or phrases sitting there in the chamber, ready to go. (“Angels and ministers of grace defend us,” etc. Yeah, I know.)

Kenneth Womack writes about the Beatles. That’s his thing. And he has “senseless murder” on a hotkey, apparently

  • October 2023: “One Beatle will be the victim of a senseless murder, the other suffering an untimely death.”
  • 2023: “Commenting 30 years after her husband’s senseless murder …”
  • August 2018: “… a nine-volume narrative that begins with the musician’s formative years in the 1940s and 1950s and ends with his senseless murder in December 1980.”
  • April 2020: “It took Lennon’s senseless murder in December 1980 to finally quell the voices calling for their reformation.”
  • October 2016: “… the film doesn’t sensationalize Lennon’s senseless murder …”
  • 2018: “… Lennon’s senseless murder at the hands of twenty-five-year-old Mark David Chapman …”

I suppose I have, from time to time, read the newspaper and thought to myself, “Now, there’s a good sensible murder.” Maybe we should start making a list of all the sensible murders that have happened—or maybe should! It’s like that go-back-in-time-would-you-kill-baby-Hitler thought experiment.

Economics for English Majors

Real GDP growth is under 2 percent, while inflation is at 3.4 percent, having almost doubled from the last quarter. And the New York Times wants you to know that this is … pretty good news! For reals: 

The U.S. economy remained resilient early this year, with a strong job market fueling robust consumer spending. The trouble is that inflation was resilient, too.

Gross domestic product, adjusted for inflation, increased at a 1.6 percent annual rate in the first three months of the year, the Commerce Department said on Thursday. That was down sharply from the 3.4 percent growth rate at the end of 2023 and fell well short of forecasters’ expectations.

Economists were largely unconcerned by the slowdown, which stemmed mostly from big shifts in business inventories and international trade, components that often swing wildly from one quarter to the next. Measures of underlying demand were significantly stronger, offering no hint of the recession that forecasters spent much of last year warning was on the way.

“It would suggest some moderation in growth but still a solid economy,” said Michael Gapen, chief U.S. economist at Bank of America. He said the report contained “few signs of weakness overall.”

But the solid growth figures were accompanied by an unexpectedly rapid acceleration in inflation. Consumer prices rose at a 3.4 percent annual rate in the first quarter, up from 1.8 percent in the final quarter of last year. Excluding the volatile food and energy categories, prices rose at a 3.7 percent annual rate.

There’s an interesting inversion there at the end. Usually, you read journalistic apologists reporting about inflation being high but noting that it would be lower if you excluded the volatile food-and-fuel category; this time around, inflation is high and would be higher excluding hamburgers and diesel. 

On the one hand, we have inflation and economic malaise; on the other hand, we have campus protests and a Democratic convention scheduled for Chicago: Does Joe Biden want to be Jimmy Carter or Hubert Humphrey? Your choice, Mr. President. 

Tricky Dick won 32 states with only 43 percent of the vote in 1968, thanks in part to a former Democrat running as an independent/crackpot. Plus ça change, suckers!

Elsewhere …

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In Conclusion 

Today is the feast of St. Catherine of Siena. If you’re going to do a pilgrimage and want to end up someplace nice, try Siena. But don’t let the lovely surroundings lull you into too much comfort: Catherine was no lightweight. She made important contributions to Christian theology and Italian literature both, as something of a politician to boot, and is recognized as a “Doctor of the Church.” In one of her better-known letters, she scolds Pope Gregory XI that it would be better for him to resign from the papacy than to fail to do his job with holiness and justice:

… with desire to see you a manly man, free from any fear or fleshly love toward yourself … my soul desires with immeasurable love that God by His infinite mercy may take from you all passion and lukewarmness of heart, and re-form you another man, by forming in you anew a burning and ardent desire; for in no other way could you fulfil the will of God and the desire of His servants. Alas … pardon my presumption in what I have said to you and am saying; I am constrained by the Sweet Primal Truth to say it. His will, father, is this, and thus demands of you. It demands that you execute justice on the abundance of many iniquities committed by those who are fed and pastured in the garden of Holy Church; declaring that brutes should not be fed with the food of men. Since He has given you authority and you have assumed it, you should use your virtue and power: and if you are not willing to use it, it would be better for you to resign what you have assumed; more honor to God and health to your soul would it be.

That’s tough love, when both the adjective and the noun are necessary.

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.