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Three Ways of Looking at Mike Johnson
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Three Ways of Looking at Mike Johnson

Are Republicans trying to force normal conservatives away from the party?

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson addresses the House chamber after winning the speakership on Wednesday, October 25, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images)

The Republicans fired Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the House; McCarthy was a guilty apologist for Donald Trump’s attempted coup d’état following his loss in the 2020 presidential election. The Republicans tried to replace McCarthy with Jim Jordan, who was an enthusiast for Donald Trump’s attempted coup d’état following his loss in the 2020 presidential election. The Republicans have now elected Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, who was a key legal strategist for Donald Trump’s attempted coup d’état following his loss in the 2020 presidential election. 

That trendline is moving in the wrong direction. 

Jonah Goldberg has spelled out a useful heuristic for getting one’s head around the antics of the contemporary GOP. To understand modern Republicans, he says, ask yourself: What would they do if they were trying to be a minority party? Nine times out of 10, that’s what they will do. It is as though they are trying to force moderates, “normies,” ordinary sensible people, and—if it comes to it—more or less up-and-down-the-line conservatives who just happen to have an aversion to coups to either stay on the sidelines or support Democrats. 

Those estranged conservatives and would-be Republicans have to make some difficult decisions about how to oppose their (once and future?) party: working within it, working with independent groups, or working with Democrats. 

Call it three degrees of anti-Caesarism. 

The first degree of anti-Caesarism is working within the Republican Party. There is, I think, room for the big-money donors to be a lot more active on that front. It is good that the most sensible of them give to the few responsible Republicans seeking office and withhold their donations from the crazies and the coup-plotters, but what’s needed is a larger, better-organized apparatus for recruiting, training, staffing, and funding primary challenges to the worst offenders within Republican ranks, the real ne’er-do-wells and embarrassments such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who just went to great lengths to save the bacon of Texas’ hilariously awful and profoundly morally corrupt attorney general, Ken Paxton. One way in which ordinary Republicans get started down the short and easy road that ends in trying to overthrow the government is being terrified of primary challenges. They are not wrong to be afraid: Times being what they are, it is easy to recruit and fund crazies from the most irresponsible corners of the Republican world to run against, say, a Texas state senator who votes his conscience in an impeachment hearing. But the crazies are not really afraid of primary challenges. For one thing, the insurgent nature of a primary challenge to a sitting incumbent inherently favors the radical, populist side and, for another, there exists a large, dispersed, and genuinely organic network of support for the crazies, from talk radio to Fox News to various poisonous and imbecilic figures with big footprints on Facebook and such. 

The crazies may not be a majority, but they are, at the moment, a majority of those who get directly involved with Republican electoral politics. If Republicans want to get the normies off the sidelines, they really have to give them a place to go. And the options in front of them right now aren’t all that appealing. Imagine you’re a successful, middle-aged businessman in Dallas or Orlando, an old-fashioned conservative more interested in balancing the budget than in spinning crazy tales of Satanic cabals operating in secret bunkers beneath pizza parlors—what do you want to do with the years you have left? Get into the muck that is contemporary Republican politics or spend more time with your family, volunteer at your church, travel, etc.? If Republicans want to have a more normal party, they should make it as easy as possible for normal people to get involved in it. Right now, it’s a freak show. 

That leads a fair number of people to the second degree of anti-Caesarism: working with non-party organizations, whether those are policy groups or organized “Third Way”-ish political efforts such as No Labels. No Labels is driving a lot of people crazy right now, with many Democrats (and some, but fewer, Republicans) convinced that a No Labels candidacy will prove to be a “spoiler,” succeeding only in throwing the election—to Trump, Democrats fear, though there are some Republicans who fear the opposite. Most of the arguments against No Labels at this point are relatively superficial, operational arguments, i.e., No Labels can’t win so it shouldn’t run a candidate. That isn’t a very good argument, and it implicitly relies on the catastrophizing brand of politics (“This is an emergency!” “This is the most important election of our lifetime!” “If we lose, it is the end of democracy!”) that has done so much to elevate irresponsible and dangerous figures such as Donald Trump in the first place. And it is not as though figures such as Donald Trump—and Trump toadies such as the newly elected speaker of the House—are not a danger to democracy and constitutional government: They certainly are. But that is an argument for taking steps that will reform the parties, not an argument for taking steps to defer to the worst elements in those parties. If the Republican Party cannot be rescued, then something else is going to have to be built to take its place. “Yes, but not now!” is what almost everybody is going to say, but that really isn’t good enough. And, really, who is to say that a No Labels candidate cannot win? Nobody thought Trump could win in 2016. These are unpredictable times. 

And No Labels isn’t the only group of like-minded people out there. One of the many desirable effects of the Dobbs decision is that it potentially opens a much broader range of cooperative opportunities for conservatives at the federal level. If we are indeed willing to let abortion be an issue decided at the state level—something that will require concessions from conservatives and progressives both—then, with that life-or-death issue off the federal table, there are a lot of issues that offer the chance to hammer out genuine consensus policy responses. We don’t need 100 percent buy-in across the political spectrum, but there are a fair number of 60-percent and 70-percent consensus policies out there: about two-thirds of Americans support aiding Ukraine in its fight against Russian occupation; 70 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with current crime-control efforts; 78 percent of Americans are worried about federal spending and the budget deficit “a great deal” or “a fair amount”; etc. There is a lot to work with in those numbers. But if progressives insist on relitigating Dobbs, or if conservatives insist on keeping abortion front-and-center as a federal issue (for instance, by seeking a national abortion ban), then broader cooperation is going to be harder to pursue. 

For right-leaning people who do not feel as strongly about abortion and a few other urgent issues (gun rights prominent among them), it is easier to get into the third degree of anti-Caesarism, which is—I am not myself a Republican and like to think that I am mostly free from political tribalism, but I will confess I find these words difficult to type—voting for Democrats. I have fundamental policy differences with the Democratic Party, and I have seen first-hand that the same toxic mess that produced Trump and Trumpism can be found without much effort in the Democratic mix. But, at the same time, if a Democratic majority in the House is what it takes to keep coup-plotters out of the speaker’s chair, then maybe a Democratic majority in the House ought to be understood by conservatives as a necessary evil. I wasn’t joking when I said a few weeks ago that, given the Republican alternatives, I’d prefer the speakership to go to Marc Veasey, a Texas Democrat who has a pretty good record on energy but is otherwise on the wrong side of a whole lot of issues that I care about, but who also is not, as far as I can tell, an outright lunatic or a revolutionist. In that way he clears a very low bar that Republicans seem content to limbo right under. Now, I know that a Democratic majority means Hakeem Jeffries—or worse—as the speaker. But Hakeem Jeffries has one fewer coup attempt on his résumé than Mike Johnson does. My Republican friends will protest, “Yes, but you’re empowering Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib!” That is true, and they are terrible. But if the alternative is empowering Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert—and Matt Gaetz, and Louie Gohmert, and Ted Cruz, and the rest of that overstuffed clown car of a party—how bad am I going to feel? 

As a purely political note to Republicans (and, I suppose to Democrats): Consider that the above is written by a lifelong movement conservative who has never voted for a Democrat. That’s where you buffoons are right now, Republicans. I’ll be the first to admit that my own politics are eccentric and that my temperament is not that of a team player, but a Republican Party that cannot figure out a way to get the support of people who really want to support Republicans can expect to have some real trouble with independents, moderates, etc. 

Moderate is, in this context, a funny word. If you say “moderate Republican” in 2023, people think you mean Liz Cheney or Mitt Romney. But they are not moderates. If Liz Cheney had been a member of Ronald Reagan’s Cabinet, she probably would have been its most conservative member. Romney once called himself “severely conservative,” which isn’t exactly right and which maybe even constituted a little bit of a Freudian slip, but he is a conservative conservative by any meaningful measure. One of those radio blowhards was complaining the other day that House Republicans hadn’t supported Jim Jordan because he is “too conservative” for their taste, but Rep. Jordan hasn’t been a particularly conservative legislator, to the extent that he has been a legislator at all. (I am with Calvin Coolidge in believing that it is more important to kill bad bills than to enact good ones, but Rep. Jordan has, as a matter of fact, never authored a bill that became a law.) Rep. Jordan isn’t a conservative—he is a Trump cultist, a political arsonist, and a performance artist. Speaker Johnson may be less of a performance artist, but he is a more serious danger than Rep. Jordan would have been, because he is more serious, period. 

The problem with the Jordans and Johnsons and Boeberts is not that they are too conservative—in many cases, they are not sufficiently conservative, in part because they do not know or care what conservatism actually entails. The problem is that they either are themselves irresponsible bomb-throwers or that they are answerable to those irresponsible bomb-throwers owing to political temperaments that combine, in varying degrees, cynicism and cowardice. 

Ronald Reagan gave a famous speech titled “A Time for Choosing” in 1964. The thing is, it is always a time for choosing. And House Republicans have chosen to entrust their power—to entrust the power that has been entrusted to them—to a man who tried to nullify the 2020 presidential election in the service of the authoritarian ambitions of a half-assed would-be caudillo who is still giving the Republican Party its marching orders even as he spends his days trying to stay out of jail. 

That’s a choice. I don’t understand why Republicans would choose that, but they have. 

Words About Words

As I mentioned above, the word moderate is of some interest to me. We use it mainly as an adjective or noun (a “moderate Republican,” a “political moderate”) but it also works as a verb: “He should moderate his drinking,” “We must moderate our expectations.” Etc. Moderate, from the Latin moderare (reduce or control), is related to modest, from the Latin modus (measure) and modestus (measured, as in keeping proper measure). Both words are related to mode (measured, in the musical sense) and mood (in its grammatical sense; the emotional sense of mood is descended  from an unrelated Germanic line). So, we might hope that the political parties moderate their bad behavior, even if that does not end up making them in a real sense moderate. In the same way, better is the comparative sense of good, but something may be better than something else without actually being good—just “gooder.” 

In Other Wordiness … 

I preached Trump.” So said Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, who plumbed rarely seen depths of sycophancy in his brief and barely noticed bid to become speaker of the House, offering his preaching via text to a Trump associate in a bid to win the support of the ghastly con artist to which the Republican Party continues to offer worship. And worship is the right word. For those of you who may from time to time take Mike Johnson’s advice and “pick up a Bible,” the word “preach” followed by a proper noun surely brings to mind St. Paul: “We preach Christ, and Him crucified,” a slogan derived from the apostle’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:23. (NB for our Trumpish friends: That’s First Corinthians, not One Corinthians.) I do not doubt for one second that Rep. Fleischmann preaches Trump. He ought to ask his bishop to explain the problem of idolatry to him, when he has a spare moment. Eternity is a very, very long time. 

“Hallowed be Thy name,” the prayer says. What is to be preached? What is to be hallowed? 

Tuesday is Halloween, the name of the holiday being a contraction of All Hallow Even, with even there being as in evening. All Hallows, or Allhallows, is an old way of naming what we now call All-Saints’ Day, and so All-Hallows Eve(n) is, like Christmas Eve, the day before. All-Saints’ is a day meant to honor all of the saints of Christianity, not only those who have been formally canonized but also the unknown. The triduum of All-Hallows Eve, All-Saints’ Day, and All-Souls’ Day is Allhallowtide, that ending suffix being familiar from Christmastide, where it is most commonly seen. 

Halloween apparently has gotten mixed up over the years with various pagan commemorations of the dead and autumnal harvest ceremonies. Making dolls or effigies out of seasonal produce (jack-o’-lanterns, corn dollies) and displaying them in or around the home is one of those traditions that goes all the way back into the shadows of ancient prehistory. The end of summer puts people in a mood to think about mortality, naturally, and so many different cultures around the world have parallel fall rites relating to death and resurrection. These show up in language in funny ways: the pheasant’s-eye flower, which blooms briefly from August to September, is traditionally known in some places as the Adonis flower or autumn Adonis, after the Greek resurrection god. Scarecrows, another autumn staple, figured prominently in the pagan world, with the Greeks using them to display images of Priapus, a god of vegetation and fertility. The old heathen stuff never really goes away: Let’s just say that Christians did not invent the custom of dragging evergreen trees into the house for ceremonial purposes on the longest night of the year. Nor were they the first to pay special attention to such totems of fertility as eggs and rabbits in the spring. And so it is natural that the commemoration of the dead precedes the commemorations of those who have received eternal life. Sometimes, Christians are embarrassed by the pagan roots of some of our observations and imagery. But I don’t think we should be. There’s just the one created world, and we have to rummage around in it for the things we need from time to time. The first Christians who decided that maybe reading Aristotle was all right did themselves a favor. 

Economics for English Majors

As you might have noticed (in the writing immediately above, among other places), I am interested in magic. I don’t mean pull-a-rabbit-out-of-a-hat magic, but the ancient traditions of belief and superstition—the embarrassing ancestors of science, as James George Frazer called them—by means of which people with less access to knowledge than we enjoy tried to make sense of the world. Names were a big thing in that kind of thinking: “True name” magic is ancient and widespread, and it is based on the belief that people and things have a mystical, essential, “true” name that is intimately connected with them. In some cultures, people have secret names known only to those closest to them and use outside names in their interactions with the general public. A great deal of pop psychology is rooted in the idea that if you give a set of behaviors or tendencies a name (narcissism, for example) then that naming makes them a coherent thing. 

There’s a fair bit of this in economic thinking, too. A while back, we went through a big hoo-haw about whether to call the weak economy that coincided with the first part of the Joe Biden administration a “recession.” There wasn’t any real debate about the underlying economic data—this much inflation, that much unemployment, this amount of GDP shrinkage over that amount of time, etc. But there was a big fight about whether to call that a “recession.” As if the economy would have stunk any less or any more for not using the word. We could have called it a stegosaurus economy—it wouldn’t have changed the facts. 

And now we are into a “correction.” From the Wall Street Journal:

The S&P 500 turned lower Friday and was on track to enter a correction, defined as a drop of at least 10% from a recent high.

The mood in the market has darkened in October as investors have parsed a wave of earnings results from some of the biggest and most influential companies in America while navigating a punishing bond rout.

The Nasdaq ended in a correction earlier this week, which has been marked by mammoth swings in shares of some of the market’s biggest companies.

A correction is not really a thing. Yes, it is what we call it when there’s a 10-percent downturn, but it isn’t some kind of unitary event. Share prices move up and down all the time, in a generally uncoordinated way (not specifically coordinated among shares, I mean, of course there are trends), for all kinds of reasons. A correction is not something that happened to the market; it is a shorthand for talking about the results of the things that are happening in the market. 

I know that sounds like a pedantic point, but it is, I think, an important one. We are in the habit of talking about corrections, recessions, etc., as though they were earthquakes or hurricanes or other natural phenomena—or, still worse, as acts of God sent to punish the country for elevating the wrong priest-king president or for failing to honor the sacred taboos. Bad economies are not, generally speaking, caused by moral depravity; neither are good economies caused by public virtue—except the virtues of hard work, thrift, etc. 

Elsewhere

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In Closing

Laziness and sanctimoniousness are a bad combination, and so here is Speaker of the House Mike Johnson exhibiting both vices at the same time:

People are curious. What does Mike Johnson think about any issue under the sun?’ I said, well, go pick up a Bible off your shelf and read it—that’s my worldview.

Never mind that this probably isn’t actually Rep. Johnson’s worldview, in that there are a whole lot of offenses punished with stoning that he isn’t going to try to bring back. He probably eats the occasional cheeseburger, even though that is a biblical no-no—if you don’t keep kosher, don’t tell me that you can just “pick up a Bible” and have your answer. Of course there is interpretation—Christians will cite Paul and say that this releases them from the duty to keep kosher, which would have come as news to a lot of early Christians. It is, of course, a matter of interpretation. Paul et al. did not have a New Testament to guide them at the time they were writing it—they had to do some thinking for themselves, and if you think everybody agreed about everything, then you haven’t read the New Testament. 

(There is a technical word for the quaint but enduring superstition that you can pick up a Bible, flip to any random page, and find guidance for your current problems: bibliomancy.)

Among the more intellectually developed branches of Christianity, there is a deep and rich intellectual history dealing with the application of Scripture, and an understanding that these questions require deep study, wide reading, argument, and contemplation—and that all such exertions, no matter how earnestly undertaken, will leave questions unanswered and disputes unresolved. One of the things that I as a Catholic admire about the Reformed tradition is just how seriously they take those questions and the hard work they put in with very close readings of Scripture. And the fact that there is a Catholic tradition and a Reformed tradition ought to be enough to tell you that “Go pick up a Bible” isn’t much of an answer, even when it comes to centuries-long discussions among people of good faith. At many points in history–including this point in history!—Christians haven’t even consistently agreed among themselves about which books should be in the Bible. That Martin Luther fellow had some ideas that were not universally shared.  

If our range of inquiry includes, as Rep. Johnson says, “any issue under the sun,” and I want to know what Rep. Johnson wants to do about our entitlement mess, there isn’t any kind of obvious answer in Scripture for that. “Go look in the Bible” isn’t something a politician says out of piety—it is something a politician says out of laziness and sanctimony. 

And cowardice. 

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.