Now that the curtain has finally come down on the sideshow of the House of Representatives speaker’s race, it’s tempting to think we can leave that political circus behind and focus on something else. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, the next few weeks and possibly months will be just as dramatic and much more relevant to the everyday lives of the American people. The MAGA movement is now 100% in charge of one chamber of Congress and they show no signs that they have accepted the fact that their tiny majority doesn’t entitle them to get their way 100% of the time. The new speaker is a far-right Christian Nationalist and Trump cultist and he appears to be ready to push the envelope farther than it’s ever been pushed before.
Speaker Mike Johnson, third in line for the presidency, is the most extreme leader this country has ever had. When asked about his governing philosophy he said, “Go pick up a Bible off your shelf and read it. That’s my worldview. That’s what I believe. And so I make no apologies.” That appears to be literally correct. As my colleague Amanda Marcotte points out, Johnson is an antediluvian, patriarchal, misogynist with all that that implies and he has devoted his life to re-making America into an explicitly Christian fundamentalist state.
Despite his belief that the 1960s ushered in a decadent culture that is destroying the moral fabric of the nation, like most conservative Evangelicals, Johnson is also a fervent follower of the thrice-married, sexual abuser Donald Trump. He was deeply involved in the GOP House conference’s attempt to help Trump overturn the 2020 election, which he no doubt believes was justified since the United States is a “biblical Republic” rather than a constitutional one in his view. It would seem that his stern morality does not preclude him from being practical enough to make allowances when political power is at stake.
So, what can we expect going forward?
Johnson is evidently a very affable fellow, not as grim or hostile as some of his colleagues on the MAGA right. That will probably buy him a bit of a honeymoon. After all, he was voted in unanimously by the full conference, which nobody thought was possible. And his extremist credentials help him with the bomb-throwing backbenchers who ousted his predecessor, Kevin McCarthy. The main instigator of that coup, Matt Gaetz, R-Fl., appeared on former Trump adviser and podcaster Steve Bannon’s show and crowed, “MAGA is ascendant”:
The swamp is on the run, Maga is ascendant and if you don’t think that moving from Kevin McCarthy to Maga Mike Johnson shows the ascendance of this movement, and where the power of the Republican party truly lies, then you’re not paying attention.
There couldn’t be a more enthusiastic endorsement for an extremely pious Christian from a man who was credibly accused of partying and drug use with very young women for years. Who says the Republican Party is in disarray?
“Maga Mike” is going to have to hope that his party is in full cooperation mode because he has no leadership experience of any kind. He was a staff lawyer for an ultra right-wing Christian advocacy organization for years before he ran for office. But perhaps he’s a natural and will be able to bring this fractious caucus together in ways that former GOP speakers John Boehner, Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy were unable to do. His poise and demeanor in presenting himself to the media as a very measured, dare I say, moderate fellow shows a certain amount of public relations savvy that will certainly be useful, at least in the beginning.
He appeared with Sean Hannity for the ceremonial softball Fox News interview and sounded very much like his predecessors. He heavily criticized the Biden administration, of course, made a passing insult implying that the president has diminished capacity and indicated his support for impeaching him. I assume a majority of his colleagues feel the same way since their 2024 strategy is to create a counternarrative of Biden’s alleged corruption to offset the fact that Trump is under 91 felony indictments.
But everything else he said was anything but fire-breathing wingnut rhetoric. The man whose entire career has been based on the idea that gay sex and abortion should be criminalized told Hannity that gay marriage has been decided and that there’s no national consensus on abortion, suggesting that they will not take up the issue in the House. His pro-Israel comments weren’t particularly bellicose. He indicated that he was ready to engage in talks over the budget with the White House and said he didn’t want a government shutdown.
I wonder if the audience was impressed with his newfound pragmatism. Or is it just that he’s in over his head?
He railed against Vladimir Putin saying that Ukraine defeating him was essential in order to dissuade China from moving on Taiwan. But this is a person who Republicans for Ukraine gave an “F” rating for voting over and over again to deny funding to help repel Putin’s invasion of the country. What gives? Well, if one were to guess, it would be that Mike Johnson is pulling a fast one:
“We are going to move a stand-alone Israeli funding bill” — Mike Johnson on Fox News says he’s decoupling Israeli aid from Ukraine aid, the latter of which he suggests is not the same sort of “urgent need” pic.twitter.com/ixk3Ye5anx
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) October 29, 2023
For all his alleged concern about Putin’s aggression, it appears that he hasn’t changed his spots. Johnson is slickly using Israel to advance his agenda to stop funding for Ukraine. And keep in mind that one of the Gaetz faction’s obsessions is to have each bill decided separately — for everything, not just Ukraine and Israel — so this is yet another feint to the MAGA caucus of which he is a card-carrying member.
We’ll have to see how this all shakes out over the next few weeks. The continuing budget resolution expires on Nov. 18 and Johnson has said that he would like to extend it to January 31 — with conditions. What those are going to be is anyone’s guess. But it does appear that at least in the beginning he’ll have the support of the hardliners. But he should keep in mind that Kevin McCarthy’s ouster was precipitated by his debt ceiling negotiations with the White House that contained numerous concessions to the GOP and Johnson’s MAGA friends who refused to take yes for an answer. Unless any deals he makes with the White House and the Senate are tantamount to complete capitulation by the Democrats, they’re not going to be happy. There’s a very good chance his honeymoon will be over before Christmas.
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