For a moment, I thought the Institutionalist Republicans (my name for the non-MAGA Republicans) had triumphed in the quest to name a new Speaker of the House. The rejection of Jim Jordan, a staunch ally of Donald Trump and a chief proponent of 2020 election fraud claims, signaled to me that the Republicans were ready to return to a Paul Ryan/Mitt Romney/pre-Trump version of their party.
The election of Mike Johnson from Louisiana completely upended my thoughts. He is arguably as much of a Trumpist and was as least as involved as Jordan in efforts to decertify the 2020 election, including organizing 125 House Republicans to file an amicus brief to support Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s lawsuit against four battleground states who conducted “unconstitutional changes” to their election laws.
Speaker Johnson should be as unpalatable to the Institutionalists as Jordan. But why was he accepted?
Perhaps Speaker Johnson invoked less personal rivalries and pissed fewer people off. As much as politics is about ideology and organization, it as about popularity. Prior to his election as Speaker, Johnson kept a low profile, known to the MAGA circle but not to the general public. He’s not a firebrand like Jordan. I wasn’t involved in the “smoke filled rooms” as the classic term goes, but from watching Speaker Johnson in comparison to Jordan, that’s my conclusion.
Right-wing commentator Sean Hannity scored the first interview with the new Speaker. It’s worth a watch if you’re interested in getting a sense for Johnson’s style and convictions. In it, he articulates that the Bible is his personal worldview, and people should read it to understand him. He attends a Baptist church, worked for the Alliance Defending Freedom and wrote a variety of editorials defending strong Christian positions, including arguing against same-sex marriage in the early 2000s.
Of additional interest is earlier comments that Speaker Johnson made about race, particularly in a 2019 interview with journalist Walter Isaacson. Speaker Johnson referred to George Floyd’s death as “murder” and spoke about adopting and raising Michael, an African-American child, in comparison to his biological Caucasian son Jack:
“My son Jack, has an easier path, he just does. The interesting thing about both of these kids, Michael and Jack, is they’re both handsome, articulate, really talented gifted by God to do lots of things. But the reality is, and no one can tell me otherwise, my son Michael had a harder time than my son Jack is going to have simply because of the color of his skin. That’s a reality. It’s an uncomfortable, painful one to acknowledge, but people have to recognize that’s a fact.” (2:10–2:56)
These comments and Speaker Johnson suggesting “systematic change” prompted a backlash from right-wing talking heads, including blogger and podcaster Matt Walsh. Naturally, he has walked back some of his 2019 comments in recent days now that he has a larger spotlight.
Overall, I find Speaker Johnson to be articulate and thoughtful on certain issues and genuine in his faith and ideals, but that doesn’t mean he is compatible with a plurality of American voters. I am worried as how Speaker Johnson and House Republicans will react if Donald Trump loses the 2024 election. Will it be 2020 all over again? Or something worse?
Even though some of his views make me quite nervous, I want to give Speaker Johnson the benefit of the doubt because of his thoughtful comments on certain issues, such as race relations, in the past and how he ended his interview with Hannity, stating that “Ronald Reagan used to teach us that I’d rather get 80% of what I want rather than going over the cliff with the flag waving.” (38:14–38:18)
Our new Speaker of the House indicates that the Trumpists firmly control the Republican Party. It will take a poor showing at the ballot box for the Institutionalist branch to regain control. Unless the MAGA Republicans don’t recognize that election, either.
Then we’ll have bigger problems.