Summary: The rise of the United States’ most inexperienced and reactionary Speaker of the House of Representatives — Editors
Republican Chaos and the Rise of Johnson
The Republican majority currently governing, a term used loosely here, has finally reached a compromise, electing a Speaker of the House of Representatives. Earlier this year, Kevin McCarthy eked out a victory to the speakership after fifteen rounds of voting – something with little precedent. One key concession to the reactionary members of the Republican Party allowed any single member to call what is effectively a vote of no confidence in the Speaker. This is unprecedented. The result of that concession has been a weeks-long debacle, a crisis for U.S. democracy, and the further increase of right-wing power over the Republican Party – and government.
Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, an alleged sexual offender and radical Trump supporter, led the charge against former Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California. He called for a “motion to vacate the chair” His motion succeeded due to the slim Republican majority, the rebellion of reactionary representatives in McCarthy’s party, and the willingness of House Democrats to vote with far-right members of the House to oust the Speaker. Democrats likely believe this will benefit them in the upcoming 2024 election by demonstrating Republican incompetence and inability to effectively govern. If this strategy will work remains to be seen.
Patrick McHenry briefly held the post of acting Speaker, often venting his frustration over Republican infighting and the removal of McCarthy to outlets like Politico. Potential candidates to permanently fill the role included Steve Scalise, the number two leader of the House Republicans who failed to earn Trump’s endorsement; Jim Jordan, a far-right candidate who has been referred to by members of his own party as a “legislative terrorist” and the current Judiciary Chair; Tom Emmer, the Majority Whip whose certification of the 2020 election of Joe Biden led to his loss as a candidate; as well as others not as well-known who gained little traction. Emmer dropped his bid just an hour after being nominated, with Trump’s tantrum on his platform, Truth Social, likely the cause. Johnson was the closest of the three before losing the vote for Speaker after clinching the nomination, with so-called moderate members of the party refusing to budge, thankfully – or so thought.
Finally, the Party settled on Mike Johnson, a little-known member first elected in 2017. He is the least experienced Speaker in 140 years. He faces a party that is deeply embroiled in internal conflicts and whose members are often at odds over the legitimacy of the 2020 election. This in turn destabilizes U.S. democracy and threatens to undermine the 2024 election if the victor is Joe Biden, the incumbent President and de-facto Democratic candidate.
This likely influenced the unacceptability of candidates like Emmer and is why someone like Johnson, a hardline election denier, was desirable to Trump and aligned representatives who decried the previous election as illegitimate despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Meanwhile, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump is being investigated for his role in attempting to overturn the 2020 election. Worth noting, many of the lawyers who participated in his disinformation campaign have entered guilty pleas before the trial has even begun. Sydney Powell, perhaps the most recognizable figure save Trump himself and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani regarding overturning the election, was the first to enter a plea and agree to cooperate with the prosecution.
Johnson is also a Trump supporter, and it is worth noting his role as Speaker will be consequential regarding the certification of the 2024 election. Speakers have immense control over the House, exemplified by the House’s paralyzed status over the course of this month due to the lack of one. But who exactly is Mike Johnson? How great of a threat to U.S. democracy is he?
Who Is Mike Johnson?
Speaker Johnson is a husband and father of three, two of whom are biological and a third, who is Black. Johnson has likened the situation to the movie “The Blindside.” His adopted son has been conspicuously absent during his stepfather’s rise to power, and the New York Times has been unable to contact him. Johnson claims his relationship with his stepson and his lived experience influenced his opposition to reparations for slavery. This influence may be evidenced by Johnson’s acknowledgment that systemic racism exists, much to the ire of conservative Republicans. Nonetheless and correctly, he has been rejected by the Congressional Black Caucus, who referred to him as a “Trump-backed extremist.” Some on the right are still unsatisfied with Johnson, arguing these statements on race ought to disqualify him. What a testament to the counterfactual basis on which MAGA Republicans predicate their views and politics!
Johnson is the representative of Louisiana’s 4th District and a hardline conservative and Christian Nationalist. His “faith” is fundamental to his politics. Academics have argued that he embodies Christian Nationalism, illustrated by a picture circulated by Republicans of him kneeling and “praying” for guidance on the House floor. In his first speech as Speaker, he stated, “I believe God has ordained and allowed each one of us to be brought here for this specific moment.”
He is a dangerous religious fundamentalist, a beacon of light to the right that represents and emboldens an increasingly dangerous reactionary movement that seeks to return LGBTQ+, Muslim, women, and others whose existence conflicts with their hateful views to the shadows. He believes, “the founders wanted to protect the church from an encroaching state, not the other way around.”
This is dangerous rhetoric, but his political action is worse. To Johnson, homosexuality is “the dark harbinger of chaos and sexual anarchy that could doom even the strongest republic.” He has defended laws criminalizing homosexual activity in an amicus briefing to the Supreme Court regarding the decision of Lawrence v. Texas, which decriminalized homosexual sex. He also defended an amendment to the Louisiana constitution that defined marriage as between a man and a woman. He introduced a bill that would make DeSantis’ “Don’t Say Gay” law national policy and he voted for a national abortion ban. Likewise, he opposes both female bodily autonomy and transgender bodily autonomy. He is a threat to progress, freedom, and equality. This threat is magnified to an even greater extent by the most conservative Supreme Court in recent history and Donald Trump’s right-wing populism.
Among his other right-wing inclinations, Johnson does not believe fossil fuels contribute to climate change. He is an unapologetic supporter of the right to bear arms, repeatedly stating the issue is due to a malady of the American heart and mind – or even divorce. He voted against the stop-gap spending measure put forward by moderate Republicans and supported by Democrats. During his chairmanship of the Republican Study Commission a report that was produced called for the virtual destruction of the U.S. social safety net – which is abysmal as it is.
Despite vehement moderate-Republican opposition to Jordan, Johnson, an apprentice of his, was deemed viable. Once again, the faction representing more mainstream views of the U.S. capitalist class has caved to fascistic elements within their party. Joe Biden is no friend to leftists as a staunch opponent of socialism, but he is becoming more and more attractive as fascism becomes increasingly plausible in the United States. A united front appears to be the most realistic way to defeat the right.
Johnson, then, is a dangerous opponent of the left. He is fundamentally opposed to many if not all the progressive victories of the 21st Century. The policies he supports would further denigrate those living in poverty and undermine the ability of the working class to build momentum toward a proletarian state – or even a social democracy. Plain and simple, this man is a fascist.
So, what threats does a fascist such as Mike Johnson pose to U.S. democracy? To begin, he is opposed to the results of the 2020 election. This campaign, which sought to keep the Republican party in power despite its loss, is indicative of their dictatorial tendencies. With Johnson as Speaker, fears are rightfully mounting that Republicans will be in a more empowered position to overturn the democratic will of the people in 2024.
Revisiting the Racist Hayes-Tilden Compromise of 1877
Given the dangers of another contested election, which is a frightening possibility if Donald Trump does not win, it is worth revisiting another moment in U.S. history. While it is unlikely history would repeat itself the same, the Bargain of 1877 illustrates the limitations of U.S. democracy and the dangers of a contested election in polarizing times.
Our time is perhaps the most polarized in U.S. politics save, of course, the Civil War and Reconstruction. The placement of Union soldiers in the South to ensure liberty to the recently emancipated enslaved Black people and to ensure the Reconstruction Amendments were implemented was abruptly uprooted with the election of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. How this came to happen is eerily like what occurred in the 2020 election; although, it was even less clear in 1877, as voter fraud and errors were much more probable than in 2020.
Hayes’ opponent, the Southern Democrat Samuel Tilden, secured 184 of the 185 electoral votes needed to become president. Hayes, the Republican candidate, sat at 164 uncontested electoral votes, and needed all the remaining states (Louisiana, South Carolina, Florida, and Oregon) to win – Tilden needed but one. This, of course, differs from Biden’s passing of the 270-vote threshold to become president. So, in 1877 a Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic-controlled House created a commission that split 8-7 along party lines, ultimately ruling in favor of the Republican candidate, Hayes. Some Southern Democrats claimed Tilden was cheated, just as Republicans claimed Trump was in the most recent presidential election. What eventually ended stalling tactics by Southern Democrats in the House was an unwritten and unverifiable bargain that allowed Hayes to ascend to power after much controversy. President Grant, Hayes’ predecessor, increased military security in response to heightening tensions – quite the opposite of Trump’s response. The nation was incredibly polarized, and the risk of violence appeared high. January 6th justifies modern concerns over potential violence or even insurrection come January 2025.
But what did Hayes do in exchange? It is widely believed by political scientists and U.S. historians that he elected to bring an end to Reconstruction. As historians like C. Vann Woodward argue, amongst other things, Hayes clinched the presidency and gained the support of Southern Democrats by withdrawing Union troops from Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina; agreeing to fund industrial development to restore the Southern economy; and removing Northern interference in promoting the rights of newly emancipated former slaves. Thus, the Bargain of 1877 ended Reconstruction. Though this theory is not universally accepted, it is widespread and plausible. It is also held no one will ever know the entire truth of the Bargain of 1877.
The Present Danger
The Speaker holds immense, God-like power in the House. In 1877, the Speaker was a Southern Democrat. In 2023, it is a MAGA Republican. These are similar conditions to those that enabled the compromise to occur. If Mike Johnson enables dilatory tactics in the face of a contested election like the Speaker, Samuel J. Randall, did in 1877, something similar could occur. And it seems very likely he would. Worse still, if he denies outright the legitimacy of a Democratic victory, he may well refuse to certify the results. Unlike 1877, a compromise is not likely to favor Biden. As mentioned above, Johnson sees politics through the lens of religious fundamentalism – meaning everything is about morality, what is good and what is evil. To Republicans like him, the Democratic Party represents sin due to its support of abortion, homosexuality, globalism, or whatever else they want to tack on. As mentioned earlier, he believes he was placed in the Speaker’s chair by God himself. What this may build to is a dangerous situation like 1877 where the House refuses to certify the election results and the liberals back off their agenda in favor of “peaceable” governance, just as Republicans then did to maintain the union and appease the Southern Democrats post-Civil War. Liberals are representatives of the capitalist class, and some may ultimately concede fascism, if need be, to maintain capital’s dominance.
Mike Johnson refused to certify the 2020 election results, arguing the votes that didn’t go in his party’s favor were unconstitutional. With his elevation to new-found power, his far-right conspiracy theories about the 2020 election now threaten to produce another constitutional crisis. Comparing what may happen in 2024 to what happened in 1877 is, at some level, simply conjecture. That aside, there is empirical evidence Joe Biden won in 2020. Still, extremists within the Republican Party continue to deny the truth. Why would an extremist like Mike Johnson react differently in 2024, especially when emboldened with new-found power? Perhaps he suddenly grows a brain or gains a conscience. Perhaps God will suddenly change his heart.
Regardless of what may happen in 2024, Mike Johnson is deplorable and socially regressive. He is consistent in his belief in counterfactual claims, whether they be about climate change, gun control, or election denialism. He is a deeply homophobic, misogynistic, and theocratic politician. He is aligned with Trump and feeds into and off his relationship with the Evangelical right in this country. He wants to gut the minimal U.S. social spending that helps the working class, the increasing number of impoverished people in this country, the sick, and the old. He is perhaps just as great a threat to U.S. democratic institutions as anyone ever before – including his contemporaries. He represents a fundamental threat to the existence of many in the U.S., to the left, and any vision of a socialist and humanist alternative to capitalism. U.S. fascism has a new face, and its name is Mike Johnson.