The new House Speaker, Mike Johnson (La.), is a well-spoken man with an affable demeanor. But what lies beneath the gentlemanly mien? Is there a “Christian nationalist” just waiting to crawl out? Or is he another “RINO” in disguise, perhaps?
It is usually wise to bet against the hysteria of the liberal press. The left-wing rag Salon only somewhat exaggerated the consensus by declaring Johnson a “bigger threat to America than Hamas could ever be.” Democrats are plugging the same message: Johnson is a “MAGA extremist” with a radical, religiously infused agenda.
On the right, the obloquy of the media is often a badge of honor. No one understands that better than the restlessly provocative Matt Gaetz (R-FL), who paved the way for Johnson’s sudden rise from obscurity. The evangelical backbencher is every bit the scary right-winger that the liberals say he is, if we take Gaetz at his word. Johnson means business. He is not one of those “uniparty” swamp creatures like Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). Or is he?
Unlike the comparatively urbane and un-ideological McCarthy, Johnson can at least be mistaken for a fanatic, or what today passes for one. In a recent interview with Sean Hannity, he described sodomy as a “lifestyle choice” rather than a sacrosanct “identity,” a big no-no in today’s world. At the same time he downplayed his record on culture controversies. America is many things, but “socially conservative” it is not. The Democrats understand this very well, and “MAGA Mike,” who seems to be an intelligent man, knows it too.
Given enough time, Johnson is likely to disappoint his new right-wing fans. Notes of skepticism are already creeping in. On foreign policy, his tentative backing of Ukraine, even as Western leaders come to grips with the inevitability of a negotiated peace, puts him at odds with the new (or rather, old) isolationism of “America First.” While the American right is overwhelmingly sympathetic to Israel, Johnson’s decision to make Israel his first priority, even as the invasion of the Mexican border rages unabated, will raise doubts in some minds about his commitments and his judgment.
Johnson’s hawkish foreign policy belies a soft heart. When America lost its mind three summers ago, Johnson joined the mad rush to declare George Floyd’s death a “murder” and demanded “transformative change.” He described the Declaration of Independence as a “promissory note,” adopting the radical view of the Founding as an incomplete project and a restless engine of permanent revolution.
Such woefully superficial rhetoric does not stray from the usual GOP fare. But in the era of Trump, Republican voters have raised their expectations. They want leadership that is unapologetically patriotic and which unequivocally rejects the radical left and its racial calumnies. Social conservatism married to aggressive foreign policy and “civil rights” with a folksy Christian touch is not radical; it is a well-established tradition in Republican politics, represented by the likes of the dearly departed Mike Pence.
Through no merit of his own, Johnson has done what McCarthy could not. He has unified the establishment GOP with its “America First” faction, which, after the seemingly pointless events of the past month, is beginning to look like a part of the “uniparty” it claims to oppose. Even if Johnson fails to meet the high expectations laid upon him by left and right alike, which appears likely, it is doubtful Gaetz will turn on the man he has already declared an anti-establishment maverick. Whatever happens next, the drama of the past weeks is finished: there is even word that the single-member motion to vacate rule, which precipitated McCarthy’s demise, will get scrapped.
The excitement of McCarthy’s sacking having passed, right-wingers may wake up to find that the GOP is basically the same party as before, with a Speaker more or less palatable to the status quo. The right will grow more disillusioned with any Republican not named Trump, and the left, no matter how mild Johnson turns out to actually be, will continue its untethered spiral into madness.