Who’s House Speaker Mike Johnson?

by Jackie Calmes

“MAGA Mike” won. Which means, alas, so did Rep. Matt Gaetz.

For Gaetz, the smarmy Trump Mini-Me from Florida, and his fellow Republican nihilists, the House’s surprise election of right-wing Rep. Mike Johnson, a formerly obscure Louisianan (despite his big role working to overturn Donald Trump’s defeat), amounted to sweet, sweet vindication.

Here was Gaetz, chortling on like-minded Steve Bannon’s “War Room” podcast Wednesday morning, in anticipation of Johnson’s election: “If you don’t think that moving from Kevin McCarthy to MAGA Mike Johnson shows the ascendance of this movement and where the power in the Republican Party truly lies, then you’re not paying attention.”

Gaetz isn’t wrong about that.

McCarthy in his nine-month reign mostly pandered to the nuts, culture warriors and election deniers in his House Republican majority, ever fearful of the coup that finally came after he twice diverged from the extremist path to actually govern — compromising with the Senate and White House first to avoid a debt default and then a government shutdown. But to the right-wingers, the shape-shifting McCarthy was always a poser.

At times over the last 22 days, as Republicans proved too riven to pick a new leader, Gaetz and his far-right cohorts had reason to worry that their coup would result in little change at best, and, at worst, that it might backfire.

The House rejected the right’s favorite to replace McCarthy, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan. Two other Republican nominees, Majority Leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, were in the McCarthy mold; their candidacies fizzled for lack of support (and, in Emmer’s case, from former President Trump’s drive-by shooting). The impasse gave rise to talk of some bipartisan arrangement to run the House — MAGA’s worst nightmare.

Gaetz could probably hear what his House Republican enemies, and there are many, would say: “Are you happy now?”

He is of course very happy now that an exhausted and utterly embarrassed Republican caucus united to choose Johnson, only in his fourth House term, to be speaker and second in line to the presidency. Gaetz and Johnson differ big-time in style: Gaetz is in-your-face, Johnson so amiable and nonconfrontational that he is “friend to many and an enemy to none,” as Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York told the House in nominating Johnson. Hence his unlikely elevation.

But in substance, Johnson is little different from Gaetz and his ilk. Johnson has described his relationship with Jordan, mentor to the far right, as “like Batman and Robin.” But Johnson’s politics are more infused with the conservative religiosity he demonstrated in his remarks accepting the speakership. He told the House of his absent wife, “She’s spent the last couple of weeks on her knees in prayer to the Lord. And, um, she’s a little worn out.”

Johnson’s opposition to abortion — he favors a national ban — and to same-sex marriage and LGBTQ+ rights and protections is well documented in his pre-Congress work as an attorney for the socially conservative Alliance Defending Freedom. After the Dobbs decision overturned the constitutional right to an abortion, Johnson suggested that now women would produce more “able-bodied workers,” whose payroll tax contributions would help save Medicare and Social Security.

CNN reported on editorials Johnson wrote in his hometown Shreveport, La., paper, in which he called homosexuality a “dangerous lifestyle” that ultimately could end “the entire democratic system.” He claimed in 2004, “Experts project that homosexual marriage is the dark harbinger of chaos and sexual anarchy that could doom even the strongest republic.”

Then there’s his behind-the-scenes legal work after the 2020 presidential election to challenge electoral votes in pro-Biden states. The New York Times called Johnson “the most important architect of the Electoral College objections.” He enlisted most of his fellow House Republicans in support of a brief to the Supreme Court, yet the justices declined to take the underlying case.

Late Monday night after his nomination as speaker, Johnson joined other Republicans surrounding him in laughing at a reporter who’d had the temerity to ask about his “effort to overturn the 2020 election results.” At his side, Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina yelled “Shut up! Shut up!” Johnson, ever smiling, turned to another reporter for a question.

He is indeed the “smiling seditionist,” as longtime Republican strategist Mike Murphy posted on X. 

So, yes, Gaetz is celebrating; his dethroning of McCarthy led to the seating of a fellow MAGAt. But Democrats are feeling celebratory, too.

In the 2022 midterm elections, two issues — abortion rights and democracy protection — mobilized many voters to elect more Democrats and far fewer Republicans than both parties expected. Democrats are counting on the same issues to work for them in 2024.

And with Johnson on the wrong side of both as far as most Americans are concerned, look for Democrats to make MAGA Mike an albatross around House Republicans in swing districts. 

Jackie Calmes is an opinion columnist for the LA Times in Washington, D.C.