Politics / October 26, 2023

Concerned About Democracy? House Republicans Invite You to “Shut Up!”

The message from Mike Johnson’s election is stark: it is not possible for a defender of democracy to serve as a Republican speaker of the House.

John Nichols
Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-LA) takes the oath in the House chambers as members of the House of Representatives

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-La.) takes the oath of office.

(Matt McClain / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The new speaker of the US House of Representatives is a notably inexperienced conservative from a gerrymandered district in Louisiana who has never served in a senior leadership post in this or any other Congress, never chaired a full committee, and, until Wednesday, never could have been picked out of a lineup by the vast majority of Americans.

Mike Johnson’s only real “qualification” in the eyes of his colleagues —and of a certain former president—is that he’s not a Democrat.

Or a democrat.

That second distinction is the one that allowed Johnson to claim the speakership Wednesday—on a 220-209 party-line vote—after weeks of Republican infighting had left the chamber without a leader following the October 3 ousting of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, (R-Calif.).

The message from Johnson’s rapid ascent to the most powerful Republican post in Washington is stark: In the 118th Congress, it is not possible for a defender of democracy to serve as speaker of the House.

House majority whip Tom Emmer, a Minnesota Republican with a record of legislative leadership both in his native state and in Washington, found that out the hard way. Within hours of a Tuesday vote by the majority of House Republicans to launch Emmer as party caucus’s third speaker prospect—following failed bids by Louisiana’s Steve Scalise and Ohio’s Jim Jordan—Emmer quit the race, after getting a thumbs-down from former president Donald Trump.

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Trump dismissed Emmer as a “RINO,” or Republican in Name Only.

Never mind that Emmer’s an extremely right-wing member of Congress, with a 100 percent rating on economic and tax issues from the group Americans for Prosperity, a 100 percent rating from the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, and lots of zero ratings from labor unions and anti-poverty groups. He’s even got a big fat zero from the voting rights and democracy advocates at Public Citizen.

Yet, Trump ripped Emmer as “totally out-of-touch with Republican Voters,” and declared, “Voting for a Globalist RINO like Tom Emmer would be a tragic mistake!” He later reportedly bragged, “I killed him.”

What was Emmer’s sin? He was one of the minority of House Republicans who, on January 6, 2021, voted to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election that Trump lost to Democrat Joe Biden (by more than 7 million votes nationally and by a robust 306-232 margin in the Electoral College).

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With 82 other Republicans, Emmer opposed Trump-backed efforts to overturn the results of the election. In other words, while Emmer is certainly not a Democrat, and is not even a reliable defender of the right to vote, he chose at a critical juncture in American history to fulfill one of democracy’s most basic constitutional functions: certifying the peaceful transfer of power.

Because of that stance, Emmer’s speakership bid was doomed, and Republicans quickly chose a new, more Trump-deferent prospect. Despite a record that makes him the least experienced speaker since the 19th century, Johnson was immediately hailed by the former president as a “spectacular” choice for the top spoke in the House. Johnson’s not all that much more right-wing than Emmer on fiscal, foreign policy, or social issues—although the Louisianan’s rigid, and extremely outspoken, opposition to abortion rights and LGBTQ+ rights is notable even among Republicans.

Johnson sought the speakership with the one qualification that matters to Trump: a disregard for democracy. After the 2020 election results made it clear that Trump had lost, the representative from Louisiana urged the defeated Republican president to “keep fighting” the outcomes, promoted conspiracy theories about rigged voting machines, and became, as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has noted, “a key architect of the January 6th strategy to overturn the US election.”

A lawyer, Johnson organized an amicus brief that was signed by more than 100 House Republicans in support of a move by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to invalidate electoral votes from four swing states that had backed Biden: Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. In an e-mail that Johnson circulated asking colleagues to sign on, the Louisiana Republican wrote, “President Trump called me this morning to express his great appreciation for our effort to file an amicus brief in the Texas case on behalf of concerned Members of Congress. He specifically asked me to contact all Republican Members of the House and Senate today and request that all join on to our brief.”

Ominously, Johnson added in a memo to Republicans who feared the 45th president’s political disfavor that Trump “said he will be anxiously awaiting the final list to review.”

Paxton’s suit crashed and burned ,offering a reminder that neither he, nor Johnson, was particularly familiar with—or respectful of— well-established laws and precedents governing presidential elections and the Election College.

But Trump approved of the partisan boondoggle, as he did Johnson’s rallying of the 139 House Republicans who supported at least one of the objections to certifying electoral votes from swing states that favored Biden.

All of this would seem to have been consequential to Americans as the relatively unknown Johnson emerged Tuesday as the front-runner in the race to replace McCarthy. By any reasonable measure, it mattered that someone with so much disregard for democracy was being positioned to serve as the leader of the chamber that will certify the results of the 2024 presidential election—in which Trump is again running—and who would, if chosen, be second in the line of succession for the presidency.

But Johnson and his fellow House Republicans didn’t see it that way. At the Tuesday press conference where caucus members circled around Johnson and formally launched his speakership bid, ABC News congressional reporter Rachel Scott asked about the role the Louisianan had played in seeking to overturn 2020 election results. Johnson refused to answer, but his face lit up as his colleagues booed the reporter. And he beamed when House Education and Labor Committee chair Virginia Foxx, a North Carolinian who makes Jim Jordan seem levelheaded, repeatedly shouted for the reporter to, “Shut up!”

A day later, Mike Johnson was sworn in as speaker of the House. And the answer of House Republicans to those who raise concerns about the perilous state of American democracy is now, formally and unequivocally, “Shut up!”

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John Nichols

John Nichols is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation. He has written, cowritten, or edited over a dozen books on topics ranging from histories of American socialism and the Democratic Party to analyses of US and global media systems. His latest, cowritten with Senator Bernie Sanders, is the New York Times bestseller It's OK to Be Angry About Capitalism.

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