Heather Cox Richardson
Today, the United States House of Representatives elected a new speaker to replace former speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who was ousted by Republican extremists. The new speaker, Representative Mike Johnson of Louisiana, had an advantage over rivals because he has been a backbencher in the House fewer than eight years, too invisible to have made many enemies. He is the least-experienced speaker in more than a century.
Senate Republicans openly admitted they didn’t know who he was. Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) added: “Apparently experience isn’t necessary for the speaker job…. We’re down to folks who haven’t had leadership or chairmanship roles, which means their administration of the House will be a new experience for them.”
The Republican conference decided to back Johnson after extremists scuttled their first choice after McCarthy, Louisiana representative Steve Scalise, and after a block of Republicans refused to back Trump loyalist Jim Jordan of Ohio. After Jordan, Minnesota representative Tom Emmer got the nod from the conference…until former president Trump expressed his disapproval.
Democrats repeatedly offered to work with Republicans to elect a speaker who accepted the results of the 2020 presidential election and who agreed to bring to the floor for an up-or-down vote legislation that was widely popular in both parties. The Republicans rejected those offers.
Instead, they have elected a pro-Trump extremist as speaker.
Johnson was instrumental in Trump’s attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Routinely in touch with Trump, he rallied his colleagues to object to counting the electoral votes from states that Democratic candidate Joe Biden won. As Trump’s legal challenges to the results failed, Johnson pushed a Texas lawsuit against the four states that had given Biden the win, calling for the invalidation of millions of his fellow Americans’ ballots, and echoed lies about Venezuelan interference with ballots.
Johnson has also embraced the far right’s culture wars. He is a self-described evangelical Christian who is staunchly anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ rights, anti-union, and anti-immigration. He has close ties to the Israeli right wing, and he opposes further aid to Ukraine, saying such money would be better spent at home, but he has also called for extensive cuts to domestic spending programs.
When a reporter asked Johnson about his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, the colleagues surrounding him booed and told the reporter to “shut up.” On the floor of the House, every single Republican voted for Johnson.
And so, the House Republicans have caved to the MAGA extremists. Representative Pete Aguilar (D-CA) said that for the Republicans, the search for a speaker hadn’t been about looking for someone interested in “growing the middle class, helping our communities, keeping the cost of healthcare lower, and making life for everyday Americans better.” Instead, Aguilar said, “this has been about one thing…who can appease Donald Trump. House Republicans have put their names behind someone who has been called the most important architect of the  electoral college objections.” A Republican yelled back: “Damn right!”
The Republicans appear to be planning to go before the voters in 2024 with a presidential candidate who is deeply enmeshed in trials over allegedly criminal behavior, whose hastily appointed Supreme Court justices overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wadedecision recognizing the constitutional right to abortion, and who tried to steal the 2020 election. Alongside him, they have now elevated a fervently anti-abortion House speaker who backed the former president’s effort to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Voters resoundingly rejected both of those positions in 2022.
In contrast to his Republican colleagues, in his welcome to the new speaker, House minority leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) outlined his caucus’s efforts to work with Republicans in a bipartisan way, noting that it was the Democrats who provided the votes to raise the debt ceiling, to pass a continuing resolution to fund the government and thus avoid a shutdown, and to secure disaster assistance for Americans suffering from extreme weather events.
Going forward, he said, House Democrats will “continue to push back against extremism in this chamber and throughout the country. House Democrats will continue to protect Social Security, protect Medicare, protect Medicaid, protect our children, protect our climate, protect low-income families, protect working families, protect the middle class, protect organized labor, protect the LGBTQ community, protect our veterans, protect older Americans, protect the Affordable Care Act, protect the right to vote, protect the peaceful transfer of power, protect our democracy, and protect a woman’s freedom to make her own reproductive health care decision.”
But Jeffries’s soft speech covered a steely message. He observed that “Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election,” adding that “[h]e’s doing a great job under difficult circumstances, and no amount of election denialism will ever change that reality.”
Jeffries pointed out that great presidents of both parties have urged House members to “put aside partisan politics for the good of the American people,” and he noted that Americans are “understandably alarmed at the turbulence of the moment, at the chaos, the dysfunction, and the extremism that has been unleashed in this chamber, from the very beginning of this Congress.” But in what amounted to a warning to the newly empowered extremists, he continued: “But this, too, shall pass. Our country has often confronted adversity, and the good news is we always find a way to make it to the other side.”
“We faced adversity in the 1860s, in the middle of the Civil War, when the country was literally tearing itself apart. We faced adversity in October of 1929 when the stock market collapsed, plunging us into a Great Depression. We faced adversity in December of 1941, when a foreign power unexpectedly struck, plunging us into a world war with the evil empire of Nazi Germany.
“We faced adversity in the Deep South in the 1950s and 60s, when the country was struggling to reconcile the inherent contradictions between Jim Crow segregation and the glorious promises of the Constitution. We faced adversity on September 11th, 2001, when the Towers and the Pentagon were unexpectedly struck, killing thousands of lives in an instant.”
And then, by placing House Republicans in this list, Jeffries tied them to the wrong side of history. “We faced adversity right here in the House of Representatives when on January 6, 2021, a violent mob of insurrectionists incited by some in this chamber overran the House floor as part of an effort to halt the peaceful transfer of power,” he said.
And, he concluded, “[e]very time we faced adversity, the good news here in America is that we always overcome