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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Speaker of Surprises?

Louisiana’s Mike Johnson doesn’t seem like a radical, but perhaps he holds unguessed depths.

Congressman,Mike,Johnson,(r),Attends,House,Judiciary,Committee,Field,Hearing
Credit: Iev radin

“It was worth it.”

So says Matt Gaetz of his move against Kevin McCarthy, 22 days and four GOP nominees later. It is hard to dispute. McCarthy was not a conservative, nor did he have the pragmatic bona fides of an operator like Mitch McConnell, whose brainless and soulless personal views are at least balanced out by an ability to get things done. That McCarthy was ever elected speaker of the House to begin with is a ringing indictment of the Republican Party’s Washington establishment.

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That offense has been corrected now. McCarthy lost the gavel, and none of the worst-case scenarios materialized. No liberal Republican, no Respectable Moderate, no rabid war hawk or corporate crony managed to weasel his way into the job. The ostentatiously unimpressive Patrick McHenry, a McCarthy ally made speaker pro tempore upon his ouster, did not get a chance to make his Hail Mary play. The long-shot possibility that a faction of dissatisfied Republicans would break off to elect a compromise candidate with the Democrat minority came and went, barely a flash in the pan.

Mike Johnson’s ascension seems a shining example of the Buckley Rule in action. The man who came closest to the gavel before him was Jim Jordan, who fell short first by 17, then by 18, then by 23 votes before his colleagues sent him packing by way of a secret ballot. To a number of intraparty holdouts—not to mention opponents across the aisle—Jordan was an unacceptable option. Yet wherever the two men differ on politics, Johnson is to Jordan’s right, and the objectors gave way for the former but not the latter. Maybe it is simple presentation. Johnson is mild-mannered, a Southern gentleman without a drawl, buttoned-down and bespectacled without projecting McHenry’s weakness. Jordan revels in his brash populist image—his signature look: jacket off, cuffs rolled, tie loosened—and carries himself through the House of Representatives like a wrestling champ with a chip on his shoulder.

Still, the staid new speaker has his detractors. The emerging narrative among left-wing activists in the so-called “mainstream” media is that Johnson is a proponent, an ally, or a sympathizer of “Christian nationalism.” As of this writing, fretful articles to that effect have already run in Time, Newsweek, Politico, MSNBC, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, the Associated Press—the list goes on. (If nothing else, it is remarkable how quickly a propaganda network can get its ducks in a row.)

Definitions may be important here. Insofar as “Christian nationalism” means the belief that nations should be Christian, this is a bare minimum for sound politics. Insofar as it means a Christianized revision of the anti-universalism of early modern political theology, it is a philosophical question that even the speaker of the House is not likely to drag from the online journals into the realm of actual statecraft. Far more likely is that opinion-makers use the term simply to gesture at religious reaction, to raise a specter that looks vaguely like The Handmaid’s Tale but that contains neither a roadmap nor a substantive philosophy. I would be surprised to learn that Johnson is part of any revolutionary vanguard. 

In fact, much of the evidence presented to this end suggests the opposite conclusion to more serious observers. In his first speech as the leader of the chamber, Johnson quoted G.K. Chesterton’s profound misunderstanding that “America is the only nation in the world that is founded upon a creed”—one “set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence.”

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The speaker did not continue to the rest of Chesterton’s thought: 

Nobody expects a modern political system to proceed logically in the application of such dogmas, and in the matter of God and Government it is naturally God whose claim is taken more lightly. The point is that there is a creed, if not about divine, at least about human things.

To cite without the obvious qualifications the gravest of liberal errors—the primacy of The American Idea—is not exactly the stuff of hard-right ambition. It is an important reminder of Johnson’s actual politics, which are essentially the consensus politics of the Republican Party circa 2004. Johnson is as hardline as they come on the red-meat social issues. He has also stated publicly that his “number one priority” is making cuts to Social Security and Medicare. He has stayed dangerously silent on much of foreign policy—recall the George Bush of 1999—but is already making gestures toward more funding for Ukraine. He is better than a mile by Kevin McCarthy. But he hardly seems the reactionary avatar of TAC dreams and AP nightmares.

What do the progressives hyperventilating about Johnson’s radical philosophy really fear? That he will manage to act on his common-sense belief that America is daily betraying its Christian heritage, and that in so doing it invites chaos now and judgment in the days to come? That five years hence, American children will be praying to the Lord each morning in schools across the country; that marriage will be restored in law to the concept required not just by Scripture but by bedrock mental function; that the industrial slaughter of innocents will become first illegal, then impracticable, and then unthinkable; that the regular conduct of unjust wars will be left behind by the greatest Christian power this world has seen since the fall of Rome—that disaster will be averted though the hour is very late?

I would be surprised, but I have been surprised before.