Speaker Johnson’s Predicament Shows MAGA Can't Govern
It wants MAGA Mike to pick fights that are political losers
It is undeniable that Republican Representative Mike Johnson would have strong disagreements with House Speaker Mike Johnson. It’s not quite dissociative identity disorder, since Johnson’s two legislative phases don’t temporally coincide, but there is rising concern on the right that the person dubbed “MAGA Mike” by Donald Trump is advancing legislation that is, in the words of Donald Trump, Jr., “the opposite of MAGA … it’s anti-MAGA.”
As Politico recently put it: “The right’s ire toward [Johnson] isn’t universal. But it’s growing: One member called him a ‘joke,’ and another deemed his performance ‘plummeting.’”
The disillusionment with Johnson’s nascent speakership can be primarily attributed to his failure to uphold three foremost MAGA priorities since assuming office:
Swiftly and decisively impeaching President Joe Biden
Halting any further financial support for Ukraine
Declining to work with Democrats to keep the government funded and avoiding a shutdown
On each of these issues, Rep. Johnson would’ve sided with the critics of Speaker Johnson. Whether these actions will ultimately cost the Louisiana Republican the speaker’s gavel is unclear. What is clear is that the Republican Party is currently riddled with internal contradictions that significantly hobble its ability to govern: What a GOP representative must do to court extremists to get into a leadership position is the very thing that makes it impossible for him to lead a broader array of interests—including in his own party—once he gets there.
This demonstrates the inherent unsuitability of MAGA as a ruling agenda—its intrinsic radicalism makes it unpalatable to the wider electorate, fracturing the party itself.
Dreams of a MAGA Speaker
From early 2017, when Johnson first came into office, until about seven weeks ago, Johnson was a relatively unknown congressman occupying various posts within House Republican politics that few imagined would culminate in his ascension to the speakership. The last three Republican speakers—John Boehner (2011-2015), Paul Ryan (2015-2018), and the short-lived Kevin McCarthy (January 2023-October 2023)—had been widely expected to one day occupy the top role in the House long before they ever did. By contrast, not only was Johnson not a household name prior to becoming speaker, but even several weeks into his speakership nearly half the country didn’t know who he was. That means Americans are by and large unfamiliar with his political views.
A dive into his record reveals he’s certainly worthy of the “MAGA Mike” moniker. A committed election denialist whom the Brennan Center called "the legal mastermind behind the doomed push to decertify the election results in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin,” Johnson was also among the early advocates of the Independent State Legislature theory decisively rejected by the Supreme Court. This theory gave state legislatures near complete authority to set election rules without judicial oversight to ensure the rules were in compliance with federal laws.
After hard-right malcontents led by Florida Representative Matt Gaetz defenestrated Speaker McCarthy, the GOP struggled to unite behind a replacement. Eventually, when more notable candidates like Jim Jordan failed to secure the necessary votes, the party threw in its lot behind Johnson, whose affinity for MAGA causes gave the right optimism that it had a new speaker far more in tune with Trump’s priorities than McCarthy was—not that McCarthy was any slouch on that score.
But there is a growing feeling among the Republican faithful that the House GOP is sometimes being led by something closer to RINO Johnson than MAGA Mike.
From MAGA Mike to Swampy Speaker
One of the early signs that Johnson wasn’t going to lead the House as if he were the editorial director of The Blaze was that he dragged his feet on impeaching President Biden far more than anyone anticipated. The right-wing information space—a constellation of conservative media organs, right-wing personalities and politicians, and ordinary Republicans voicing their opinions on social media platforms—is positively obsessed with doing so. It sees this as payback for Nancy Pelosi impeaching Donald Trump twice, never mind that the case against Trump was rather clear cut, especially the second time after he mobilized a mob to ransack the Capitol.
Prior to becoming speaker, Johnson signaled that he was emphatically in favor of doing the same to Biden. He characterized the Bidens as "hopelessly corrupt," accusing the president personally of “bribery” and “pay-to-play schemes.” Johnson’s words were so direct that no one could have interpreted them merely as a poetic exaggeration intended to convey Biden’s general unfitness for office. So the MAGA faithful could be forgiven for thinking that once Johnson assumed the speakership, he’d enthusiastically and immediately back impeachment proceedings.
Instead, according to The Washington Post, Johnson reassured more moderate Republicans in the House in a closed-door meeting last month that there was insufficient evidence to move forward at that time. Today, a full two months after getting rid of the guy who was supposedly shuffling his feet on impeachment, the House GOP announced it is bringing “a resolution to the floor to formalize our impeachment inquiry into Joe Biden,” which is a long way to say the Johnson-led House is taking an incremental step toward impeachment that neither impeaches Biden nor clarifies what the potential articles of impeachment against him are likely to be. For someone so sure that Biden was clearly and unambiguously guilty of corruption, Johnson’s maneuver to “formalize” impeachment proceedings rather than actually draw up articles of impeachment is a continuation of his slow-rolling. By contrast, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia introduced articles of impeachment against Biden back in May.
On Ukraine, Johnson has followed broader Republican sentiment—until now. Initially after Russia invaded its neighbor, he voted for the Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act of 2022—alongside 196 of his party colleagues and with only 10 Republicans dissenting—to ease the process for the U.S. to send military aid to Ukraine. However, in line with the party’s collective abandonment of Ukraine’s resistance effort, he went on to vote against two different appropriations bills that provided aid to Ukraine, one in 2022 and another in September. Now, as if the last two votes never happened, and against the wishes of the Republican faithful, he is indicating a willingness to once again support aid—a development that led The Wall Street Journal to dub Johnson a “surprise champion” of Ukraine assistance. This is a stance worthy of Mitch McConnell, the former Republican Senate majority leader who is widely despised in the MAGA world for clashing with Trump. But Johnson did so in the hope of securing border funding to appease MAGA members, a touching gesture to traditional transactional politics that is unlikely to impress them.
In yet another example of MAGA apostasy, Johnson opted to work with Democrats to fund the government and avert a shutdown. Recall that Rep. Gaetz initiated his successful motion to oust Speaker McCarthy when, at the end of September, McCarthy passed a stopgap funding measure to keep the government operational. Along with 209 Democrats, 126 Republicans voted yes to the motion then. Johnson, however, was one of the 90 Republicans who voted no, insisting at the time that although Republicans do not desire a shutdown, “we are taking a stand here” because Americans “have had enough.”
But less than three months after helping oust McCarthy for passing a government funding bill with Democratic support, Speaker Johnson did virtually the same thing—much to the surprise and delight of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat. “[The funding bill] does two things Democrats have pushed for,” Schumer exulted: “Avert a shutdown … without making any terrible hard-right cuts that the MAGA right-wing demands.”
Johnson’s government funding bill received 93 no votes from Republicans—three more than McCarthy’s.
Texas Representative Chip Roy, who considers Johnson a friend and a man of “integrity and honor” nevertheless slammed his funding bill. “It continues to perpetuate the very system my constituents sent me to oppose,” he lamented. “They don’t want me to continue spending money we don’t have.” The House Freedom Caucus, a MAGA hotbed, issued a statement that was really a warning shot to Johnson. “While we remain committed to working with Speaker Johnson, we need bold change.”
In Lieu of Actual Impeachment
All of this has put Johnson on extremely thin ice with MAGA Republicans. He has tried throwing bones to them that don’t pose the political risk of delivering on big asks like articles of impeachment against Biden. For exaple, he publicly released thousands of hours of footage from the Jan. 6 insurrection. He is clearly trying to one-up McCarthy who handed the footage over only to Tucker Carlson. Johnson didn’t require a vote for this action and it will allow a thousand Carlsons to bloom in the right-wing media universe, each selectively editing it to rewrite history and depict concerns about what happened that day as overblown. But the base wants impeachment.
He likely understands that full-blown impeachment without a smoking gun would jeopardize his speakership, divide the party, and endanger Republican control of the House in 2024. However, the House MAGA wing is not concerned about any of that.
The GOP holds a razor-thin majority in the chamber—221 to 213. And it could get even slimmer given that McCarthy just resigned from Congress and New York Republican Congressman George Santos has been expelled for corruption. The way things currently stand, four Republican defections on any given bill would mean Johnson wouldn’t have the votes; if Republicans lose Santos’s seat to the Democrats in the special election on Feb. 13, the GOP’s chances of retaining control of the House after 2024 get even harder.
Currently, 18 Republican representatives hail from Biden districts, which means that if Johnson moved forward with articles of impeachment and these vulnerable Republicans didn’t vote with the Democrats, they would open themselves up to being branded as MAGA extremists, something not likely to play well in their upcoming electoral contests. Moreover, members of the Republican Governance Group, a House entity boasting more moderates than hardliners, routinely vote with Republicans but have more than a few could easily align with Democrats on impeaching Biden, either because they have qualms about ousting a president without sufficiently strong grounds or out of political self-interest. Voting against your own party is never a great look and comes with a political cost. But not doing so in this instance could invite heightened media scrutiny—not to mention political ads come election time lumping them with MAGA radicals, which would impose an even bigger political cost.
McCarthy offered them a watered-down approach toward impeachment—unilaterally appointing committees to uncover evidence of Biden’s corruption rather than holding a floor vote to approve impeachment proceedings. This was an attempt to simultaneously avoid holding a vote he didn’t think he had the numbers to win while appeasing MAGA hardliners. But the hardliners were not appeased, which is why Johnson knows the only way forward on impeachment is for him to hold a vote.
But Johnson is also trying to have it both ways: his vote is only on “formalizing” an impeachment inquiry, an incremental step that he would have bypassed if he felt he had the votes to impeach Biden right now. He’s hoping this placates the base while not jeopardizing his control of the House. Indeed, one moderate Republican representative has indicated that he’s opposed to impeaching Biden, but willing to vote to continue investigating him. That suggests Johnson’s gambit to hold a vote on formalizing the inquiry, rather than outright on impeachment, is done not because the MAGA approach is to proceed judiciously but because he doesn’t currently have the votes to impeach.
All this underscores the dilemma that MAGAism poses for the GOP as a governing party. Precisely because the MAGA agenda is so extreme, it cannot be a uniting force in Congress or even in the GOP. It cannot reliably muster enough votes to get its own batty agenda enacted, as Johnson’s impeachment reticence until now demonstrates. But just because it can’t get its wish-list easily enacted, that doesn’t mean it can’t raise hell when it doesn’t get what it wants. The MAGA movement primarily gets its powers by being a destructive—not a constructive—force.
Johnson’s impeachment inquiry vote is calculated to ward off the calls for removal that got his predecessor ousted. But given the yawning gap between what MAGA extremists expect of Johnson and the limitations he faces in delivering on them, it won’t be surprising if MAGA voters turn on MAGA Mike.
© The UnPopulist 2023