Mike Johnson Got Elected, But Matt Gaetz Is the Big Winner of GOP’s House Speaker Battle

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty

I want to take a moment to congratulate Rep. Matt Gaetz. You did it, man! “MAGA Mike” Johnson (as Gaetz affectionately calls him) is the new Speaker of the House of Representatives.

In case you’ve forgotten, Gaetz spearheaded the effort to oust then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Oct. 3. But in the intervening days, it was unclear whether McCarthy’s exodus would lead to a Trumpier replacement (such as Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan) or a more establishment type (such as Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer). Today, it is clear that Gaetz’s move paid off. Johnson played a key role in trying to help Donald Trump overturn the 2020 election.

Now, in fairness, it’s unclear how newly-minted House Speaker Mike Johnson, 51, will lead. But those who view election denial as the sine qua non, as Trump clearly does (that’s the reason Trump sunk Emmer, who voted to certify the 2020 election), have good reason to believe that the Big Lie has been, thanks in large part to Gaetz, deeply embedded into the GOP’s leadership.

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As Gaetz boasted to Steve Bannon on Wednesday, “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.”

I agree. And again, Gaetz deserves most of the credit (or blame) for this outcome—and not just because he took down Speaker McCarthy on Oct. 3.

Instead, the elevation of MAGA Mike was the result of concessions Gaetz demanded from McCarthy way back in January.

While forcing Kevin McCarthy to take 15 speaker votes back in January, Gaetz and his allies won a huge concession (the provision that allows for just one member to invoke a “motion to vacate the chair”).

As I observed at the time: “[H]ere’s the thing about confrontational politics: It. Never. Ends. Fights are inherently good, because every fight results in you gaining turf. As such, you must always be picking fights.”

Unlike normies who just want peace and comity, Gaetz understands that conflict is necessary to advance his MAGA worldview.

It took 11 months to complete the project, but Gaetz was finally able to “upgrade” Republican House leadership.

Think of it this way. When Trump was first elected, he was forced to work with Republicans who had previously been hostile to him and did not share his worldview. Then, a second wave included converts who, though thoroughly co-opted by Trump, had started off in the establishment lane.

We are now entering into third-wave Trumpism: the elevation of true believers. The rise of the first MAGA speaker.

And if we have learned anything, it is that this is just the beginning. Gaetz has been rewarded, and his theory regarding how to change the GOP and America has been confirmed.

The House GOP Didn’t Just Reject Jim Jordan, They Made Him Squirm

In some ways, the fact that McCarthy would be replaced by a more Trumpy alternative was always predictable.

My operating assumption from day one was that a right-wing candidate had an inherent advantage over a more establishment-friendly candidate. This is because moderates and institutionalists are more likely to compromise and cave.

However, the normies stood firm for a while—like when Jordan was thrice defeated on the House floor—and it looked like Gaetz’s move might have backfired.

Ultimately, though, you can’t win a game of “chicken” against someone who doesn’t care whether the whole clown car goes off the rails.

After weeks of being speaker-less, the Republican normies grew exhausted (notice how Republican members angrily dismissed a reporter’s question about Johnson trying to help overturn the 2020 election results). They caved, as Gaetz assumed they would.

Aside from the element of exhaustion, Mike Johnson had something else going for him: the fact that he was a largely unknown backbencher and (despite his political positions) temperamentally moderate.

Johnson is not hated (or really even known) the way Gaetz and Jordan are. He also smiles and looks mild-mannered. He seems to get along with his colleagues on a personal level. These traits matter.

As such, “MAGA Mike” seems less scary than most America First types. Perhaps this will make him a more effective wolf in sheep’s clothing—or maybe he governs more moderately than Gaetz would like (in which case, his days are also numbered).

It won’t take long for us to get a sense of how he will lead. House Republicans will very quickly have to determine whether they will pass a continuing resolution to fund the government next month and whether they will fund aid to support Ukraine and Israel.

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But even if Speaker Johnson proves more moderate and pragmatic early on, the fact remains that the new Republican leader was an architect of the attempt to overturn the 2020 election. In a sane world, this would disqualify him from becoming second in line to the presidency.

Even assuming Johnson behaves like a nice, normal guy, what happens if the 2024 election is in dispute? Would Speaker of the House Johnson (who is also a constitutional lawyer) use his powers to support Trump again, even if he knew he had lost?

In a radio interview from Nov. 2020, Johnson said, “the allegations of these voting machines, some of them being rigged with this software by Dominion, look, there is a lot of merit in that. And when the president says the election was rigged, that’s what he’s talking about. That the fix was in.”

For many of us, election denialism is a scary red line that shouldn’t be crossed. For Matt Gaetz, though, it’s time to uncork the champagne.

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