The American Dream of a backbencher congressman. Will a Donald Trump supporter manage?

For the first time in 140 years, the United States has not had a Speaker of the House of Representatives with such a short parliamentary tenure.

On October 25, 2023, the most important event in the 51-year life of Mike Johnson took place. On that day, the Republican congressman representing the 4th congressional district in Louisiana was elected as the 56th Speaker (the equivalent of the Polish “Marshal”) of the House of Representatives. A cosmic promotion for a politician who first appeared in Congress in January 2017, having not previously held any significant political positions.

Johnson formally became the third person in the superpower largely by accident, or perhaps because he was... the fourth. More serious candidates with greater experience and ambitions played themselves to political death, and someone was needed to end the 22-day comedy of errors caused by the removal of the previous marshal, Kevin McCarthy. A farce that resulted in the complete paralysis of the House of Representatives – and with it the entire U.S. Congress, in the face of two ongoing wars in the world, in Ukraine and the Gaza Strip.

If someone wanted to write the history of suicidal political embarrassments, the “beautiful disaster” of the Republican congressmen of October 2023 should constitute a separate chapter. It all started when Florida congressman Matt Gaetz – proudly presenting himself as the “Trumpiest congressman” – filed a motion to remove McCarthy. Officially, it was because the then-Speaker of the House did not listen to the most conservative congressman regarding budget cuts, but tried to pass the budget with the support of the Democrats, which leaders of the Donald Trump-supported informal MAGA (Make America Great Again) movement considered a betrayal. McCarthy accepted the challenge, submitted the motion for voting, and – to almost everyone’s surprise – lost miserably on October 3. Although Gaetz and eight other Republicans voted “for”, the motion passed with a majority of 216-210 votes, as all the Democrats in the House – with great joy – supported the “Republican civil war”.

Because he had the fewest enemies

The removal of McCarthy, who had gathered tens of millions of dollars from the campaigns for his colleagues, just 269 days in office (after being humiliated at the initial election – elected in January only in the 15th round of voting after the decisive vote was cast by none other than... Gaetz) sparked a war within the Republican Party. For three weeks, the U.S. House of Representatives could not function because the Republicans, with only a five-seat majority, were unable to elect a Speaker of the House.

In the Republican Party, everyone fought with everyone. In internal votes, three candidates favoured by the party hierarchy were defeated. For three weeks, America could watch the spectacle of the Republicans’ quarrels and impotence, as if politicians in opposition (after all, Democrats have the presidency and the Senate) not only could not, but did not want power in Washington, although important decisions need to be made regarding the budget and wars. Finally, after three weeks of disputes, the Republican congressmen came to their senses and unanimously, without a vote against or even abstaining, voted for Johnson.

Why him? Congressman Ken Buck said in one interview that Johnson “can make friends with anyone and is respected” in the parliamentary club. Although closer to the truth seems to be what Buck stated later: they chose him because he “had fewer enemies than anyone else in the Republican Party”. Which in turn probably stems from the fact that Johnson, due to his short parliamentary tenure, simply did not have time to offend too many colleagues.
Republican Congressmen Matt Gaetz (on the right) and Mike Johnson in September 2023 as members of the U.S. Justice Committee conducting hearings on accusations against President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Photo by EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS. Provider: PAP/EPA.
Mike Johnson is indeed the Speaker with the shortest parliamentary tenure since... 1883, or 140 years. He has represented Louisiana’s 4th congressional district since January 2017, which is just under seven years. Born in 1972 and a lawyer by training, before being elected to Congress in November 2016, he sat in the state legislature. In the House of Representatives, he was the head of one of the advisory bodies of the parliamentary club, and for the past two years, its vice-chairman.

To the right of Center

What are Johnson’s views? After Donald Trump’s loss in the 2020 presidential elections, he was one of the initiators of a petition supporting a motion to invalidate the election results, which he signed along with 125 other congressmen. For this reason, the instigator of the whole turmoil, Congressman Gaetz, believes that the change of Speaker “paid off” because “The Swamp [as Trump and his supporters call the political establishment in Washington – ed. note] is retreating, and the MAGA movement is on the rise,” as evidenced by “MAGA Mike Johnson” becoming Speaker.

  Interestingly, Democrats are also happy, willing to use his conservative views as a stick to beat the Republicans, especially among moderate voters. “It’s a rare and explosive case of a previously untested, very conservative talk show host,” said one Democratic Party spin doctor to Axios, emphasising that the amount of Johnson’s “right-wing rhetoric off the cuff” recorded on paper and tapes exceeds the wildest dreams of Democratic staffers.

Indeed, his views on social issues – pleasing the Right – will be ruthlessly used by Democrats to campaign among the increasingly secularising electorate. Johnson is a staunch opponent of abortion: as a lawyer, he worked for a firm that fought to abolish the legality of abortion introduced based on the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision, and in Congress, he advocated for a bill to ban abortion after detecting a foetal heartbeat.

He is decidedly against supporting gender transition for minors and is not a supporter of same-sex marriages. These views are already being attacked by liberal media, and additionally ridiculed by the fact that Johnson admitted he and his 17-year-old son use software that monitors the use of pornography on electronic devices (in case of accessing such a site, the other person is notified).

Johnson has also been criticised for having almost no savings, living effectively – like millions of Americans – from paycheck to paycheck. Although this fact could indicate that this politician – unlike many of his colleagues – does not derive income from suspicious sources.

In other issues – like illegal immigration, taxes, support for Israel – the new Speaker belongs to the right wing of the party. There is also bad news for Ukraine: as a rank-and-file congressman, Johnson opposed increasing military aid to the country.

Johnson’s first decisions as Speaker confirm his right-wing views. Not only did he, contrary to President Biden’s request, separate the decision on aid to Ukraine and Israel, but he also made the latter package ($14.3 billion for Tel Aviv) dependent on identical cuts in the budget of the IRS (Internal Revenue Service).

Although the bill was passed, it has no chance of becoming law – the Democrats, who control the Senate, deemed it unacceptable (dead on arrival), demanding the inclusion of funds for Ukraine in these provisions. A compromise may involve linking aid to Kyiv with the issue of strengthening barriers on the border with Mexico, although here the resistance of President Biden’s administration against combining these two issues may be an obstacle.

However, the next few weeks are a real test for Johnson: how to vote through a package of twelve budget bills (as the federal government’s budget consists of that many) in such a way as to get approval from the Senate and President Biden, while not losing the support of conservative congressmen who demand spending cuts.

In the arsenal of the latter is a real atomic bomb: failure to pass the budget on time threatens to stop funding federal programs, which de facto means halting the activities of at least some government agencies and ministries. The federal government has funds to operate only until November 17 (it was for passing this budgetary provisional with the help of Democrats that McCarthy was removed), which forces a quick search for a compromise.

Battle for Taiwan. US losses: 10,000 casualties, two aircraft carriers sunk

China has a chance to win.

see more
Although old Washington hands aren’t panicking: as has often been the case before, Congress will likely pass another provisional measure, postponing the need to make tough spending decisions until January or even April next year.

Donald Trump set the example

After just under two weeks, it’s hard to judge what Johnson’s term as Speaker of the House will look like. His lack of political experience (he was not in the party’s top leadership, nor did he even serve as the head of a parliamentary committee) is seen as a significant weakness. Getting budget bills through Congress, compromising with the Senate, and avoiding a presidential veto requires not only finesse and negotiating skills but also political capital.

Many decisions of American lawmakers are transactional: members of Congress vote for bills in exchange for funding in their districts, or even directly for campaign funds – the question is whether Johnson has the means to pay. While his predecessor, Kevin McCarthy, won the hearts and votes of his colleagues by collecting substantial sums for their re-elections, the current Speaker has had too little time to boast significant achievements in this area.

Johnson’s rule and the Republican majority in the House of Representatives are likely to end with the current term. With the elections in November next year, the electoral map of America could change significantly. Democrats are running an aggressive campaign in courts to change the electoral map in such a way as to create several safe districts for their candidates. With the current configuration of 222 Republicans to 213 Democrats, even this reform alone could change the majority ruling the House of Representatives.

However, the consequences of October’s turmoil related to the dismissal and appointment of the Speaker of the House seem much more serious. Several weeks of disgraceful disputes could have solidified in voters’ minds the perception that the Republican Party – dominated by Donald Trump and his imitators, such as Matt Gaetz – is incapable of seriously governing and solving the problems of ordinary Americans.

Moreover, the Republican congressmen who voted for McCarthy’s dismissal have yet to boast significant legislative achievements. Gaetz – a 41-year-old congressman with a distinctive gelled hairstyle – represents wealthy young blood. A son and grandson of prominent local politicians, representing a safe Republican district, he is known for bombastic speeches and significant activity on television and social media.

Gaetz doesn’t hide his admiration for Donald Trump and seems to follow his idol’s method: provoke controversy, use media and social networks to make noise about yourself, collect additional campaign donations, and repeat this cycle as often as possible. The dismissal of the Speaker of the House of Representatives is a big success and political scalp for Gaetz, which is supposed to open his way to the political super league, alongside Trump.

The question is whether Americans, facing an increasingly dangerous situation in the world (the war in Ukraine and Gaza, rising rivalry with China) and a declining standard of living, are not already a bit tired of the “Trump method,” which – after all – has been going on for the ninth year, since June 2015, when the eccentric billionaire announced his run for the presidency.

Right after McCarthy’s dismissal, former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich called his party colleagues who voted for the dismissal “traitors,” suggesting that “the entire eight should have rivals in the primaries” and “be ousted” for focusing on intra-party quarrels instead of tackling Biden and his flawed policy. How will the voters react? The next primaries are in the spring. Then the future of the 56th Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mike Johnson, will be decided. And not only his.

– Paweł Burdzy

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by jz
Main photo: President Donald Trump with Congressman Mike Johnson at the Capitol in February 2020. Photo by EPA/LEAH MILLIS / POOL. Provider: PAP/EPA
See more
Civilization wydanie 22.12.2023 – 29.12.2023
To Siberia and Ukraine
Zaporizhzhia. A soldier in a bunker asked the priest for a rosary and to teach him how to make use of it.
Civilization wydanie 15.12.2023 – 22.12.2023
Climate sheikhs. Activists as window dressing
They can shout, for which they will be rewarded with applause
Civilization wydanie 15.12.2023 – 22.12.2023
The plane broke into four million pieces
Americans have been investigating the Lockerbie bombing for 35 years.
Civilization wydanie 15.12.2023 – 22.12.2023
German experiment: a paedophile is a child's best friend
Paedophiles received subsidies from the Berlin authorities for "taking care" of the boys.
Civilization wydanie 8.12.2023 – 15.12.2023
The mastery gene
The kid is not a racehorse.