Voices: The House GOP civil war that delivered Trump is over. The radicals won

Rep Matt Gaetz  (Getty Images)
Rep Matt Gaetz (Getty Images)

After Republicans unanimously elected Rep Mike Johnson (R-LA) to become speaker of the House, Rep Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), the conspiracy-mongering congresswoman, had every reason to flash a smile off the floor. She had remade the Republican leadership in her image.

Ms Greene’s role in the coup that led to Mr Johnson – an ardent opponent of abortion who introduced a national version of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation – should not surprise anyone. She is a key figure in the rise of right-wing extremism that pervades the Republican body politic.

What was indeed more surprising was how much the rest of the GOP went along with her to assist Mr Johnson’s ascent. Mr Johnson is a zealot of the highest order, someone who worked for the hard-right Alliance Defending Freedom; an ardent opponent of abortion who wants to restrict the rights of LGBT+ people and who served as Donald Trump’s Howitzer in Congress to overturn the 2020 election results.

But his fervor for theocratic policies did not impede his ability to unite nearly every faction of the very divided House Republican conference. Indeed, many of the Republicans who had previously raised serious objections to creeping fanaticism in the party brushed off these concerns as technicalities.

Mr Johnson’s triumph signifies the wholesale victory of the hardliners within the conference who had engaged in a bitter 15-year-civil war with the House Republican establishment.

Some Democrats like to pin the slide to the right solely on Mr Trump, which makes sense, given the former president’s unique unpopularity.

“Donald Trump has cemented his control over the Republican conference in the House of Representatives,’ Jamie Raskin (D-MD), who jousted with Mr Johnson and the GOP’s attempts to overturn the election in 2021, told me.

Mr Raskin, who was first elected in 2016, is a respected constitutional scholar with a mastery of the law. But he has this dynamic backwards. It was the 15-year feud between the establishment and the radical right, fueled by the anger of the Tea Party, that laid the groundwork for the trail that Mr Trump would later blaze.

Indeed, Mr Trump would begin floating a run for president in 2011, after the 2010 Republican wave, largely on the back of the conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, which had first been floated in the Tea Party fervor after Mr Obama’s election.

The Tea Party Caucus and eventually the House Freedom Caucus has made a name for itself in the past decade, perhaps most famously when they forced a government shutdown in 2013, beat House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a primary in 2014 and forced John Boehner to leave the speakership in 2015.

But the hardliners, largely led by Rep Jim Jordan (R-OH), didn’t achieve the structural changes they sought. Mr Boehner was quickly replaced by Paul Ryan, another creature of the establishment, and then Mr McCarthy after him. Mr Trump’s election benefited many of them personally – they either joined his administration or moved up the ranks in the House – but he busted the budget, failed to repeal Obamacare and didn’t build the wall with Mexico or pass legislation to restrict immigration. And their hope for procedural changes on the Hill never came.

It took a new breed of right-wingers – a style that was more media-savvy and willing to violate norms – to actually get the radical demands.

And havoc they did wreak. After years of the hardliners threatening to vacate, the radicals, led by Matt Gaetz (R-FL), pulled the trigger and vacated Mr McCarthy, laid waste to Mr Scalise and humiliated Mr Emmer. They had a hiccup in their attempt to nominate Mr Jordan but now seem to have overcome it.

Moreover, they did so with the help of the old school establishment. Rep Elise Stefanik, an Ivy-League educated alumnus of George W Bush’s administration who worked for Mr Ryan, gladly nominated Mr Jordan and Mr Johnson on the House floor. Rep Dan Newhouse, one of only two of the 10 Republicans left in the House who voted to impeach Mr Trump and who had voted to certify the election, led the pledge of allegiance on Tuesday before votes and supported for Mr Johnson, despite the fact Mr Newhouse voted to certify the election results.

Mr Johnson leading Republicans in an amicus brief for a lawsuit to overturn the 2020 election results in Michigan, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin also didn’t seem to bother Rep Ken Buck (R-CO), who had previously confronted Mr Jordan and Mr Scalise about their parroting of the lie that the election was stolen and he voted for Mr Johnson.

Earlier this year, I sat down with Rep Nancy Mace (R-SC), one of the eight Republicans who voted to oust Mr McCarthy, and she warned “We're not going to win hearts and minds over by being a**holes to women.” On Wednesday, she voted for Mr Johnson, who has said “we will get the number of abortions to ZERO!!”

The radicals seem to know they have power and will use it in the future. Rep Bob Good of Virginia told me that Mr Johnson’s election had vindicated them.

“Absolutely,” he said. “This is the kind of person we wanted as a speaker. And Mike Johnson is someone that many members of Congress have talked about for a year that could be the kind of person that could become speaker.”

And they plan to hold him accountable. After the vote, I caught Rep Eli Crane of Arizona and asked him if they planned to make sure Mr Johnson lived up to their promises, which he responded affirmatively. It’s now the radicals’ GOP and they are always watching.