In Trump’s Shadow

Extremist Mike Johnson has brought Republican anti-politics to the speakership of the House and threatens to blow up all democratic pragmatism in Washington

Trumpism is finally occupying Nancy Pelosi’s former seat. This time, it’s not by force. Mike Johnson, an unknown 51-year-old congressman, is the new speaker of the United States House of Representatives, the second in order of succession to the White House after the vice president. He reached that role as the fifth option, after both moderate and radical candidates were dropped failing to unite Republicans, who have a majority in the House. Johnson had nothing on his legislative resume that would qualify him as speaker. He had two qualities: having a very low public profile and, above all, being a major collaborator from within the legislative branch in Donald Trump’s maneuvers to reverse the 2020 election result, which led to the assault on the very institution over which he now presides.

Johnson’s rise to such a powerful position has put his profile under immediate scrutiny. Apart from actively supporting the coup plot that is being investigated by the Justice Department, the portrait that emerges is that of an ultra-religious, anti-abortion and deeply homophobic character who advocates for fanatical conservatism. It was Trump’s explicit support that tipped the scales toward Johnson, which shows that the Republican leader regards the new speaker as someone not only of his liking, but also easily swayed in comparison to other extremists who were not successful.

In the short term, the outcome is more chaos and paralysis. Johnson’s first decision was to block aid to Ukraine and Israel requested by the White House with demands for budget cuts. The fantasy politics of the extreme right has a very short run when critical decisions affecting millions of people must be made.

On the domestic front, the first major clash with reality is determined by a date, Nov. 17, when the government’s temporary spending bill expires. The legislative branch has to extend it, but can only do so with the agreement of the Democrats. This paralysis is very quickly revealing the political uselessness of populism, but the collateral damage is too great. Trumpism notwithstanding, Democrats cannot waste any opportunity to reach an agreement.

The most troubling aspect of Johnson’s ascent, however, is in the long run. It proves that the Republican Party’s internal battle has systematically settled in Trump’s favor, even though he has proven to be an electoral liability. He continues to lead in the polls and it is increasingly likely that he will once more be the Republican candidate. He is indicted on more than 90 counts in four different jurisdictions. At this point, only the justice system appears to be in a position to oust him from American politics. Even in that scenario, however, the question is how many Mike Johnsons remain inside institutions and how much damage they are capable of doing.

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