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Mike Johnson elected as speaker of the house. Alamy Stock Photo
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Larry Donnelly A new House Speaker has been elected in the US - Mike Johnson, now what?

Our columnist looks at the right-wing constitutional lawyer and close associate of Trump is now the House Speaker and hence an extremely powerful man.

photo-by-siegfried-nacionstar-maxipx-2023-102523-donald-trump-returns-to-court-for-the-second-day-of-testimony-in-the-nys-civil-fraud-case-against-the-former-president-on-october-25-2023-in-new Donald Trump returns to court for the second day of testimony in the NYS civil fraud case against the former president on 25 October. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

“I HAVE MANY wonderful friends wanting to be Speaker of the House… RINO [Republican in name only] Tom Emmer, who I do not know well, is not one of them… he is saying that he is Pro-Trump all the way, but who can ever be sure?…Voting for a Globalist RINO like Tom Emmer would be a tragic mistake.”

So said Donald Trump on his Truth Social network when Tom Emmer, the Minnesota Congressman and GOP whip in the United States House of Representatives, captured a majority of votes in his quest to end the prolonged charade on Capitol Hill and succeed his Californian colleague, Kevin McCarthy, in the Speaker’s chair.

Emmer was not sufficiently hard line for inescapably important fringe dwellers like Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor-Greene. He was distrusted by Trump for daring to certify the 2020 election result in President Joe Biden’s favour, despite the fact that he had expressed doubts about the outcome and championed Trump’s lawful challenges to it.

Accordingly, Emmer almost certainly would not have prevailed in a vote on the House floor anyway, but the Truth Social post was the final nail in the coffin. Conservatives abandoned him quickly and flocked to Congressman Mike Johnson of Louisiana. Having earned the unanimous support of the Republican membership, this heretofore relative unknown, far-right-wing constitutional lawyer and close associate of Trump is now the House Speaker and hence an extremely powerful man.

Election games

Before pondering the potential impact of a Johnson speakership on US foreign policy and international affairs in a time of crisis, the 2024 elections and the American polity more broadly, two things are worth noting at the outset.

First, though it really should not come as any surprise, the influence Donald Trump – a defendant in high stakes legal proceedings at the federal and state levels across the land – continues to wield over public officials is remarkable. Even the prominent Republicans in Washington who curse him privately will not defy or offend him openly in the knowledge that he has a lock on the loyalties of the women and men whose votes they need in primary and general re-election campaigns.

Second is the strategy the Democrats adopted three weeks ago. Instead of either encouraging some of their own in battleground districts to back the beleaguered ex-Speaker Kevin McCarthy under the banner of bipartisanship or abstaining en masse in the vote precipitated by the heave of a handful of objectively unhinged Republicans, such as Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, Democrats voted for their leader, Hakeem Jeffries, to assume the speakership.

house-minority-leader-hakeem-jeffries-d-n-y-walks-to-a-vote-at-the-u-s-capitol-oct-26-2023-francis-chungpolitico-via-ap-images House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) at the U.S. Capitol Oct. 26, 2023. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

They did so aware that Jeffries lacked the numbers to win. Further, all but the fantasists in their midst recognised that there would never be enough Republican defections to the other side of the aisle to put the African American New Yorker over the top. They declined to stay out of a sordid intra party squabble occasioned by McCarthy’s doing a deal with them to prevent the government from partially shutting down.

This was a political ploy. Endorse Jeffries and take McCarthy, who many had come to disdain personally, out. Let the Republicans be consumed by ugly infighting and ultimately select a Speaker so beyond the mainstream that regaining control of the House becomes likely.

From a raw political point of view, after what has transpired and with the elevation of Mike Johnson, Democrats may have gotten what they wanted. But the sad spectacle that the world has watched – collectively astonished, notwithstanding massively diminished hopes of what to expect from America’s democratic institutions – has been horrendous for their country. And Speaker Johnson could be worse still.

GOP at the wheel

He and his advisers are already mindful that the ill-conceived rules making it very easy for aggrieved GOP House members to fire a Speaker endure and that the Freedom Caucus faction will not hesitate to pull the trigger if he frustrates them.

Thus, he is likely to do their bidding. The consequences could have a significant detrimental effect on the rest of the planet.

Johnson, only in his fourth term, is circumspect about the provision of more aid to Ukraine. He has been given an F grade by the “Republicans for Ukraine” grouping for his stances and posturing to date and has declared that any financial or other backing would only be forthcoming “with conditions.”

Conversely, his first act in his new job was to push for an unrepentantly pro-Israel resolution, which passed overwhelmingly. The measure affirms US sponsorship of Israel and calls on Hamas to cease attacks and release hostages. The evangelical Christian reportedly has ties to the Israeli far right and is keen to send billions of dollars to bolster its defences.

The Speaker’s heartfelt opinions, espoused with equal vigour by those who promoted him, could exacerbate the ongoing tragedies in two deeply troubled spots and heighten tensions with many of America’s old allies.

At home, it is difficult to predict how Speaker Johnson will deal with the threat of a partial government shutdown on 17 November. He has indicated that a stopgap measure to avert a calamity is a top priority for him. But how it will be received by Matt Gaetz et al is anyone’s guess.

There will also be pressure on him to commence additional hearings in the Biden impeachment inquiry, something that is near and dear to Trump, his benefactor.

As the 2024 presidential and congressional elections swiftly approach, there is political peril awaiting the 51-year-old Louisianan at every turn. “Wise old heads” in the GOP will caution that the American people will blame Johnson and their party if the government shuts down. They also understand that there is little appetite among the public for another presidential impeachment, whatever the merits.

The problem for Speaker Johnson is that he is beholden to people for whom these entirely rational considerations do not matter a damn. They could remove him on a whim if he pivots in a direction they disapprove of, in spite of the reality that expedient shifts may be required to advance the causes they claim to believe so deeply in.

It has been reported that Mike Johnson is a decent guy, as opposed to, for instance, the widely loathed Jim Jordan, one of three who failed in their bids for the speakership in the recent chaotic period. He warmly embraced Hakeem Jeffries on Wednesday and was conciliatory in words addressed directly to his counterpart. “I know we see things from different points of view, but I know in your heart you want to do what’s right — so we’ll find common ground there.”

Of course, hope springs eternal. But forgive my pessimism as to the prospects for finding common ground or reaching consensus in a divided, damaged US Congress. Whither America?

Larry Donnelly is a Boston lawyer, a Law Lecturer at the University of Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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