The House of Representatives has struggled for the better part of the month without a speaker because the Republican majority cannot agree on a leader. Without a speaker to preside over votes, the country cannot support its allies overseas or pass a domestic budget. Republicans are thus threatening America with fiscal ruin and diminished leadership abroad. At noon on Tuesday, it looked as though Representative Tom Emmer of Minnesota, a conservative and the House Majority Whip, who won a majority of the conference to become its nominee, was en route to being the next speaker. By late afternoon, he had dropped out, unable to garner 217 Republican votes, no doubt because Donald Trump reiterated his opposition to Emmer that afternoon. As midnight approached, the conference gave the majority of its votes to Mike Johnson of Louisiana, who forwarded a crackpot election denial theory that even the Supreme Court rejected. On Wednesday, the 51-year-old was elected Speaker of the House.
But it’s not just America’s interests the GOP is damaging with its being beholden to its most extreme members; it is also their own. Donald Trump fares worse against Joe Biden in public polling than many of his GOP rivals, and his looming courtroom trials add unprecedented risk to the Republican prospects next year. Recent polling also suggests that Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s independent presidential bid might take more votes from Trump than from Biden, damaging the GOP’s chances at recapturing the White House.
These three seemingly disparate problems have the same origin: the Republican base is beset with conspiratorial fantasies. One in four Republicans believes in QAnon, a grab bag of paranoid theories claptrap that includes the notion that Trump is still president prosecuting a secret war against cannibal child predators and John F. Kennedy, Jr. did not die in a 1999 plane crash and is alive and well and working in tandem with the 45th president. Seven in ten Republicans believe in the racist Great Replacement theory, which posits that white Americans are being intentionally “replaced” with non-white immigrants for various nefarious reasons. Crucially for understanding the speaker fiasco, seven out of 10 Republicans also believe the Big Lie that Trump won the 2020 election.
It doesn’t help that the GOP has lost control of its own communications apparatus, which was replaced long ago with a right-wing media complex that promotes lies and thrives on its audience’s rage whether Republicans win elections or not, much less whether the country functions.
My Washington Monthly colleague Matthew Cooper speculated on various possible reasons for the House GOP’s lack of unity and competence compared to House Democrats. Democrats have their own tensions, but they are nothing like the House Republicans ceding control of the caucus to far-right and anti-democracy elements of the Party. Whenever an even marginally more responsible adult in the party attempts to push back, they are inundated with literal death threats and warnings that Fox News will make a public example of them.
Former Speaker Kevin McCarthy—no moderate—was ousted in October by a handful of firebrands for having the temerity to avoid a government shutdown. Since then, every potential replacement has taken a harder line, pandering to the far right. Steve Scalise, one of the House’s most conservative members, once was quoted as describing himself as “David Duke without the baggage” and recently falsely claimed that the Biden Administration had appeased Hamas terrorists and given them “over billions of dollars.” But he was passed over as insufficiently far-right. Jim Jordan came perilously close to winning his bid for the Speakership after being endorsed by Trump, partly because of his inflammatory rhetoric and his role as a participant in Trump’s plan to cling to power and overthrow democracy. When Jordan’s allies narrowly failed to boost him into power, his opponents got death threats. The House remains rudderless and unable to function as of this writing.
Then, of course, there is the likely GOP nominee. Trump was nominated by the Republican base over the initial opposition of the GOP establishment in 2016 mainly because he was willing to tell grandiose lies, promulgate conspiracy theories, and promote open bigotry to the GOP base. The McCains, Romneys, and even George W. Bushes were no longer acceptable to GOP primary voters: the trend toward know-nothingism that sprouted with conservative voters’ love affair with Sarah Palin in 2008 achieved full bloom with Trump in 2016.
While the press and the public have become inured to it, Trump’s rhetoric has grown increasingly violent and unhinged over the last several months. But despite that—or rather more likely because of it—he remains dominant in Republican primary polling.
But while Biden’s struggle to regain popularity among voters gives Trump a frighteningly high chance of regaining the presidency, he is clearly not the GOP’s strongest candidate: head-to-head polling consistently gives other aspirants better chances of succeeding in 2024—even before Trump’s legal troubles begin to take an inevitable toll. But the base cannot quit Trump.
The GOP’s paranoid bigotry has won new converts, but it also makes the party vulnerable to being drowned by charismatic crackpots. Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s presidential campaign was once seen as a threat to Joe Biden because the Kennedy name still has salience with Democrats. But once Kennedy decided to run as an independent rather than a Democrat, the landscape shifted considerably. While some polls indicate that the effect of RFK, Jr. in the race might be minimal, at least one recent survey suggests Kennedy on the ballot would be highly detrimental to Trump’s chances.
This makes some sense; Kennedy would give conspiracy-friendly and less partisan voters who don’t like Trump or other GOP policies a palatable choice.
For the last decade, Republicans have often benefited from stoking paranoia, hate, and conspiracy theories. But those forces can destroy the party, too.