Republicans manufactured a "crisis" — now they are ready to exploit it

The GOP's speaker debacle has resulted in the most radical leader of the House of Representatives in history

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published November 1, 2023 5:45AM (EDT)

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) speaks as (L-R) Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA), Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), and Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) listen during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol May 11, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) speaks as (L-R) Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA), Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), and Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) listen during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol May 11, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Democracies get sick and then die from within. One of the main ways that this occurs is when mainstream conservative political parties and movements begin to form alliances with fascist and other authoritarian leaders and forces because of an incorrect belief that the latter can be controlled and used as a weapon against a common enemy on the so-called left.

In the end, that often does not happen. The right-wing extremists instead take control of the mainstream institutional “conservative” party. This can happen by conquering and coercion or through a marriage of convenience and (mostly) choice.

Why this pattern?

Conservatism, in most contexts, has a deep and inherent tendency towards authoritarianism and hierarchy. This dynamic is especially pronounced in a society that is undergoing changes that challenge the existing order of things, such as demographics or other challenges to “tradition” and the in-group’s perceived power. “We thought we could control them!” has been the epitaph of many democracies and societies that have succumbed to fascism and other forms of authoritarianism and illiberalism. In many ways, this is the story of how Donald Trump and his neofascist MAGA movement came to dominate today’s Republican Party. 

For more than seven years, however, the American mainstream news media has mostly refused to apply the correct analytical and historical lenses to explain these challenging and uncomfortable realities to the American people. Instead, the mainstream news media’s preferred narrative – contrary to the obvious and abundant evidence — remains one of “centrists” and “moderate” and “traditional” Republicans who in their various forms are somehow going to save the Republican Party and conservative movement — and by implication — American democracy from Trumpism and the larger neofascist movement. And when the mainstream news media does, however infrequently, correctly describe Trumpism and the larger white right as being existential dangers to the country’s democracy and society, it still refuses to take the next step of explaining how such forces are the symptom of much deeper problems that will far outlast any one leader or movement.

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On this, political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (who are co-authors of the excellent books “How Democracies Die” and the new “Tyranny of the Minority”) explained to PBS in a recent interview how "to be a party committed to democracy, you have to do three very simple things":

Number one, you have to accept election losses, win or lose. Number two, you have to not use violence to gain or to hold onto power. And then, number three, most critically, in some sense, for mainstream political parties is, you have to distance yourself and be explicit and open about condemning anybody who's an ally of your party that commits any of those first two types of acts.

To be a party committed to democracy, in order for democracy to survive, the political parties in a political system have to ascribe to all three of those principles. This applies to parties of the right and of the left.

And I think what is so concerning….is that over the last four years, we have seen a process of decay within the Republican Party where all three of those principles are violated, but, in particular, most recently among mainstream members of the Senate.

In many ways, the mainstream news media’s coverage of the Republican Party’s struggle to choose a new speaker of the House is a distillation of its larger failures in the Age of Trump. Instead of focusing in on how the various Republican candidates for speaker, both individually and collectively, embody how today’s Republican Party is an existential threat to the country’s multiracial pluralistic democracy, the majority of the coverage defaulted to an inadequate, obsolete and irresponsible narrative that emphasizes the horserace, winners and losers, characters and villains, complete with mockery, inappropriate humor, liberal schadenfreude and gossip.

America’s democracy crisis is not the fault of “both sides," it is a manufactured crisis. 

And even worse, too many journalists and members of the commentariat looked at the “disarray” among the Republicans in the House, and then declared a premature victory over the MAGA movement, and that Trump’s influence was most certainly waning. Of course, that was and is not true. With the rise of Speaker Johnson and Trump’s enduring power in the polls and influence over the Republicans in Congress, the MAGA movement continues to grow and metastasize across American political life. 

When the mainstream news media and its pundits and commentators make such grave errors, it drives the public’s lack of faith and belief in them as an institution, which are the very sentiments that neofascists and other malign actors use in their war on the truth and the legitimacy of the country’s democratic norms and institutions. If the mainstream American news media had followed through on either journalism professor Jay Rosen’s advice to consistently report “not the odds but the stakes,” or heeded political scientist Norm Ornstein’s warning that “elections have consequences, life and death ones and now a question of the life or death of the democracy,” the narrative would have been very different.

Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, who was briefly in the running to replace Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., after his historic ousting as speaker, is a white supremacist who reportedly described himself as “David Duke without the baggage." He also supported Trump’s coup attempt on Jan. 6 and the Big Lie.

Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, who failed numerous times to win the support of his GOP conference, is also an insurrectionist and supporter of Trump’s MAGA movement and the Big Lie. Jordan has also been credibly accused of ignoring the sexual assaults that were being committed by a team doctor when he was a college wrestling coach.

Louisiana Rep. Mike Johnson is a Biblical literalist, an unapologetic Christofascist who wants to impose a White Christian theocracy on American society. Of course, Johnson rejects pluralism and the societal progress made in this country since the 1960s. Johnson also believes that women are de facto chattel who should be subservient and submissive to their husbands (and men more generally). He and his wife view gays and lesbians as being deviants and monsters who need to be cured and/or removed from American society and life. Johnson also supported Trump’s coup attempt, the Big Lie, and the larger plot against democracy. He also believes in the basic ideas of the white supremacist "great replacement" conspiracy theory. Johnson was unanimously elected as the 56th Speaker of the House by the Republicans – including the so-called “moderates”.

In a new essay at the New Republic, Melissa Grant summarizes the danger that Speaker Johnson represents to American democracy:

How far of a leap is it from fake prosecutions to fake electors? The distance is considerably narrowed if you believe God wills you to go there. Johnson’s election denialism and his anti-LGBTQ politics emerge from the same ideological commitments. After all, if under democracy white Christians are being 'replaced' — by immigrants, by Muslims, by trans kids, by drag queens, by a whole litany of scapegoats — perhaps the only way to save the United States and white Christians is to end democracy. Democracy leads to abortions and gay sex. Democracy means that the candidate ordained by God can maybe lose an election.

Johnson’s tenure as Speaker will be another test (which they will predictably fail) of how the mainstream news media responds to a Republican Party that is radically polarized against American democracy and healthy consensus politics and compromise in the interest of the common good.

Will the mainstream news media continue its obsession with “centrist” Republicans, when few if any such Republicans now exist in the party and “conservative” movement? And what does it mean to be a “centrist” and “traditional” member of a neofascist political party and movement? “Moderate” and “centrist” fascist is an oxymoron.

In a new essay at Press Watch media critic Dan Froomkin intervenes:

Corporate media seems to lack the vocabulary to accurately describe the modern Republican Party.

The latest example, of course, is the election of a new Speaker of the House: Mike Johnson, an insurrectionist anti-gay right-wing extremist Trump proxy.

Those words accurately describe the little-known congressman from Louisiana. In fact, they’re quite restrained.

It would be even more accurate to call him a bigoted Christofascist member of the Trump cult willing to end democracy as we know it.

Any of those descriptions, of course, are way too blunt for the dignified editors of our top newsrooms — all of whom believe in balance more than accuracy.

But consider how poorly the words they choose describe the reality of the Republican Party and its current leadership….

The thing is, these political journalists know better. Every so often, they write about what a second Trump presidency would actually look like and it’s appropriately terrifying…. Each of those articles is worth reading. But it was one-and-done for each of those news organizations. Any mention of the actual stakes is routinely lost in the coverage of the incremental developments.

Ben-Ghiat encourages reporters “to think more thoughtfully about what is the aim in glamorizing people who enabled an attempt to overthrow the government, and have shown only scorn toward our democracy? What is gained by putting them in a flattering light?

“It only encourages them to do more of that. If even the Post is writing this kind of puff piece, then what incentive do they have to change their ways? Very little.”

America’s worsening democracy crisis is largely the fault, by design and intent, of today’s Republican Party and “conservative” movement. For decades they and other forces on the right wing have systematically undermined the country’s democratic and other governing institutions and then blamed the Democrats, “liberals” and “the Left” for the very problems they intentionally created. The solution to the problem is to further destroy democracy and then to replace it with a type of fascist-authoritarian regime in an American mold. In this case, that would be Donald Trump, America’s first de facto dictator.

In his essential 2004 book “The Anatomy of Fascism”, political scientist Robert Paxton explained how this strategy to delegitimate democratic institutions works in practice:

We are not required to believe that fascist movements can only come to power in an exact replay of the scenario of Mussolini and Hitler. All that is required to fit our model is polarization, deadlock, mass mobilization against internal and external enemies, and complicity by existing elites.

In the end, America’s democracy crisis is not the fault of “both sides," it is a manufactured crisis. 

America’s mainstream news media will not tell that basic story. Why?

As Upton Sinclair supposedly observed, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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