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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

They’re All “Extremists”

The Republican Party has long been pushing us toward an apocalyptic dystopian future. The differences between individual Republicans are far less important than their similarities.

The Republicans in the House of Representatives have finally selected a Speaker of the House, the forgettably-named Mike Johnson, who was the party’s fourth choice. Johnson is being described in the media as an “extremist.” Johnson is anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ, pro-fossil fuels, and he pushed Donald Trump’s damaging falsehoods about the 2020 election being rigged. The New York Times editorial board says that Johnson’s election shows that “Trumpism as an institution has transcended the man and provided the operating principles for the House of Representatives and much of the Republican Party.” He demonstrates the “long slide from the party of Ronald Reagan — whose 11th Commandment was not speaking ill of other Republicans and who envisioned the party as a big tent — to the extremism, purity tests and chaos of the House Republican conference this year.”

Paul Krugman, in a column on Johnson’s selection, says the GOP has now gone “full-on extremist.” Krugman, as an economist, mostly focuses on Johnson’s economic policy ideas, which include essentially trying to end Medicare and Social Security. Krugman says that if Johnson had his way, the “evisceration of the U.S. social safety net” would cause the country to “become a vastly crueler and less secure nation, with far more sheer misery.”

The Times also has an article demonstrating Johnson’s alarming views on climate change. While “other Republican lawmakers increasingly accept the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is dangerously heating the planet,” Johnson “has questioned climate science, opposed clean energy and received more campaign contributions from oil and gas companies than from any other industry last year.” His record is stark: 

The League of Conservation Voters, an environmental group, has given Mr. Johnson a lifetime score of 2 percent. The American Energy Alliance, which represents fossil fuel interests, gave him a score of 100 percent in 2022.

But the next sentence is worth noting. After showing us that Mike Johnson has radical, extreme views on climate change, the Times mentions that:

The scores, however, are nearly identical to those earned by Mr. Johnson’s predecessor as speaker, Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, who did acknowledge climate science.

In fact, McCarthy’s 2022 League of Conservation Voters score was zero percent, and his lifetime score was only 4 percent. In other words, these two men are exactly the damn same. The only difference between them is rhetorical; McCarthy makes a few noises about how climate change is a problem while voting consistently to make the problem worse, while Johnson denies the existence of the problem while voting to make it worse. 

I’m suspicious of all attempts to categorize GOP members as “moderates” or “extremists,” because, as my colleague Stephen Prager recently pointed out in an excellent article on Nikki Haley, the Republicans labeled “moderate” often have radical views that differ very little from those of the “extremists.” The difference is mostly rhetorical, not substantive. 

For instance: Krugman warns that Mike Johnson wants to gut Social Security and Medicare. So did Kevin McCarthy. As Alex Lawson of Social Security Works explained to me recently, the right has been waging war against Social Security and Medicare since these programs began. Often they de-emphasize this part of their agenda in public, because the programs happen to be very popular and help a lot of people. (Read Lawson’s interview to understand the various sinister ways that Republicans have tried to cut Social Security without looking like they’re cutting Social Security.) But cutting social programs is core to Republican ideology. It is, as Lawson says, their “north star.”

What does it mean, then, to say that Johnson is an “extremist” among Republicans on this? He isn’t. He’s “bog standard.” He and the rest of his party want a government they can “drown in the bathtub.” They’ve wanted it for a long time. They dream of a theocratic, plutocratic dystopia. They venerate the Founding Fathers, who believed the majority of people should be kept from exercising any power over the government. They’re really not shy about this, even when they don’t spell out the full implications.

On climate, all of them want the fossil fuel industry to continue to wreck the planet. Heck, even Democrats are divided on that, with senators like Joe Manchin and John Fetterman being open about supporting planet-destroying companies. Manchin boasted that the Democrats’ signature “climate” legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act, has helped us to produce fossil fuels at “record levels.” Many Democrats, including Barack Obama and Joe Biden, have been little better than Kevin McCarthy, acknowledging the problem while pushing non-solutions that look like Doing Something while ultimately ensuring that nothing threatens the profits of the fossil fuel sector. (McCarthy, for instance, believed that we shouldn’t reduce fossil fuel use but should instead just plant a trillion trees. Biden pushes us to embrace giant electric Hummers that are actually worse for the planet than many gas-powered vehicles.) 

There’s a persistent myth, embraced by many American liberals, that Republicans are divisible into Bad Extremists and Good Civil Moderates. As Prager points out, this leads to the whitewashing of Nikki Haley’s record. It’s also what leads people like progressive commentator Robert Reich to praise someone like Liz Cheney, who has just as “extreme” a vision for the country as Donald Trump but who thinks the president ought to be someone more like her father, Darth Vader. (Sorry, Dick Cheney.) We can witness this myth in “Bush nostalgia,” which is when Democrats say “Gosh, the Republicans are so crazy these days, I actually look fondly back on George W. Bush.” (“You Guys, I’m Starting To Miss Dubya.”) But Bush was a Christian nationalist (just like Mike Johnson), a man who took his orders from God and, according to the Sierra Club, “[undid] decades if not a century of progress on the environment.” Note that the New York Times editors suggest there’s been a “slide” from Reagan to Mike Johnson. But as I’ve written before, a look at Ronald Reagan’s record reveals that it was plenty “extreme” itself, and it’s notable that the fundamental change that the Times cites is the loss of Reagan’s unwillingness to criticize fellow Republicans—in other words, it’s less that they’ve become more “extreme” than that they’ve become less civil. 

Given the urgency of the threat of climate catastrophe, and the Republican Party’s unified commitment to worsening the problem, I tend to agree with Noam Chomsky’s verdict that the Republican Party is the “most dangerous organization on Earth.” Notably, he said that at a time when ISIS were a major threat, but he explained that in terms of the ultimate harm caused, the Republicans easily qualified as being worse than ISIS

“Is ISIS dedicated to trying to destroy the prospects for organized human existence? What does it mean to say, not only are we not doing anything about climate change, but we are trying to accelerate the race to the precipice.”

When we zoom out, I don’t think the Republicans’ choice of speaker tells us terribly much. Kevin or Jim or Steve or Mike—the similarities are far more important than the differences. Yes, Mike Johnson has even worse quotes about LGBTQ people than many other Republicans and wants to criminalize gay sex. But the war on LGBTQ people is a nationwide project of the Republican Party. If other Republicans were substantially opposed to it, they would switch parties, or at the very least speak out against it.

The election of Johnson actually exposes how absurd the whole idea of a subgroup of Republican “extremists” is. All the Republicans voted for him! If he’s part of an “extreme wing,” then that “wing” has officially ceased to be a wing. It’s the whole party, and it’s time to stop trying to parse the tiny differences between the Republicans who are louder about their mission to build a theocracy and wreck the Earth versus the ones that are slightly quieter about it. 

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