October 26, 2023 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

With Mike Johnson’s victory, ‘deinstitutionalization’ is winning

GOP insurgents have been attacking democratic institutions for years in a bid to overtake them. One of them is now speaker of the House.

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I once said that if Jim Jordan became House speaker, the Congress would become more chaotic than it is. Well, Jordan’s bid collapsed last week. “Moderates” were having none of him. His spirit lives on, as it were, in the body of the new speaker. Mike Johnson is equally Maga. He’s just more “mild-mannered.”

Don Moynihan is a political scientist at Georgetown. I wanted to know if Jim Jordan’s failure was a sign that the decade-long project of “deinstitutionalization,” as Professor Moynihan calls it, had finally reached its limit. To my dismay, he said no. “His failure represents the contradictions of deinstitutionalization, but not its limits,” he said.

We talked last week, before the vote to elect Johnson, which deepened his belief that the deinstitutionalization project continues apace. The main difference between Jordan and Johnson, he said in an update, “is profile and personality, not their extreme nature of their views.”

“Mike Johnson is as disqualified for the position as Jim Jordan was, and his selection reflects that the House would prefer an election denier rather than finding common ground with Democrats.”

“They have similar voting records, and Johnson called Jordan ‘brother’ when he endorsed him,” Moynihan said. “Where Jordan seeks the limelight, Johnson is not well-known. Jordan is apt to give bombastic statements. Johnson chooses his words more carefully and is polite.”

Johnson may be more extreme than Jordan, Moynihan added. “He provided the legal fig leaf that other Republicans relied on to justify voting to overturn the election. He worked with the encouragement of Trump to get Republicans to sign onto a legal brief with the goal of disenfranchising millions of voters. His prior work was with the legal movement that overturned Roe. He is as disqualified for the position as Jordan was, and his selection reflects that the House would prefer an election denier rather than finding common ground with Democrats.”

Below is our conversation. Where you see Jordan’s name, you can accurately swap in Johnson’s. The GOP insurgents who ousted former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy seemed to have failed after Jordan’s star fell with a thud. But with Johnson as speaker, maybe they didn’t. 

JS: In your latest piece, you said the big story of the last decade has been the Republican assault on democratic institutions and their failure to repel the GOP’s assault. You call this project “deinstitutionalization.”

DM: The deinstitutionalization project involves Republicans attacking major institutions, largely relying on conspiracy theories, with the goal of discrediting them to the point that they can take control of them. It reflects the idea that Republicans run for office not so much to govern as against government. This is beyond traditional partisan bickering.

For example, Republicans have gone after the FBI, a conservative institution run by a Republican appointee, and never by a Democrat, for being insufficiently aligned with GOP causes. Deinstitutionalization also means delegitimizing government, telling voters it is fundamentally rotten, while simultaneously eroding the norms of good government. 

JS: You said every Donald Trump needs a Jim Jordan. Every Jim Jordan needs a majority of his party to step aside while the insurgents acquire enough power to destroy the institutions. Jordan lost his bid for the speakership. Are we witnessing the limits of deinstitutionalization? 

DM: His failure represents the contradictions of deinstitutionalization, but not its limits. Three candidates that Republicans voted on (Kevin McCarthy, Steve Scalise and Jordan) all voted to overturn the last election but only Jordan was involved in plotting to overturn it. 

In this respect, Jordan clearly violated his oath to protect the constitution. He also simply was unqualified to run the institution of Congress, lacking any ability to bring people together or manage legislation. He was a bomb thrower without a vision of governing. Ultimately, even his own colleagues rejected him, partly because of the sense that he rejected norms (not encouraging support for the more popular Scalise) and because of the threats some of them faced. 

But that doesn’t mean this vision is going anywhere. Trump very much personifies the deinstitutionalist mindset and he will bring it to the executive branch if he comes back into power. [Editor’s note: Liz Cheney once said that if Jordan were to be speaker, “there would no longer be any possible way to argue that a group of elected Republicans could be counted on to defend the Constitution.” Speaker Mike Johnson’s victory came with a unanimous Republican vote.]

JS: Jordan has said that there’s no place for threatening the Republicans who stood against his bid for speaker. In the same breath, he has said constituents have a right to call their representatives. He has said that was their right. This sounds very Trumpian to me. Did the anti-Jordan Republicans get a taste of their own medicine?

DM: I think anti-Jordan Republicans got a taste of what the Maga movement has been dishing out for a while now. If you are an election administrator, teacher or public health official, you are much more at risk of facing intimidation and threats for doing your jobs. 

Jordan has used his weaponization committee to go after misinformation researchers. The attack on [former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband] Paul Pelosi should have shed light on how people can take some of the extreme rhetoric of the far right literally. 

The fact that some Republicans spoke out about this, and that Jordan denounced it, is a hopeful sign, but let’s see if this concern slows the flow of attacks on Jordan’s more routine targets, like “the deep state.”

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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