The Two MAGAs

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From the Boiling Frogs on The Dispatch

“It’s an impossible job. The Lord Jesus himself could not manage this conference. You just can’t do it.”

So said Republican Rep. Troy Nehls, speaking to CNN on Wednesday morning. How’s that for an election-year bumper sticker for a party that will soon enjoy a one-vote House majority?

It’s hard to find something new and interesting to say about the state of the House GOP, particularly if you write a daily newsletter about the foibles of populism. The dysfunction had already reached historic levels by the close of business on day one of this congressional term last year before descending into truly unprecedented misery nine months later. We’ve all gotten used to it. Nowadays, when some House Republican calls for upwards of half of his GOP colleagues to lose their next elections, no one blinks.

Even so: Do you realize just how bad things have gotten lately?

For instance, this bon mot from a certain ex-member with lots of allies in the conference circulated widely on social media on Wednesday.

Elsewhere, some Republicans have moved past merely hoping that their colleagues will be primaried and opted to actively participate in the effort to see them defeated. Matt Gaetz recently rallied Republican voters against Mike Bost of Illinois and Tony Gonzales of Texas, while in Virginia a number of House GOPers have backed an effort to oust Freedom Caucus Chairman Bob Good.

“Bob Good didn’t come here to govern. He came here to be famous,” Derrick Van Orden, a Wisconsin Republican, told CNN. “Bob Good’s wearing our jersey, and he’s not on the team.” A defiant Good hit back. “They’ve never heard of Derrick Van Orden,” he said of his constituents. “They could care less what Derrick Van Orden thinks.”

Mind you, all of that came after Speaker Mike Johnson warned his members not to campaign against each other.

The starkest ugliness between members has played out on the subject of Ukraine, though. In the past week, two different Republican committee chairmen have charged elements of their own party with being useful idiots for Moscow. Russian propaganda has “infected a good chunk of my party’s base,” Rep. Michael McCaul—chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee—claimed, pointing to right-wing media. Asked about McCaul’s assessment, Intelligence Committee Chair Michael Turner pronounced it “absolutely true” and added, darkly, that some of that propaganda has even been “uttered on the House floor.”

He didn’t name any names, but he didn’t have to:

Congressional conferences will quarrel internally from time to time. But accusing ostensible political allies of being dupes for Russian fascists or enemies of Christianity is the sort of bristling cutthroat animosity usually limited to knife fights between the parties, not between factions of the same one.

It’s a new level of dysfunction. At the heart of it sit Mike Johnson and Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Every successful revolutionary movement eventually splits. One wing, the pragmatists, begins to compromise on revolutionary ideals as it confronts the realities of governing. The other, the purists, clings to those ideals and inevitably accuses the pragmatists of having betrayed the cause by moderating.

Mike Johnson is a pragmatist; Marjorie Taylor Greene is a purist.

But it’s not that simple. The MAGA revolution is also complicated by the fact that it’s never been fully clear what it’s “about.” What would it even mean to betray the “MAGA cause”? What is that cause?

There is some ideological content to Donald Trump’s politics. If MAGA means anything, it means sealing the border and preventing undesirables from, ahem, poisoning the blood. (Immigrants from “nice” countries are free to poison, of course.) There’s lots of argle-bargle about “draining the swamp” too, although in practice “the swamp” has never meant much more than “anyone who disagrees with the right generally and Trump specifically.”

As we were reminded fewer than 72 hours ago, Trump can be maddeningly hard to pin down on most matters of policy. Even on the hot-button subject of Ukraine, he’s never been so bold as to call for defunding the war effort. His big idea of late has been to package any new military aid as a loan, not a gift—as though the Ukrainians will ever conceivably have the means to repay it.

The thinness of Trump’s agenda has left the nature of his movement subject to debate. He’s a populist and a nationalist broadly speaking, sure, but at base Trump’s revolution is about Trump: The narcissistic black hole around which the Republican Party now orbits means that members’ highest duty is to support his attempts to gain and keep power for himself. Everything beyond that—abortion, foreign alliances, government spending, and so on—may or may not truly be part of “the cause” depending on your point of view.

While it’s clear that Trump would prefer a post-liberal form of government for America in the abstract, it’s also clear that his own aggrandizement takes precedence. Given a choice between a populist, authoritarian executive branch led by Ron DeSantis and a traditional executive branch constrained by classic civic norms led by himself, is there even a faint doubt as to which he would choose?

Because Trump’s movement is thin on policy and thick on “loyalty,” I think Mike Johnson and Marjorie Taylor Greene have different understandings of what the “MAGA revolution” requires of them in keeping with their pragmatic and purist sensibilities, respectively. They represent what we might call the two MAGAs. And, as tends to happen when revolutions fracture, one of them now wants to kill the other.

Professionally, I mean, not literally. This isn’t Russia. Sorry, Marjorie.

Johnson is an unlikely revolutionary figure. He’s soft-spoken, buttoned-up, and has traditionally taken a hard line on socially conservative policies, an awkward fit for Trump’s post-Christian GOP. But he also played a key role in Trump’s scheme to stop Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s victory in 2020. He may not look MAGA, but abetting a coup plot is pretty darned MAGA.

Greene is more recognizably revolutionary. She’s a kook of long standing, enough so to have treated this week’s solar eclipse and the recent earthquake in New York City as evidence that God wants America to repent. She has a taste for violent political fantasies and an appetite for political purges: After Trump won the New Hampshire primary in February, effectively clinching the Republican nomination, it was Greene who crowed about “eradicating” right-wingers who don’t share his agenda from the party.

She and Johnson are each loyal Trump toadies, as all proper MAGA revolutionaries must be. But Greene seems to believe that the revolution has a distinct, robust post-liberal policy program, one that begins with not undermining international authoritarian hero Vladimir Putin. Johnson, on the other hand, seems to believe that the revolution requires him to serve Donald Trump’s quest for power—but not much beyond that, leaving him free to go his own way on policy.

Their respective roles within the House conference suit their different interpretations of the revolution. Johnson, the pragmatist with the gavel, worries that unpopular policies and ongoing dysfunction might damage the GOP’s chances of holding onto its majority in November. He urged Greene and her sympathizers on Wednesday to accept the “reality” that governing with a tiny majority means Republicans can’t impose their will on legislation.

Greene, the purist, seems to believe that failing to impose one’s will legislatively derives at best from a lack of nerve and at worst from secret establishmentarian sympathies hidden behind defeatist mutterings about “reality.” She doesn’t worry about governing or protecting a fragile majority, especially now that her friend and patron Kevin McCarthy is out of power. She can be a revolutionary in full, raging against a corrupt leadership as though she were a member of the House minority. Perhaps, quietly, she hopes her party will be back in the minority in the next Congress, as that would suit her “outsider” orientation.

In fairness to her, there is reason to think Mike Johnson is more of a closet establishmentarian than he lets on.

Consider this: In his six months as speaker, how many times has he taken a stance on a major policy that’s aligned him with Greene’s post-liberal purist MAGA faction? They’re both revolutionaries; one would think he’d be pretty radical in his preferences, if not quite as radical as her. Having replaced squishy establishmentarian Kevin McCarthy in the top spot, he seemed poised to steer the Republican conference in a hard-right nationalist direction. Has he?

With one important exception, not at all. Johnson has been every bit the governing moderate that McCarthy was.

He averted a government shutdown by passing a funding bill that more than half of his own conference opposed. He backed another bill to ban TikTok from American app stores unless and until it’s sold to a U.S. company, knowing that Trump was against it. This week he’s lobbying his members to reauthorize the law that permits warrantless surveillance overseas (with little success thus far), again despite opposition from Trump. And as icing on the cake, he’s reportedly planning to put something on the floor next week that will provide new funding for Ukraine, a red line for the GOP’s many Russia simps.

Under his leadership, the current “Republican majority” has functioned more like a bipartisan coalition with Democrats supplying most of the votes. That doesn’t reek of “burn it all down” revolutionary fervor.

The one important exception when Johnson put aside his pragmatist leanings and went to the mat for some MAGA priority came when he declared the Senate’s immigration compromise dead on arrival in the House. Which makes sense: If, as I’ve said, border enforcement accounts for most of the policy energy in Trump’s revolution then Johnson truly couldn’t have backed the Senate bill—or any immigration bill that failed to meet every last Republican demand—without “betraying the cause.”

But it makes sense for another reason. Trump strongly opposed that immigration bill, fearing that it might meaningfully reduce border traffic and boost public support for Joe Biden before Election Day, ensuring Trump’s defeat. Because Johnson believes that the MAGA revolution requires him to help Trump gain power, he was therefore obliged to block that bill just as surely as he was obliged to assist Trump’s coup plot before January 6.

As a further case in point, I laughed aloud when this news bulletin flashed across Twitter while I was writing this newsletter:

Once again, Mike Johnson is fulfilling his revolutionary duty to abet Donald Trump’s quest for power by hook or by crook, in this case seeding doubt about the legitimacy of the coming election the same way he did the last one. But that’s all that the revolution demands of him, in his view; in exchange for supporting Trump’s electoral gambits, he’s expecting Trump to give him and the House Republican conference a wide berth in taking conventional positions on matters like TikTok, foreign surveillance, and Ukraine.

Greene believes the revolution requires more of her, and of him. “The funding of Ukraine must end,” she said on Wednesday following a long meeting with Johnson as her procedural sword of Damocles dangles over his head.

Two MAGAs, one purist and the other more pragmatic. How does this revolutionary disagreement end?

In the short term, it’s likely to end the way most internal political disputes end. It’ll get papered over.

Trump’s “states’ rights” abortion gambit seems well suited to bring the two revolutionary factions together. MAGA purists don’t care much about abortion on the merits; their illiberal passions lie in more tribal aspects of the culture war, as Kari Lake’s sudden turnabout on federal abortion restrictions this week made clear. Wherever Marjorie Taylor Greene lands with respect to Trump’s new policy, I promise his position won’t trouble her the way him siding with Ukraine against Russia would. She’ll accommodate him.

MAGA pragmatists like Johnson, meanwhile, will be forced to reckon with the fact that Trump’s abortion position is plainly designed to maximize his chances of regaining the presidency. A committed pro-lifer like the speaker might be grieved by the thought of forfeiting a chance to limit abortion nationally, but his revolutionary duty is what it is. When Trump’s electoral needs conflict with pragmatism on policy, as they did with the Senate immigration compromise, then policy must yield. Johnson will accommodate him too.

The revolutionary picture is cloudier long-term for the simple reason that Donald Trump’s quest for power will end one way or another on November 5. Either he’ll win reelection and be term-limited (hopefully) or he’ll lose again and retire (hopefully). If he wins, his desires will largely dictate the policy preferences of congressional Republicans for the next four years. Pragmatists and purists may be unhappy with some of those positions for electoral or ideological reasons, respectively, but no one’s going to betray the revolution by breaking sharply with its leader.

What if Trump loses, though, and starts to fade as a political force at long last?

It’s possible the two factions would do what revolutionaries usually do amid a power vacuum, indulging in vicious recriminations and jockeying for primacy in leading the movement forward. The pragmatists would have an advantage in that case, as House Republicans who have never fully warmed to Trump’s movement would doubtless prefer to be led by a Mike Johnson than by a Marjorie Taylor Greene.

The House GOP conference could even splinter amid a “Trump hangover.” Those who never quite shed their conservative sympathies might seek to revert to Reaganism; diehard revolutionaries like Greene would double down on Trumpism or an even more morally loathsome form of nationalism; others would grope toward a reformist “post-Trumpism” that continues to prioritize culture-war battles but with less hugging of autocrats, threatening of judges, and saluting of insurrectionists.

Left to their devices, I think that’s what Republicans would do. The two MAGAs would become three or possibly more distinct parties in microcosm, insofar as they aren’t already. The diehards would probably end up marginalized due to the nascent desire among the great majority of their colleagues for a less chaotic GOP.

But if there’s one organizing theme of this relentlessly pessimistic newsletter, it’s that the Republican Party’s journey into illiberalism is driven from the bottom up, not the top down.

The “Trump problem” will end sooner or later but the true problem could drag on for decades. So long as most House districts are ruthlessly gerrymandered, so long as populist right-wing media feeds the grassroots appetite for illiberalism, the electoral pressure on House Republicans will point them toward revolutionary purification.

That will lead to many more years out of power than a more pragmatic approach to politics might deliver, but oh well. Revolutions are much more romantic—and fun to participate in—when they’re tearing down the system instead of running it.

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