Since we’re talking about the Republican Party and its descent into an authoritarian leader cult, we might as well invoke Godwin’s Law straightaway. Suppose you were conversing with a German in the early postwar years, and the man said that he supported Hitler’s policies, in fact he voted for him in 1933? And suppose he said the only thing that tore it for him was Hitler’s personal conduct, and how the Führer “abused the loyalty and trust” of supporters like himself?
You might conclude that the man had no more moral sense than a hyena, and that he only regretted the fact that things did not turn out well. Such thoughts passed through my mind on the publication of former Speaker of the House John Boehner’s memoir, On the House. The mainstream political media, on the other hand, have mostly bought into the author’s narrative frame that it’s a book of unguarded truth-telling by a profane and hard-drinking Regular Guy.
Despite that caveat, there are elements of Boehner’s tale that add to our knowledge about just how it came to pass that the so-called party of Lincoln inexorably was degenerating into madness well before Donald J. Trump became president.
Let us consider the case of Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), he of "Bridge to Nowhere" fame. After Boehner made a speech denouncing congressional earmarks in 2011, Young (a master practitioner of pork barrel politics) confronted the speaker just off the House floor and, according to Boehner, held a 10-inch knife to his throat.
This anecdote has a couple of salient angles. First, if most of us had been threatened in such a manner, we would have filed a police report, and there would have been repercussions involving either criminal law or the legal disposition of a mentally unstable person. That the man who was second in line to the presidency, a constitutional officer who normally has a security detail, did nothing, shows either a saintly forbearance or, more likely, a strange, Stockholm Syndrome-like passivity beneath his façade of manly bluffness.
Second, having myself worked on Capitol Hill until 2011, I already had Young pegged as a mean, nasty old geezer. But I had never credited him – if that’s the word – with homicidal impulses. How many more of those vain, insecure, tightly wound specimens that the American people in their wisdom have elected to Congress are as potentially dangerous as Young? Could that possibly have something to do with the crisis of democracy that currently besets us?
The other revealing episode involves deceased Fox News chairman Roger Ailes. When Boehner suggested that Ailes knock off some of the more outlandish conspiracy lies that Fox News was peddling, the TV mogul responded thus, according to the speaker’s memoirs:
But he did go on and on about the terrorist attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, which he thought was part of a grand conspiracy that led back to Hillary Clinton. Then he outlined elaborate plots by which George Soros and the Clintons and Obama (and whoever else came to mind) were trying to destroy him.
“They’re monitoring me," he assured me about the Obama White House. He told me he had a "safe room" built so he couldn’t be spied on. His mansion was being protected by combat-ready security personnel, he said. There was a lot of conspiratorial talk. It was like he’d been reading whacked-out spy novels all weekend.
Many Americans who have not drunk the Fox Kool-Aid have surmised that the TV “news” network consists of moustache-twirling Svengalis who don’t in the least believe the childish nonsense they are peddling. Rather, their theory holds that Fox management has cynically and scientifically confected a visually arresting montage of dog whistle-infused propaganda to deliberately addict the poorly educated and senescent viewership that Fox News targets.
Assuming that Ailes wasn’t putting on an impromptu performance in order to gaslight Boehner, this vignette suggests that, on the contrary, even the wire pullers of the far right largely buy into their own lies. We can at least tentatively conclude that the source of all those conspiracy theories that the credulous Fox Nation clings to consists not of an inner conspiracy of coolly rational and self-serving manipulators, but of something even more alarming – of unhinged true believers, as Ailes appeared to be.
The anecdote rings true; Ailes’s safe room, for instance, has been widely reported elsewhere before. Where Boehner withholds the truth concerns his own motivation, and the media have not done a good job smoking this out. In an NPR interview, Boehner explains his capitulation to the extremists in his party in the period 2011-2015 as a necessary attribute of good leadership:
A leader without followers is just a man taking a walk… There were a couple of times where I found myself taking a walk. And I was going one direction, the team was going some other direction.
And even though I didn't really want to go the direction where the team's going, they were the ones who elected me to be the leader and I had an obligation to go lead them... So that means I had to go jump out in front of them, even if I thought what they were trying to do really made not a whole lot of sense.
Curiously, this discourse elicited no follow-up question about his strange conception of how to lead. Because what he said was the antithesis of true leadership, which means persuading followers to go places they don’t want to go. Good luck to teachers in front of their classrooms, or sports team coaches, or military commanders, who “lead” simply by doing what their charges would prefer to do. Boehner was a mere windsock, a ventriloquist’s dummy for the Republican Freedom Caucus and its menagerie of loonies.
Boehner’s comments about the January 6 riot at the Capitol have received broad coverage. He said Trump "incited that bloody insurrection for nothing more than selfish reasons, perpetuated by the bullshit he'd been shoveling since he lost a fair election the previous November." But there is a big problem with that account.
In reality, Trump was shoveling the same bullshit several months before the election, saying that that if he were to lose the vote count it could only be due to fraud and that he would not relinquish power. Thus, he gave fair warning to all American voters—including his deranged followers, such as the Proud Boys—of his dictatorial mindset and his intent to resist stepping down. Under the circumstances, it was hardly a stretch to infer the potential for violence.
In the face of all this, Boehner voted for Trump a second time. “I voted for Donald Trump. I thought that his policies, by and large, mirrored the policies that I believed in.”
So now we get it. John Boehner was pretty much always in favor of Trump; his objections were just a stylistic thing. That is to say, he had no problem sitting of an evening with his cronies in the Speaker’s office, downing a glass or three of Merlot while cogitating on how to deprive Americans of health care or give Republican donors an unmerited tax break. If deliberations went into the night, a functionary could be dispatched to Schneider’s Liquor of Capitol Hill for another case of the grape.
It was this cozy, clubbable atmosphere that Trump and his fan club of face-painted yahoos disturbed. Even if the former president made all the “right” picks for the judiciary and followed the Republican playbook for screwing the American people to a T, he was still a parvenu who didn’t care what Boehner and other members of the Old Guard thought. Worse, Trump’s perpetual nastiness could put off respectable suburban women, and even corporate plutocrats would hesitate to pull out their wallets for the GOP if they thought it might damage their brand reputation with younger consumers.
So now Boehner has written a book about all of it, courageously timed to hit the Amazon warehouses and airport bookshops now that Trump is safely out of office.