The newly elected Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (La.) is no ordinary Republican election denier. He was a ringleader in one of the most dangerous efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. He used his position as a lawyer and member of Congress to legitimize the fringe legal theory underpinning the “Big Lie.” Other than former President Donald Trump, he is arguably the most culpable federal elected official in what transpired on Jan. 6, 2021.
Republicans have a long history of selecting the worst people to serve as speaker. The GOP’s most recent and now-ousted speaker, Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), is rightfully a figure of ridicule and scorn. McCarthy didn’t believe in anything other than wanting to be speaker. He was content to oversee the transformation of the GOP into an anti-democratic Trump cult so long as he remained in power. Yet his obsequiousness was not enough to save him from being unceremoniously booted from the speaker’s suite after only nine months.
If McCarthy believed in nothing, Johnson is a true believer. He combines MAGA Republicanism with Christian nationalism. Shortly after becoming speaker, Johnson told Fox News’ Sean Hannity that anyone looking to understand his world view should “go pick up a Bible off your shelf and read it.”
When it comes to issues of democracy, Johnson is an avid vote suppressor and an accomplished election denier. He is best thought of as a cross between Jim Jordan and John Eastman.
Like Jordan, Johnson is a solid MAGA vote for Trump in Congress. He has a history of advancing the racist “great replacement theory” — that Democrats want to bring undocumented people into the country to vote. He voted against the bipartisan law that reformed the Electoral Count Act as well as the voting rights bills that Congress tried to advance over the last two years.
But opposing legislation aimed at free and fair elections is mere table stakes for Johnson. His commitment to undermining democratic elections runs much deeper.
Like Eastman, Johnson was a lawyer for 20 years before joining Congress and advocated for deeply conservative and right-wing causes. And like the now-indicted Eastman, Johnson espoused dangerous and anti-democratic legal theories aimed at allowing Trump to remain in power in the aftermath of the 2020 election.
From the moment Fox News unexpectedly called Arizona for now President Joe Biden on election night, Trump and his supporters had a math problem. In the days that followed, as more state results came in, it became clear that a Biden victory was inevitable.
On the Saturday morning following the election, Rudy Giuliani stood in the parking lot of a landscaping company to announce that the Trump campaign would launch a new phase of litigation to overturn the results.
Shortly thereafter, Johnson tweeted:
I have just called President Trump to say this: “Stay strong and keep fighting, sir! The nation is depending upon your resolve. We must exhaust every available legal remedy to restore Americans’ trust in the fairness of our election system.
It soon became clear that Trump’s litigation strategy was an abject failure. Trump’s losing streak in court was a national embarrassment for the GOP and would later result in sanctions, disbarments and indictments.
Faced with the inevitability of a Trump loss, Johnson pivoted to a new strategy. Like Eastman, Johnson latched onto a legal theory that would allow Trump to ignore the election results.
While Eastman focused on an expansive interpretation of the vice president’s role in accepting state results, Johnson argued that the results in several states were invalid. Relying on a virulent version of the fringe independent state legislature theory, he argued that since some courts had altered state election procedures to protect voting rights during the pandemic, the result of those state’s elections were illegal and should be rejected.
On Dec. 7 — one day before states had to resolve any disputes over their electors — Johnson launched a Hail Mary. Texas had asked the U.S. Supreme Court to throw out the election results in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. If successful, this one lawsuit would have disenfranchised more than 20 million voters and changed the outcome of the election.
On Dec. 9, Johnson sent an email to House Republicans, asking his colleagues to sign onto a brief supporting Texas’ effort to disenfranchise tens of millions and flip the election results. Leading this legal effort in the House, Johnson made sure to note that Trump was “anxiously awaiting the final list” of members who signed on.
The fact that the House Republicans’ attorney reportedly told Johnson that his arguments were unconstitutional made no difference. Ultimately 126 Republican members signed onto the brief with Johnson proudly leading the pack.
A day later, the Supreme Court dismissed the petition 7-2. But the damage had been done.
Johnson had laid the legal groundwork for Republicans to reject the election results and gave a patina of legitimacy to the illegitimate aims of those set to storm the Capitol on Jan. 6. Most importantly, he had given Trump a three-week head start in creating the list of Republican members who were with him and those who were not.
As the country headed towards Congress’ ceremonial certification on Jan. 6, Johnson started to promote evermore unhinged and unconstitutional theories to justify the overturning of the certified results. The “list” that Johnson helped compile for Trump became the backbone of the final act of constitutional defiance and the founding members of the cult of election denialism that took hold after the insurrection.
On the morning of Jan. 6, 2021, Johnson tweeted:
We MUST fight for election integrity, the Constitution, and the preservation of our republic! It will be my honor to help lead that fight in the Congress today. The statement I drafted summarizes our position and the legal analysis that supports it.
Several hours later, a violent mob descended on the U.S Capitol. The participants assaulted police, ransacked the Capitol and threatened to hang Vice President Mike Pence.
That night, after the insurrectionists were driven from the Capitol, Congress reconvened to certify the results. Johnson led 139 House members in voting against certification of the results, bringing 13 more members into his and Trump’s list of deniers.
The mob that sacked the Capitol was instigated by Trump’s lies and false rhetoric that the election was stolen. But their cause was bolstered by the Republican politicians who supported their claims in the lead-up to, and on the day of, Jan. 6.
No federal officeholder, other than Trump himself, bears more responsibility than Mike Johnson for the destruction and degradation of democracy we saw that day.
In the years that have followed, the damage caused by Johnson has continued. The “Big Lie” has become Republican dogma. Election deniers rally behind his theories and rhetoric to justify their election subversion and vigilantism. His fringe legal theory even made its way up to the Supreme Court, but was soundly rejected by six of the nine justices.
Republican members of Congress unanimously chose Mike Johnson to be their speaker knowing who he is and what he did. His role in the 2020 election, his election denialism and hostility to voting rights are well known among his peers. We can only assume that these anti-democratic traits were not a flaw in his candidacy, but a feature the GOP caucus wanted as we head into 2024.
In 2020, 126 members signed onto Johnson’s amicus brief, in 2021, 139 members voted against certifying the election and in 2023, all 220 Republican members of Congress elevated one of the architects of Jan. 6 to speaker. For anyone keeping tabs on the number of election deniers running our government, every House Republican is now on that list.