Written by Tom Daly
John Boehner was the Republican representative for Ohio from 1991-2015 and is known for blocking much of Barack Obama’s agenda during his presidency. He was also a significant figure in US politics at large, serving as the 53rd Speaker for the House of Representatives from 2011-2015. Since leaving office however, he has largely faded in people’s memory.
With the publishing of his new book on 13th April, which offers a memoir of his time in the wild world of Washington politics, Boehner has propelled himself into the spotlight once more. In it Boehner makes no secret of his distaste for the ‘tea-party’ insurgents who caused him headaches during his spell as Speaker, for Trump, and for what the Republican party has ‘become’. That isn’t so much an issue in itself – what rankles is his seeming assertion that the Republican party was taken over by malevolent outside forces that came out of nowhere. That he and his fellow ‘establishment’ Republicans had no control, that they were helpless to stop the flood of ‘whack jobs’ and ‘crazies’ (his words) who hijacked the party. Whether top Republicans want to admit it or not, the modern party – of Trump, conspiracies, and shameless behaviour – is a monster of their own creation. There isn’t enough room in this article to cover everything, but parts of the book are egregious to say the least.
For at least the last thirty years, the Republican party has performed a delicate political balancing act, feeding a base of social conservatives with hysteria about gay marriage, abortion, and immigration whilst simultaneously shoving through an economic agenda that often runs exactly against the interests of the people who vote for them. They have been backed up by widely recognised right-wing media, most notably Fox News, and the strategy has served them – and their donors – incredibly well. They have won numerous elections (even elections that they lost initially), they have cut trillions of dollars from government spending and secured trillions of dollars’ worth of tax cuts for the America’s wealthiest people and businesses.
The party’s descent into ‘craziness’, as Boehner puts it, has been evident throughout this time and at every step of the way, the Republican establishment indulged, and even encouraged, these conspiracies. It was evident when conspiracy theories about the Clintons were rampant in the 1990s. It was evident when racist ‘birther’ conspiracies about Barack Obama did the rounds in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Far from being the ‘respectable’ and ‘moderate’ patricians they so desperately want to portray themselves as, they fed more and more red meat to an increasingly rabid base. They linked arm in arm with extreme elements of their party, occasionally wagging a metaphorical finger at them but never explicitly condemning them. This came to a head in the first presidential debate of 2020, when Donald Trump was asked if he was willing to condemn white supremacists and militia groups. His response of “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by” said it all.
Never was there a moment of realisation, a moment where Republicans disavowed the radicalism of the far right. The fringes of the conservative movement were becoming crazier, and the ‘moderates’ were happy to go along with so long as it kept winning them elections. They were also afraid of a primary challenge from the right, and because their donors told them to. As Natalie Shure describes for the New Republic, Boehner positioned himself as Barack Obama’s chief antagonist in the first two years of his presidency. He castigated Obama’s Affordable Care Act on the house floor, went on Fox News to talk about the ‘death-panels’ that the act would bring, and stood on the steps of the capitol with the fledging ‘tea-party’ members – by this point the most conservative caucus in congress – in opposition to the law. It was this show of defiance that propelled him to the role of Speaker, a role in which he eventually fell foul of his party’s right wing. Far from the ‘crazies’ taking over from out of nowhere, they had been given a leg up by Boehner himself, and by his ‘moderate’ colleagues.
Although all of this made sense politically. The Republican party’s big dirty secret is that they would be nothing without their perpetually furious base. When Donald Trump blasted his way to the Republican nomination in 2016 however, they realised that their chickens had come home to roost. Here was the Frankenstein they had created; a rude, racist, misogynist who was willing to openly indulge conspiracy theories, and less willing to wag his finger at his extremist supporters. To their horror, establishment figures realised that this Frankenstein had the backing of a majority of their party. The mask was off. The Republican party, which had always had an aesthetic respectability, now had no way to disguise their extremism.
Some adapted as they had always done, bending the knee to whoever they needed support from. Others, like Mr Boehner, eventually gave up and melted away, becoming lobbyists for the people who had paid for their campaigns, knowing that their return to polite society would be facilitated by the mainstream media. Of course, this is exactly what came to pass in the aftermath of Boehner’s book. A recent episode of the BBC’s Americast focused heavily on how Boehner ended his book, mainly by telling Ted Cruz to ‘go f*ck yourself’. The hosts went on to imply that Boehner and his ‘moderate’ pals were given a torrid time by those nasty extremists who took over his party.
This is indeed what many commentators have agreed, with CNN’s Brian Stelter saying, ‘John Boehner is being proved right’. ‘Its refreshing to read a politician’s honest accountings of repeated failures,’ echoes Susan Davies, writing for NPR. ‘He takes issue with ideas that Trump has unleashed.’. There seems to now be an increasing acceptance that the traditional Republican establishment have lost control of the party, that Trump, QAnon and the Capitol rioters are not the exception. However, History would do well to reflect the truth in highlighting the party’s silent endorsement of extremism. Complicity does not excuse it from blame.