It’s hard to overstate the extent to which our nation’s absurd Jim Jordan moment encapsulates the deep dysfunction of the political right in the United States.
There’s of course all the chaos and incompetence of the Trumpist Republican Party, on display for the world to see. An extremist faction of the House deposed their own party’s speaker of the House without a successor, and now — in the midst of multiplying international crises — the House is rudderless. In fact, it’s worse than rudderless. As I write this newsletter it’s in a state of utter confusion.
But there’s also a deeper reality at play here, one that goes well beyond simple incompetence. The Republican base admires Jordan because it thinks he is tough. It perceives him as a man of courage and strength. He is not. Instead, he is a symbol of the way in which Trumpist Republicans have corrupted the concept of courage itself.
To understand what courage is supposed to be, I turn to a definition from C.S. Lewis: “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality.” It’s a beautiful formulation, one that encompasses both the moral and physical realms and declares that courage is inseparable from virtue.
Lewis’s definition presents us with the sobering realization that we don’t truly know if we possess a virtue unless and until it is tested. We can believe we’re honest, but we won’t know we’re truly honest unless we have the courage to tell the truth when the truth will cost us something we value. We can believe we’re brave, but we don’t know if we are until we show it when we face a genuine physical risk.
When I meet a virtuous person, I also know that I’m meeting a person of real courage. A lifetime of virtue is impossible absent courage. Conversely, when I see a person consumed with vice, I also know that I’m likely in the presence of a coward, a person whose commitments to virtue could not survive the tests of life.
Now contrast the Lewis vision of courage with the courage or toughness lionized on the MAGA right. From the beginning of the Trump era, the entire concept of courage was divorced from virtue and completely fused with two terrible vices: groveling subservience and overt aggression.
The subservience, of course, is to the demands of Donald Trump, the right-wing media or the angry Republican base. The command is clear: Do what we say. Hate who we hate. But how can anyone think that such obedience equals courage? Because in this upside-down world, aggression is equated with toughness and bullying is exalted as bravery.
Few politicians personify this distortion of courage into cowardice better than Jim Jordan, and it is a sign of the decline of the Republican Party that he was even considered for the speaker’s chair, much less a few votes away from becoming the most powerful Republican elected official in the nation, second in line to the presidency.
Is there anything that qualifies him for the position other than his subservience and aggression? His legislative record is extraordinarily thin. As Aaron Blake meticulously documented in The Washington Post, during Jordan’s 16 years in Congress, he hasn’t passed a single bill of his own. According to the Center for Effective Lawmaking, he’s consistently one of the least effective members of the entire Republican Party.
What is Jim Jordan good at, exactly? He’s a Donald Trump apologist, a performative pugilist and a Fox News fixture. The liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America collected data showing that as of this month, Jordan had been on Fox 565 times since August 2017, including 268 appearances in weekday prime time. In a party that now prizes performance over policy, each of these Fox appearances builds his résumé far more than legislation ever could.
But for sheer subservient aggression, nothing matches his enthusiastic participation in Trump’s effort to steal the 2020 election. The final report of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol calls him a “significant player” in Trump’s scheme.
As the committee records, “On Jan. 2, 2021, Representative Jordan led a conference call in which he, President Trump and other members of Congress discussed strategies for delaying the Jan. 6 joint session.” On Jan. 5, “Jordan texted Mark Meadows, passing along advice that Vice President Pence should ‘call out all the electoral votes that he believes are unconstitutional as no electoral votes at all.’” He spoke to Trump at least twice on Jan. 6 itself and voted against certifying the election results, even after the Trump mob stormed the Capitol. In 2022 he defied a select committee subpoena.
Never forget that this reckless aggression was all in service of some of the most absurd conspiracy theories and legal arguments in modern American political history. All the Republicans who voted against certifying the presidential election were the very definition of cowards. When the virtue of integrity reached its testing point, they collapsed. But bizarrely enough, they often collapsed with a swagger, casting themselves as tough even as they capitulated to the demands of a corrupt president and a frenzied mob.
That MAGA aggression has spilled over to the speaker fight itself. As The Times reported on Saturday, “lawmakers and activists” close to Jordan “have taken to social media and the airwaves to blast the Republicans they believe are blocking his path to victory and encourage voters to browbeat them into supporting Mr. Jordan.”
The pressure campaign includes Sean Hannity, a Fox prime-time host and wannabe Republican kingmaker. Representatives from his show sent messages to Republican holdouts transparently designed to pressure them into voting for Jordan. Politico’s Olivia Beavers reported that the pressure campaign even reached the wife of Representative Don Bacon of Nebraska. She received personal text messages threatening Bacon’s career, including a message that said: “Your husband will not hold any political office ever again. What a disappointment and failure he is.”
On Wednesday afternoon, the pressure campaign began to reach its inevitable conclusion: death threats. Steve Womack of Arkansas told The Washington Post that his staff has been “cussed out” and “threatened.” Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Iowa issued a statement claiming that she’d received “credible death threats and a barrage of threatening calls” after she voted against Jordan.
Roughly 30 minutes after Miller-Meeks’s statement, Jordan finally condemned threats against his colleagues. By then, however, it was too late to repair the damage. Eight years into the MAGA era, Republicans should know exactly what happens when they launch a public pressure campaign. Threats follow MAGA pressure like night follows day.
I’ve written a series of newsletters on the culture of MAGA America, including how it combines rage and joy to build community, how it exploits civic ignorance to denigrate its opponents, how its corruption is contagious and how it fosters and feeds a dark caricature of working-class values that warps its populist base. Even so, few elements of right-wing political culture are more toxic than the way it turns vice into virtue and derides the very idea of character in politics.
But all is not lost. Just as key conservative jurists joined with their liberal counterparts to reject Trump’s absurd election challenges, key Republican leaders refused to bend the knee to the mob on Jan. 6. And it was conservative lawyers who blew the whistle on Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s corruption. A remnant of courageous Republicans stood against Jim Jordan’s campaign for speaker of the House and twice rejected his bid.
They did more than reject Jordan. They directly rejected the MAGA bullies Jordan unleashed. As Aaron Blake reported, several Republican members of Congress have directly condemned the tactics of the MAGA right. Representatives Steve Womack of Arkansas, Kay Granger of Texas, Jen Kiggans of Virginia, Carlos Giménez of Florida and Miller-Meeks have all denounced the pressure campaign. And John Rutherford of Florida blamed Jordan directly for the threats and acts of intimidation. He told The Washington Post’s Jaqueline Alemany that Jordan’s “absolutely responsible for it” and that “nobody likes to have their arm twisted.”
Their courage wasn’t wasted. On Thursday morning, The Times reported that Jordan wouldn’t immediately seek a third floor vote. Instead, he would “endorse a plan to empower Representative Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina” to act as a temporary speaker until Jan. 3. At the same time, however, Jordan wasn’t exactly standing down. Under his plan, he’d continue to act as “speaker designee,” which would permit him to continue whipping votes for his speaker bid, a preposterous idea that would undermine the temporary speaker every day that Jordan worked to sit in his chair.
Maybe Jordan realized it was preposterous, too. By the afternoon, he was back to offering himself for a third House vote on the speakership.
I’m grateful for the stand of a few stalwart Republicans. But their small number is one reason I remain profoundly concerned. We’ve watched pressure campaigns work on the right for eight long years, until the people who continue to resist dwindled to an ever-smaller minority — a minority strong enough to help block the worst excesses of the MAGA G.O.P. but far too weak to cleanse the Republican Party of its profound moral rot.
The battle over the next speaker is yet another proxy fight for the soul of the American right, and the fact that a man like Jim Jordan has come so close to such extraordinary power is proof that the rot runs deep. Only a very small minority of elected Republicans have passed the test. Signs of courage remain, but as long as men like Jim Jordan and Donald Trump run the G.O.P., the bullies still reign.