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The kamikazes on America’s Capitol Hill

The generous way to read today’s Republican party is that it wants to kill a dragon that can no longer be tamed. The dragon is the US federal government; the Republican weapons of choice are shutdowns and debt defaults.

A less generous take is that Republicans are members of a personality cult that aims to disable the machinery of justice that would hold Donald Trump to account. It does not matter whether an elected Republican is a true believer or has simply been cowed; you judge a public servant by their actions.

By that measure, 90 per cent of the party now belongs to the wrecking crew. On Tuesday, 200 of 223 Republicans in the US House of Representatives voted for Jim Jordan, his caucus’s most accomplished legislative vandal. That was 17 short of the tally he needed to become Speaker. A day later, he was only able to muster 199 votes.

Whether Jordan eventually crosses that threshold is an open question. His hapless predecessor, Kevin McCarthy, took a record 15 rounds to gain the prize in January. You must wonder whether that bruising ordeal was worth it. McCarthy doled out so many concessions to his most extreme colleagues that he started off as a political eunuch. He was repaid with disloyalty when they ousted him earlier this month.

Jordan faces the opposite challenge. As a hardliner among hardliners, he has to win over the so-called moderate Republicans. The term “moderate” is a relative one. Among those who voted against him was Ken Buck, an original Tea Partier from Colorado.

It is possible that Jordan will be able to twist the arms of enough of the remaining holdouts to win on the third or fourth try; no one ever lost money betting against the resolve of Republican moderates. Even if he does not, however, his colleagues have crossed a red line. A big majority has embraced a figure whose life’s mission is to disable government, including its system of justice.

Any one of three reasons would be enough for an old-fashioned Republican to oppose Jordan as a lowly dog catcher, let alone for a job that would put him second in line to the US presidency.

The first is the unproven allegation that Jordan helped cover up a sexual abuse scandal while he was assistant wrestling coach at Ohio State University in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Several former wrestling students have come forward to say that Jordan helped to suppress or turned a blind eye to claims that his boss, Dr Richard Strauss, abused numerous people. The university paid out $60mn in compensation to more than 250 victims. Jordan has denied the cover-up allegation, and no one has suggested that he is guilty of abuse. But he has yet to testify under oath in an ongoing case that has earned him the nickname “Gym Jordan”.

The second is his role as a co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus, which has turned fiscal brinkmanship into a routine tool. Jordan has not passed a single piece of legislation in his 16 years in Congress. John Boehner, a former Republican Speaker whose career Jordan helped to end, called him a “legislative terrorist”.

Though it is a partisan job, most of America’s 55 Speakers, including McCarthy, had some record of building cross-party coalitions to pass bills. Jordan’s election would mark a sharp rejection of that approach. In his philosophy, any cross-party co-operation is a betrayal of conservative principles.

But it is the third objection — that Jordan was in close touch with Trump and his allies as the outgoing president tried to overturn the 2020 election — that sets off the shrillest alarm. The Harvard democracy scholar, Daniel Ziblatt, who is co-author with Steven Levitsky of the recent book, Tyranny of the minority, says a Jordan speakership would be the most troubling sign of US democracy’s declining health since the January 6 2021 storming of Capitol Hill.

Jordan spoke extensively to Trump in the lead up to that failed putsch and ignored a subpoena to testify to the committee that investigated the assault.

He is also chair of a subcommittee on the weaponisation of government, which McCarthy created in exchange for Jordan’s vote. This has involved so far fruitless inquiries into virtually every conspiracy theory circulating on the right, including the alleged anti-conservative bias of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Justice’s alleged deep state role and the misstated science behind the Covid vaccine.

Jordan has said he has been contacted by “dozens of whistleblowers”. None has so far produced material that meets that definition. Jordan’s committee could be accused of the sin it is supposedly investigating — the misuse of government for base ends.

The best case for a Jordan speakership is that it would convert Capitol Hill’s most notorious poacher into a gamekeeper. By giving him skin in the game, it would finally turn Jordan into a responsible actor. There are a couple of hopeful signs. One is that Jordan has seemingly struck a deal with Republican hawks to fund Ukraine, which he had previously opposed. Another is that he would agree to keep government running.

These would be non-trivial concessions. Against that is the fact that Jordan has tried to overturn a US presidential election. Some might consider it reckless to give control of the people’s house to a counter-revolutionary. 

edward.luce@ft.com

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