David Corn recounts John Boehner’s history in light of the latter’s recent efforts in a book excerpt to decry the Republican party’s descent into lunacy while acting like he bears little responsibility for the party going bonkers. It is the old, old political story of party leaders encouraging extremists to gain greater power and thinking that they could control those elements only to find that when they try to regain control, those extremist elements turn on them.
What he did not say in this excerpt is that he shares the blame for the rise of extremism in the Republican Party that led to Trump’s 2016 victory—and, subsequently, the bloody and seditious attack of January 6.
Boehner became speaker in 2011 because of the tea party. This right-wing movement, fueled by the big money of the Koch Brothers and other conservative donors, swept the Republicans into control of the House of Representatives in the midterm elections of 2010. The tea party was an amalgamation of various constituencies, including the religious right, anti-government GOPers, and what Boehner would call “whack jobs.” A poll at the time found that 30 percent of tea partiers believed the racist birther conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya. In fact, fierce hatred of Obama was a chief animating force for the movement. In a way, the tea party was a continuation of the right’s extreme reaction to Obama that had been on display at 2008 rallies for John McCain and Sarah Palin, where Republican voters decried Obama as a commie who was, as Palin charged, “palling around with terrorists.”
He helped enable tea party extremism. In November 2009, he hosted an anti-Obamacare tea party rally on Capitol Hill, during which the crowd shouted, “Nazis, Nazis” when referring to Democrats. Speaking at that demonstration, Boehner fueled the fear and hatred, declaring the health care bill the “greatest threat to freedom I have seen.” At another tea party protest at the Capitol opposing Obama’s health care legislation, protesters shouted the n-word at Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the civil rights icon. And some yelled a homophobic slur at Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.)
But Boehner never tried to to tamp down conservative anger and paranoia. He did not tell the birthers to knock it off. He egged on the Obama hatred, allowing the Benghazi-istas to run free and wild. He whipped up extremism on the right to achieve power and then discovered he couldn’t ride that tiger. In 2015, he left the House for calmer days as a merlot-sipping (gulping?) lobbyist.
But the beast Boehner fed did not crawl away. It became the base for Trump and Trumpism. The political cultural fire that Boehner allowed to burn was just right for Trump and his supertanker of gasoline. He had presided over the GOP’s complete embrace of conspiracy-theory politics and hate-driven extremism.
So shed no tears for Boehner. The Republican party establishment is now split into two factions: those like Boehner who encouraged those forces that resulted in the madness of Trumpism and now seek absolution, and those like Mitch McConnell who think they can still get some mileage out of it.