Opinion

John Boehner's charm defensive

The man who set the stage for Trump tries to escape accountability

Former Speaker of the House John Boehner is out with a new book: On the House: A Washington Memoir. It's been billed by many as an honest tell-all memoir from the pre-Trump Republican Party, before it went nuts. "How America's center-right party started to lose its mind, as told by the man who tried to keep it sane," reads the headline on a Politico excerpt of the book.

"Dishing expletives and payback, the book is hot enough to light one of the cigarettes that were more a symbol of his Speakership than his gavel," says CBS News. Boehner drew laughs in a largely friendly interview with liberal Stephen Colbert on The Late Show, where he said that Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) is "Lucifer in the flesh."

Boehner does accurately identify many of the problems that have turned the GOP into an openly anti-democracy force obsessed with loony conspiracy theories. But he obscures his role in that coming to pass, and is still trying to evade responsibility for doing so.

To give Boehner his due: As far as politician books go, his is unusual and honestly pretty fun reading. It certainly sounds a lot like him rather than the typical robotic pablum of the genre, and has an air of drunken foul-mouthed candidness that most airbrushed political memoirs do not. On the subject of Cruz, Boehner evinces a visceral hatred that must be genuine. "There is nothing more dangerous than a reckless a****** who thinks he is smarter than everyone else," he writes. "Ladies and gentlemen, meet Senator Ted Cruz."

He's similarly cutting about numerous other Republicans and conservative groups. Former Rep. Michelle Bachmann "was a kook, no doubt about it." Right-wing propaganda "brainwashed" people into believing "the truly nutty business about [Obama's] birth certificate." He writes with despair about how the "crazies" in his own House caucus made ordinary political negotiation nearly impossible. He describes an unsettling meeting with former Fox News chief Roger Ailes, in which Ailes said the Obama was spying on him and he had his mansion "protected by combat-ready security personnel." It "was clear he believed all this crazy stuff," Boehner writes. The advocacy group FreedomWorks had gone "totally nuts," and Heritage Action is composed of "a JV team of whiny campaign operatives" who "attack … other conservatives."

But despite all the folksy swearing, Boehner does not honestly reckon with his role in stoking nutty extremism in his party. As Julian E. Zelizer writes at The New York Times, when he was first elected to Congress in 1990, Boehner was on the party's right wing, and was a key figure in Newt Gingrich's revolution within the party. When Gingrich became speaker in 1995 with Boehner as one of his key lieutenants, Republicans inaugurated the first version of a political strategy that would dominate the party to this day: maximalist opposition to all Democrats, fueled by Republican elites whipping their voting base into a screeching frenzy with lies and propaganda, all while raking in campaign corporations with a ludicrously pro-rich agenda.

This strategy got steadily more extreme under President Obama, and Boehner continued to stoke the frenzy. He welcomed Tea Party fanatics into the Republican fold, and hysterically exaggerated the effects of Obama's milquetoast policies. In a 2010 House speech arguing against ObamaCare, Boehner darkly implied the bill was full of dangerous unknown elements. "Look at how this bill was written. Can you say it was done openly, with transparency and accountability, without backroom deals struck behind closed doors and hidden from the people? Hell no you can't!" he bellowed.

It follows that few people are more responsible for the rise of Trump than Boehner himself. In part because of his leadership, the Republican base became totally unmoored from reality, increasingly drunk on howling nonsense from conservative media, and the Republican congressional caucus became steadily more filled with those same propaganda addicts. By 2015 Boehner was tired of trying to wrangle his party's right wing and quit Congress (he is now a lobbyist for the cannabis industry). The stage was set for someone like Trump to take over the party simply by turning the lunacy up to 11. As Talking Points Memo's Josh Marshall wrote about Republican elites' flailing attempts to stop Trump in 2016:

On each of these fronts, the slow accumulation of nonsense and paranoia … built into a massive trap door under the notional GOP leadership with a lever that a canny huckster like Trump could come in and pull pretty much whenever. This is the downside of building party identity around a package of calculated nonsense and comically unrealizable goals. [TPM]

In short, Boehner rode the tiger of lies and extremism to short-term political success, at the cost of terrific damage to American institutions and driving something like a third of the country out of its mind, and then the tiger ate him, and now it is trying to eat American democracy.

One could imagine someone genuinely trying to make amends for this record. It would involve, at a minimum, coming clean about his cynical exploitation of extremism, and recommending all American citizens vote against the GOP until it stops trying to steal elections. But Boehner does not do this — instead he tries to portray Trump as some kind of anomaly, and blames Republican extremism on for-profit media, which he argues afflicts Democrats too. "Clearly it's not just right-wing media that chases ad revenue though. It's a problem across the spectrum, and it's part of why the United States is so polarized today," he writes.

This is just plainly false. There is nothing like the conservative media-industrial complex on the left, and no lefty media figure remotely comparable to, say, Tucker Carlson — who has the most popular show on cable news, and regularly uses it to push white supremacist conspiracy theories.

Similarly, Boehner's assertion that the "Squad" of lefty members of Congress are somehow "political terrorists" akin to the Freedom Caucus is utterly preposterous. That group is certainly on the left, but it is a fraction of the size of the Freedom Caucus, and it is not composed of bug-eyed, bomb-throwing zealots who will threaten financial armageddon if they don't get what they want — unlike Boehner, Nancy Pelosi has easily negotiated with her left flank (for better or worse).

Indeed, Boehner recently admitted that in 2020 he voted for Trump. That makes a farce of his weepy complaints about the putschists who sacked the Capitol on January 6. "Trump incited that bloody insurrection for nothing more than selfish reasons, perpetuated by the bulls*** he'd been shoveling since he lost a fair election the previous November," Boehner writes. That is true, but anyone with any sense could see that Trump would do something like that. He was plotting in plain sight to steal the election for months — by hacking away at the Post Office to undermine mail-in voting, by lying about nonexistent voter fraud, and signaling he would consider the election rigged if he lost no matter what.

The reason Boehner looked past all that is because he liked Trump's policies and his court nominations. "At the end of the day, who gets nominated to the federal courts is really the most important thing a president does," he said in a recent interview. In other words, he is still trying to ride the tiger — leveraging the presidency of a deranged maniac to stack the courts with right-wing ideologues so they can implement conservative policy by judicial rule-by-decree, and then acting surprised when Trump does what Trump has always done.

"I walked out of the Capitol the same jacka*** I was when I walked in 25 years earlier," Boehner writes in his introduction. On that much, at least, we are in agreement.

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