In 2013, Mark Meadows was a new congressman from North Carolina. He’d owned a restaurant, then worked in real estate, but felt the call to rescue his country from godless socialism. He’d made a promise to his constituents: if they sent him to Washington, he would send ‘Mr Obama home, to Kenya or wherever it is’. The Republicans controlled the House of Representatives and he figured – as he writes in his memoir, The Chief’s Chief (2021) – that at the very least he’d be able to blow up Obamacare. But he hadn’t counted on how little one congressman (out of 435) could do. The speaker of the House, John Boehner, set the agenda, and Meadows was expected to do what he was told. ‘Boehner had “enforcers”, not unlike a Mafia don. If you didn’t vote how he wanted, these enforcers – most notably his leadership team – would ban you from congressional travel, ban you from committees, and find other ways to ruin your career.’ But then Meadows read Lynne Olson’s book Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power in 1940 and Helped to Save Britain (2007). He ‘felt a flash of recognition’: Boehner was Neville Chamberlain, autocratic and obstinate, but willing to suck up to tyrants (Hitler/Obama). He, Meadows, was a heroic Tory dissident, ready to risk political suicide by toppling the leader of his own party – the seriousness of the times demanded it.
On a legal pad, Meadows ‘drew up a list … of true conservative members like me who were tired of putting up with being shut out, controlled and otherwise demeaned by John Boehner and his cronies’. When they met and shared their grievances, they realised – as one of them, Mick Mulvaney, would say – that they weren’t ‘just a bunch of pissed-off guys’ but a ‘group’, which deserved a name. They considered calling themselves the ‘Reasonable Nutjob Caucus’, but settled on the ‘Freedom Caucus’ because, as Mulvaney told Ryan Lizza in the New Yorker, ‘it was so generic and so universally awful that we had no reason to be against it.’ Their fealty would be to their far-right principles, not to the Republican leadership, who had shown themselves willing to work with Democrats to prevent government shutdowns. As far as the Freedom Caucus was concerned, who needed the federal government anyway? Most Americans would be better off without it. Taxes should pay for the military – not much else. Boehner called the Freedom Caucus ‘legislative terrorists’ for blocking his bills. Meadows worried they’d lost any hope of ‘prime committee assignments, cocktail party invitations and the chance to run for leadership ourselves some day’.
Meadows had never been much of a student (he lied about his college degree), but he pored over Thomas Jefferson’s original rules for the House of Representatives:
Reading through my three-inch-thick, hardback copy, I came across a line that said that ‘privileged motions’ could be brought to the floor at any time, by any member. It didn’t matter how junior (or how loathed by House leadership) that member happened to be. I had already known that, of course, at least in a theoretical sense. What I didn’t know was that all those years ago, Jefferson had envisioned something called a ‘motion to vacate the chair’, designed to remove a sitting speaker of the House if members felt that he was not executing his duties properly.
In the history of the House of Representatives, a motion to vacate the chair had been filed only once, in 1910. Meadows agonised for months. He prayed. You come for the king, you better not miss. There were about forty members of the Freedom Caucus (the full list was never made public), but Meadows submitted the motion alone. ‘I felt like I could hear God speaking in my heart, leading me to make the move.’ It was 28 July 2015, his 56th birthday. ‘Immediately there was an uproar … I got calls from members all over the House telling me I was insane,’ but Meadows didn’t care. Even if he failed, a motion to vacate would surely make Fox News. He’d never be just another congressman again.
Boehner resigned: he almost certainly had the votes to keep the speakership, but (as he would write in his own memoir) he was exhausted by the ‘wild eyed crazies’ who had taken over his party. In strongly Republican districts, he wrote, ‘you could be a total moron and get elected just by having an R next to your name.’ He envied Mitch McConnell, the leader of the Senate Republicans: since (nearly all) senators represent larger areas than congressmen, with more diverse populations, they were more likely to be sane. He didn’t think he could ever satisfy the Freedom Caucus, because they didn’t really want legislative victories: ‘They wanted wedge issues and conspiracies and crusades.’ He’d begun to think of himself as the ‘mayor of Crazytown’. Why continue ‘fighting one batshit idea after another’ when he could make a fortune as a lobbyist for Big Tobacco instead?
When Boehner passed the gavel to Paul Ryan, the Freedom Caucus declared victory, even though Ryan wasn’t one of theirs. He wouldn’t even cancel funding for Obamacare. For Meadows,
the fight surrounding my motion to vacate was the thing that woke me up to a cold reality: anyone who wanted to take on the establishment in this town, to take on the kingmakers and backroom fundraisers who really ran our nation’s capital, was going to need an iron will, nerves of steel, and a fighting spirit to rival any boxer.
Meadows had brought down Chamberlain – but who was his Churchill? Less than two months before the motion to vacate, Meadows had watched Donald Trump descend the golden escalator at Trump Tower and announce he was running for president. Meadows had been supporting Ted Cruz, but ‘it didn’t take long before I realised where the country was going and who was really going to win this election and shake up the swamp.’ The Freedom Caucus would find a new reason for its existence. ‘Trump wants to turn Washington upside down – that was his first message and his winning message,’ Mulvaney said in 2016. ‘We want the exact same thing. To the extent that he’s got to convince Republicans to change Washington, we’re there to help him.’ Trump called the FCs his ‘warriors’. Some of them left Congress to work for his administration; Mulvaney and Meadows took turns as his chief of staff.
When Democrats took over the House after the 2018 midterm elections, they changed the motion to vacate rule to make it less easy to trigger. When the House switched back to the Republicans four years later, Kevin McCarthy, who’d been minority leader, expected to carry on as speaker, but the party’s majority was tiny – to get over the line, almost every Republican would have to vote for him. The Freedom Caucus wouldn’t give McCarthy the gavel unless he met their demands, one of which was restoring the old motion to vacate rule. He did that, and by September, McCarthy seemed to have appeased the FCs by agreeing to open an impeachment inquiry into Joe Biden. But in October, things fell apart when he agreed to a bipartisan deal to prevent a government shutdown.
Like Meadows before him, Matt Gaetz of Florida felt bored and ineffectual as a backbencher in the House. ‘If you can’t impact an outcome in this town you are an extra in the movie, and I do not want to do that,’ he told the New York Times. He’d once thought that the FCs were ‘a bunch of obstructionists’, but had come round to their way of thinking. On 2 October, he filed a motion to vacate the chair. In interviews, Gaetz said that one of his grievances against McCarthy was that he had allowed a congressional ethics investigation into Gaetz’s sexual misconduct, drug use and misuse of campaign funds.
The Freedom Caucus still doesn’t release its membership list, but there are probably now around fifty members, including Gaetz. The new speaker of the House wasn’t the FC’s top pick (that was their first chairman, Jim Jordan), but they were able to scupper Tom Emmer after Trump had called him a ‘Globalist RINO’. With Trump’s blessing, on 25 October the Republicans unanimously agreed on Mike Johnson, the least experienced member to become speaker in more than a hundred years. Johnson’s positions – on divorce, non-procreative sex, contraception, dinosaurs – are almost cartoonishly right-wing, and he’s not entirely on board with free and fair elections. ‘Do you know what a democracy is?’ he said in 2019. ‘Two wolves and a sheep deciding what’s for dinner. You don’t want to be in a democracy. Majority rule: not always a good thing.’
Johnson was known to House Republicans, according to Politico, as the ‘leading voice in support of a fateful position: that the GOP should rally around Donald Trump and object to counting electoral votes submitted by at least a handful of states won by Joe Biden’. In one radio interview, Johnson claimed that
in every election in American history, there’s some small element of fraud irregularity. But when you have it on a broad scale, when you have a software system that is used all around the country that is suspect because it came from Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, when you have testimonials of people that like this, but in large numbers, it begs to be litigated and investigated.
Never mind that Chávez has been dead for ten years.
In 2020, Johnson persuaded 125 congressmen to sign his amicus brief to the Supreme Court, seeking to invalidate election results in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. Last year, the New York Times found that 75 per cent of the House Republicans who voted to dispute the 2020 presidential election ‘relied on the arguments of a low-profile Louisiana congressman, Representative Mike Johnson’, many of them taking ‘refuge in Mr Johnson’s narrow and lawyerly claims’. On 6 January 2021, just before Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol, Johnson tweeted: ‘We MUST fight for election integrity, the Constitution, and the preservation of our republic!’ He didn’t mean in the courts.
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