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How Hannity, Bannon and others on the right helped fuel GOP speaker chaos

Fox News host Sean Hannity vented to his millions of viewers Monday night about the state of the Republican effort to name a new House speaker — taking special aim at the “few sensitive little snowflakes in Congress” who were not supporting his preferred GOP candidate, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio.

But the widely watched conservative pundit wasn’t only using his televised bully pulpit to pressure the holdouts. Hannity also spent the weekend personally calling several and having one of his producers reach out to others to lobby them on their vote. He also took to social media to encourage his followers to call wavering members and demand they fall into line.

Hannity’s effort to personally whip up votes for Jordan highlights the central role that right-wing media has played in the weeks-long drama engulfing Capitol Hill over who will wield the speaker’s gavel.

At each turn, conservative media figures such as Hannity and former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon have injected high-profile disruption into a process that normally plays out quietly behind the scenes in Capitol Hill corridors. A handful of backbench lawmakers have seized the opportunity to flex their power in a nearly evenly split chamber, creating drama but offering little direction.

As of Tuesday afternoon, when Jordan lost an initial vote of the full House, it was unclear whether the turbulent series of events would end with a congressman long relegated to the hard-right fringe elevated to lead the chamber. But the overall picture of the legislative branch in chaos — and the allure of the media spotlight helping to drive the dysfunction — was well-established.

“Politics today rewards attention and money more than it rewards actually getting bills passed into law,” said Mac Thornberry, a 13-term congressman from Texas who was the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee before announcing his retirement in 2019.

Thornberry likened the shift to a social media algorithm that serves up ever more outrageous content to get more eyeballs.

“Now to keep your attention, politicians have to be all the more sensational,” he said. “I fear we are in a spiral.”

The uncertainty over who would preside over the House began this month when Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was ousted by a band of rebellious hard-right members. The leader, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), had become a right-wing media star based on his willingness to topple the established order.

Then House Republicans’ original preferred replacement — Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) — had to withdraw from contention after failing to consolidate the support of hard-right members and the media figures who back them. Now Hannity and others are leaning on Jordan’s critics to get behind the Ohio congressman, who has long been a favorite of Fox News and other conservative outlets.

The campaign by Hannity to boost Jordan, who has also been endorsed for the speaker’s job by former president Donald Trump, began soon after Scalise withdrew from the race. On Friday afternoon, Hannity tweeted that “Any Member of Congress would be crazy to NOT support Jim Jordan for Speaker. He is a natural born principled leader who will lead house Republicans to unite vs the radical left.” Hannity went on to provide the switchboard number for the House of Representatives, and urged his followers to “call your member and tell them.”

Over the weekend, Hannity reached out to several holdout lawmakers who were not supporting Jordan, while one of his producers contacted lawmakers with an email asking why they weren’t backing him. The producer’s email, which was first reported by Axios and has been confirmed by The Washington Post, included a leading question: “Hannity would like to know why during a war breaking out between Israel and Hamas, with a war in Ukraine, with the wide open borders, with a budget that’s unfinished why would Rep xxx be against Rep Jim Jordan for speaker?”

Hannity has been joined in his quest by other high-profile hosts, including Bannon, who has helped to spur the pressure campaign for Jordan on his podcast, “War Room.” After the Republican caucus nominated Jordan on Friday, Bannon ran a segment on his show publicizing the congressional phone number of Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), who had hesitated to support Jordan.

Bannon urged his listeners to tell Womack to support Jordan.

“You’re in a super MAGA district, you gotta get your mind right,” Bannon said.

On Monday, Gaetz praised Bannon’s audience for deluging Republican lawmakers with phone calls urging them to get on what Gaetz called the “Jordan train.”

But in a measure of the limits of those kinds of pressure tactics, Womack on Tuesday was among the 20 Republicans who declined to support Jordan in the floor vote. Womack, who voted for Scalise instead, said the GOP’s initial nominee had been “kneecapped” before he could get his own vote before the full House.

“It was the most egregious act against a sitting member of our conference I have witnessed,” he said.

Other efforts to flip votes were more successful. When Rep. Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.), who had been a leading Jordan holdout, announced that he would instead back Jordan on Monday, Gaetz broke the news on Bannon’s show and thanked the podcaster’s audience.

“It seems as though Congressman Rogers has been sufficiently encouraged,” Gaetz said.

Some members have been unusually outspoken in blasting their colleagues for playing to the cameras. Rep. Mike Collins (R-Ga.) tweeted last week that his fellow members were making decisions based on “egos and TV time.” McCarthy, meanwhile, was unequivocal in identifying what he saw as the reasons Gaetz had moved against him. “It had nothing to do about spending,” he told reporters shortly after his ouster. “It all was about getting attention from you.”

The dynamic of attention-seeking over substance may be more pronounced than it has been in the past, but it is not new.

“For a long time we’ve seen politicians who have vied for media attention in order to raise their profile and raise money,” said Kathryn Brownell, who teaches history at Purdue University. “It elevates a slash-and-burn style and it changes the party to something more about viral moments and less about governance.”

In the case of the speaker fight, the consequence has been a string of firsts that hint at the underlying chaos: the first 15-round speaker election in nearly two centuries when McCarthy was chosen in January; the first ouster of a speaker by a vote of the House when he was deposed this month; and the first vacancy in over half a century to last two weeks or more.

Eric Bolling, a host for the conservative network Newsmax, said that in recent decades, “the biggest media darlings” tend to be “the ones who get elected, promoted and rise the highest in the political ranks.”

Chris Stirewalt, a former politics editor at Fox News, noted that the selection of a new speaker “is, and should be, a very boring moment to most Americans. Under normal circumstances, most Americans can’t name the speaker of the House.”

But this time, Stirewalt said, the story has become a personal drama seemingly made for reality television, with the “entertainment wing” of the GOP fueling the action.

The battle between Scalise and Jordan last week was not “an ideological struggle,” added Stirewalt, who is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and political editor at NewsNation. “It’s an attitudinal struggle.” Scalise and Jordan are both conservatives, but Jordan was willing to do things that Scalise wasn’t to try to secure the job.

Previous Republican speakers have had tortured tenures as they have attempted to govern in the face of factions trying to wield outsize power by leveraging their influence on the airwaves. For instance, unlike McCarthy, John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) wasn’t voted out of office. But he did step aside under pressure in 2015 after the Freedom Caucus, led in part by Jordan and backed by Fox, made the Republican conference ungovernable.

“There’s a tendency to blame the fringe of the Republican Party. But those people used to be the fringe and they climbed the party ladder using the same tactics,” said Brownell, author of the book “24/7 Politics: Cable Television and the Fragmenting of America From Watergate to Fox News.”

A case in point is Newt Gingrich, who was speaker during the late 1990s. After Gaetz began pushing for McCarthy’s ouster this fall, Gingrich wrote an opinion piece accusing Gaetz of “destroying the House GOP’s ability to govern.”

Such allegations are ironic coming from Gingrich, Brownell said, given that Gingrich’s rise was largely fueled by his own battlefield mentality in Congress and his willingness to court media attention.

“It changed the party, making it more about the attention economy and less about governance,” she said. When McCarthy was elected speaker, he was able to win mainstream Republicans over to positions held by the Freedom Caucus, Stirewalt said, which in turn allowed McCarthy to “establish his bona fides as a right-wing media star.”

But once in power, McCarthy had to make deals with Democrats to keep the government functioning. The cycle eventually caught up with him, as it is likely to do with anyone in his position, even a Fox News regular like Jordan, Stirewalt said.

“Jim Jordan used Fox News and the right-of-center media to great effect over the past decade to force his way into the conference, to force his way into leadership and create all these pressure points,” Stirewalt said. “So after this long struggle, you hear people saying, ‘We have to stop here. The revolution has to stop here.’ But I don’t see why anyone feels like they have to go along now and behave themselves.”

Marianna Sotomayor contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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