There are several reasons for Donald Trump to be thrilled that Louisiana Congressman Mike Johnson became speaker of the House. Some of those reasons are obvious: Johnson has established himself as a Trump lackey who played a leading role in enabling—even planning—Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election. And as a “self-consciously committed” white evangelical “Christian,” Johnson is firmly embedded with what is probably the key demographic driving Trump’s election chances in 2024. Trump, who views religious beliefs with the same cynicism and contempt that he views military service, sees his relationship with that demographic as purely transactional; they are a necessary vehicle for him to get what he wants, and he earned their everlasting support by fulfilling their most cherished goal, ensuring the overturn of Roe v. Wade.
But there is another point of commonality between both men that neither one is probably aware of: They are both dyed-in-the-wool misogynists. It’s clear that Trump personally sees women as little more than decorations to validate and project his power or as tools for his own sexual gratification, which explains why at least 26 women have gone public accusing him of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and rape.
But the misogyny is more than a bug of Trump’s noxious personality. It was literally a feature of an administration that not only tolerated rampant sexual harassment in its ranks but also actively pursued policies that deliberately attacked women’s progress and sought to undermine women’s role in our society, particularly in matters relating to employment and discrimination.
Johnson’s disdain of women, on the other hand, has its roots in the so-called religious “faith” that informs his mentality. His sensibilities are rooted in fealty to the patriarchal and sexually repressive dogma he gleans from the scripture with which he has chosen to indoctrinate himself. Those lessons confirm for him that women should be subservient, that they are unequal to men and therefore undeserving of the same rights and privileges. His vehement opposition to abortion is the most visible manifestation of these attitudes, but there are others that are even more revealing about his mindset. One of those, his push to end no-fault divorce, is enjoying a resurgence as a goal of the far right in its efforts to impose their misogynist agenda on the rest of the country.
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As David Corn observes, writing for Mother Jones, nearly all of Johnson’s extreme social views derive from an impulse to control others, most notably women, who deviate from his fundamentalist notions about sexuality:
Mike Johnson, the new Republican speaker of the House, has a very dark view of America. He believes that the United States is “a completely amoral society” and that global “sinister” forces have a hold on some of its governmental policies.
Immediately after Johnson—a little known congressman from Louisiana whose most notable act to date has been leading the effort to block the certification of Joe Biden’s 2020 victory—was elevated by the House GOP to be speaker, people started digging into his background and discovered that he was a far-right Christian fundamentalist who seeks to ban all abortions, who has called for getting rid of no-fault divorce, who has decried same-sex marriage, and who has compared homosexuality to pedophilia. He is a culture war extremist.
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Unsurprisingly, for Johnson and his ilk, the 1960s and early ‘70s were the inflection point when everything went to hell. As Corn notes:
In a 2016 sermon he preached at the Christian Center of Shreveport—while he was running for Congress—Johnson summed up his take on the United States. Standing before an American flag and an Israeli flag, Johnson delivered a 90-minute-long presentation in which he traced all present ills to the countercultural upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s that undermined “the foundations of religion and morality.” He ticked off the culprits: no-fault divorce, the sexual revolution, radical feminism, and legalized abortion.
Every single one of that litany of grievances relates specifically to women’s behavior and their societal roles. Not coincidentally, that is the time when women began to more vigorously pursue their rights, including the right to control their reproductive decisions, but also the right to escape bad or abusive marriages.
As explained by Kimberly Wehle, writing last month for The Atlantic:
For the past half century, many women in America have enjoyed an unprecedented degree of freedom and legal protection, not because of Roe v. Wade or antidiscrimination laws but because of something much less celebrated: “no fault” divorce. Beginning in the early 1970s, no-fault divorce enabled millions of people, most of them women, to file for divorce over “irreconcilable differences” or the equivalent without having to prove misconduct by a spouse—such as adultery, domestic violence, bigamy, cruelty, abandonment, or impotence.
Nearly 70% of all heterosexual divorces are instigated by women. Although divorce obviously can have various causes, two of the leading ones are marital infidelity and domestic abuse. Neither of these causes, however, is easily provable by the aggrieved party. Proving either one in a court of law also entails financial and potentially physical risks, particularly for women.
As Wehle explains, the social and financial realities of “proving” that someone was at fault were inherently skewed to benefit men:
Prior to California’s Family Law Act of 1969, which was signed into law by then-Governor Ronald Reagan, all states followed a fault-based system in which divorces were granted very sparingly under strict criteria. Women who wanted out of a bad marriage had little choice but to stay, because most were family caregivers who would wind up destitute without a judicial division of assets. The tight legal controls also led to highly adversarial proceedings and regularized lying in order to secure a divorce decree.
The impact of no-fault divorce corrected this imbalance to a substantial degree. It also improved the lives of women enormously. Some form of no-fault divorce is allowed in all 50 states, at least for now. As Wehle notes:
No-fault divorce managed to meaningfully shift the power balance in marriage relationships: Women now had the option of leaving without their husband’s permission. From 1976 to 1985, states that adopted no-fault divorce saw their overall domestic-violence rates plummet by a quarter to one-half, including in relationships that did not end in divorce. The number of women murdered by “intimates” declined by 10 percent. Female suicide rates also fell immediately in states that moved to unilateral divorce, a downward trend that continued for the next decade.
However, as Republicans have become more and more extreme—specifically fueled by white evangelicals who form the core base of the Republican Party—no-fault divorce has become the latest target. As observed in May by CNN’s Caroline Shanley, conservative opposition to no-fault divorce is almost invariably couched in terms of defending “families.” But, as Shanley argues, in reality “it is precisely this discomfort over women’s autonomy that continues to fuel conservative outrage over the matter … it’s because of its potential to benefit women that it arouses controversy.” In other words, it’s misogyny that’s driving this new trend.
This is not simply one feminist raising the alarm, either; it’s exactly what is being cited in conservative “intellectual” circles, such as publications of the Institute for Family Studies. Here’s Scott Yenor of the right-wing Claremont Institute, for example, saying as much out loud in a piece published by the IFS:
Challenging the entire no-fault regime may backfire under current conditions, but changing the default settings for divorce proceedings may promote more marital stability. At the very least, setting default positions on child custody and spousal support or alimony, as Florida does in its new laws, increases the predictability in divorce proceedings. Increasing predictability will lessen the benefits that women have been getting from divorce judgments under “objective” standards like “best interests of the child.” If women are less likely to gain benefits from a divorce, they may file for divorce less frequently than before.
Mike Johnson’s home state of Louisiana is among those whose Republican legislatures are considering ending no-fault divorce. As noted by Julie O’Donaghue, writing for the Louisiana Illuminator, its opponents (including Johnson) often advocate for so-called “covenant marriages:”
People in a covenant marriage who want a divorce must go through marriage counseling and be separated for at least 18 months if they have underage children. In all other cases – including those involving spousal or child abuse – couples in covenant marriages have to be separated for at least a year before a divorce can be granted, according to the Louisiana Department of Health.
(As noted by Katie Herchendroeder, writing for Mother Jones, Johnson and his wife are one of the few—approximately 1% between 2000-2010—Louisianans who have opted for a “covenant marriage.”)
Texas, whose Republican Party has been characterized by Vanity Fair reporter Molly Jong-Fast as a “laboratory of misogynistic legislation,” has made ending no-fault divorce a major plank of its 2022 platform. It’s also worth noting that Trump-appointed federal district judge Matthew Kacsmaryk has characterized no-fault divorce as an attack on marriage, comparable to laws permitting abortion and contraception, and equivalent to laws “that eliminated legal penalties for fornication and adultery.” Kacsmaryk, who is certainly on Trump’s short list for a Supreme Court position should Trump win in 2024, is now the “go-to” Trump judge when the religious right seeks to elevate its grievances to that court.
And then there’s Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance. As reported last year by Media Matters’ John Knefel, Vance is among those conservative voices seeking to inject the abolition of no-fault divorce into the Republican mainstream:
Ohio Republican Senate nominee J.D. Vance praised the idea of staying in violent marriages in remarks to high school students in southern California last September. Vance argued “all of us should be honest” about how “making it easier for people to shift spouses like they change their underwear” by leaving marriages that were “maybe even violent” had negative effects on the children, according to Vice, which first reported the comments.
The right’s crusade against no-fault divorce was instituted—in typical fashion—by right-wing, so-called “men’s rights” commentators until it began to creep into “legitimate” Republican discourse. A 2022 BlazeTV segment by right-wing personality Steven Crowder, cited in Knefel’s report, is typical:
Oh, it’s no-fault divorce, which, by the way, means that in many of these states if a woman cheats on you, she leaves, she takes half. So it’s not no-fault, it’s the fault of the man. And that’s why, look, you can argue until you’re blue in the face, even the women who separate yourself from feminists, well, she is entitled to -- 40%, 40% of young men don’t want to get married.
As Wehle points out, “Federal law allows for state legislatures to easily roll back women’s ability to initiate divorce without spousal consent or proof of abuse.” There is, thus, no constitutional right at issue to deter Republicans from pursuing repeal of no-fault divorce laws. It’s simply a matter of Republican state legislators agreeing to proceed, as their next salvo in the GOP’s ongoing war on women. With the election of one of their own as speaker of the House, and Johnson’s fellow misogynist Trump waiting in the wings in 2024, it’s all but certain to become a “mainstream” Republican idea.
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