There is a special pleasure in witnessing two of the world’s worst people each straining to tear the other’s face off. On happy occasions such as these, what is there to do but settle into the chesterfield, tuck into the popping corn, lightly nod and mutter intensely the immortal words:
Yet the considerable wisdom of Ken Watanabe does not exhaust what needs to be said about the cage match between Cocaine Mitch and the reigning Republican champion, the Titan of Treason, the Quisling of Queens, the President of Perfidy, Donald Fucking Trump. As pleasant as it is to consider their mutual thrashing, it’s of tremendous significance that this tussle is taking place at all and we shouldn’t be indifferent about who wins.
When I was at Niskanen, we were a hub of never-Trump activity and talked a hell of a lot about restoring sanity to the GOP after Trump. We did a conference or two on the subject with people like this:
At the time, I thought we were probably allowing hope to prevail over reason. Still, it wasn’t an obviously unviable project. More importantly, the upside of a more moderate version of the Republican Party less reliant on constant shameless lies, paranoid bigotry and outright hostility to democracy would be so immense that it made sense to take a crack at it even if the odds of were poor.
At this point, however, infusing the post-Trump GOP with a new spirit of reality-based moderation strikes me as a ridiculously hopeless endeavor. The assumption was that a decisive Trump defeat would force the GOP to move on and reflect on what it needs to become to win again — especially if they lost the Senate. That’s why never-Trumpers like the Lincoln Project dudes came out so hard for Biden and against GOP Senate incumbents. Total Republican defeat was the path back to their Republican Party. That was the idea, anyway.
I don’t remember anyone considering anything approximating the possibility that Trump would get beaten like a mule, lose both Georgia Senate seats (Georgia!), get banned from Twitter and Facebook (and Pinterest!), leave office in utter disgrace for planning a coup… yet nevertheless maintain an iron grip on the Republican Party.
I mean, why would you consider that? Seems insane that it could turn out to be true. There’s no shame in failing to predict this. Anyway, the war between Trump and McConnell illustrates just how misguided after-Trump aspirations for Republican moderation turned out to be.
The dispute begins in earnest with the bizarre spectacle of McConnell, almost immediately after voting to acquit in the Senate trial (on the grounds of arbitrary bullshit about their lack of jurisdiction, which they basically made up on the spot), forcefully articulating the case for conviction. If you haven’t heard it, take a few minutes. It’s a genuinely powerful, clear-eyed denunciation of Trump and, implicitly, of his fellow Republicans who amplified his Big Lie.
It’s no surprise, then, that Trump would throw the rhetorical kitchen sink at ol’ Mitch in a blistering statement. Here’s my favorite part:
Mitch is a dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack, and if Republican Senators are going to stay with him, they will not win again. He will never do what needs to be done, or what is right for our Country. Where necessary and appropriate, I will back primary rivals who espouse Making America Great Again and our policy of America First. We want brilliant, strong, thoughtful, and compassionate leadership.
Mitch McConnell is indeed dour, sullen, and unsmiling, but he is also one of the most cunning strategists in American political history and a man of utter integrity and consistency in his quest for raw power. He is monomaniacally focused one single thing: control of the Senate majority. He knew that this was coming — that Trump would paint a target on him — and he knew it would hurt him politically, which it has. That he nevertheless drove the knife as deep into Trump’s back fat as he could manage (pretty deep!) tells us a hell of a lot.
Mostly, it tells us that America’s mumbling Machiavelli is pretty damn sure that Trump, if he’s not fully taken out, could keep him from reclaiming his precious. Mitch only needs to flip a single seat to break out the good stationary again. That would be child’s play for Mitch — under ordinary conditions. And, as we saw over the past four years, McConnell has no problem putting up with Trump’s bullshit if he calculates that it won’t cost him. But he is emphatically not putting up with it. So he’s telling us its costing him. That said, I also think Mitch is legitimately pissed that the punk sent a horde of drooling yokels to trash his Senate chambers. So why didn’t he vote to convict?
Voting to acquit immediately before he brought the “lock him up” pain shows that McConnell knows where his caucus is: trapped. They’re trapped for the same reason Mitch knew that going after Trump, and calling for his criminal prosecution in particular, would lead to vicious retaliation. It’s also the same reason that all the “after Trump” hopes of erstwhile center-right Republicans turned out to be misplaced: mob logic.
Trump’s hold on the base forced nearly every Republican in Congress to unwittingly make themselves an accessory to one of the most heinous political crimes in American history. Now they can’t protect themselves without protecting him.
As a rule, partisan opinion follows the party’s leader. But Trump wasn’t just any old party leader. He forged an usually personal connection with Republican voters, turning a considerable majority of them into fanatical loyalists. That’s how he gained the leverage to force party elites, who hated his guts, to cede control of the party apparatus and come to heel. Trump put himself between Republican electeds and the voters who put them in office and trained the voters so well he could turn their support off like a spigot. The difference between getting on the wrong side of Trump and getting on the wrong side of Republicans in their own districts in their own states eventually narrowed to nothing. The technical term for this extortionate dynamic is know in the academic field of political science as “balls in a vise.”
Trump effectively ensured that he would maintain some control over the party, win or lose, when he went all in on his Big Lie. But it was the MAGA mob sacking the Capitol that gave Trump’s vise two brutal turns and a padlock.
The short cycle of House terms made a large majority of the GOP caucus fear that they’d face an imminent primary challenge if they failed to enthusiastically perpetuate Trump’s insanely baseless lies about the election. GOP senators on the block in 2022 must have felt the same way, while those with presidential aspirations looking ahead to the 2024 GOP primaries reckoned that amplifying Trump’s lies might give them a leg up.
I think Trump understood perfectly well that his lock-stock-and-barrel ownership of the GOP base would lead to this kind of deafening symphonic repetition and amplification of his completely spurious claims of election fraud and Democratic corruption, and that this would function to shore up his credibility and extinguish any serious doubts among Republican voters. I mean, why would they all lie about it?
However, I suspect that most Congressional Republicans who signed on to the Big Lie were just craven, myopic, opportunistic dipshits either too dumb or too corrupt to give a second thought to the risk that their repetition of Trump’s lies would add volume to a massive chorus of voices singing the same tune. If you’re the kind of “conservative” oaf who thinks that insufferable “sanctity of democracy” stuff is just moralizing bullshit Democrats use to rig elections against Republicans by making it easy to vote — if you’re the kind of debased right-wing partisan fully reconciled to the reality that the secret to electoral GOP success is owning smug libs and trolling self-serious Dems — well, then you probably thought you were just acting like a winner.
It’s simply what one does! You go on TV and say whatever Trump said. If you’ve got a bit of panache, you’ll make it your own. You’ll find an original way to insinuate that Black people in Philadelphia either don’t or can’t count. You’ll shuttle back and forth between operatic fake umbrage and a shit-eating Polident grin as you declare that real Americans are being silenced and disenfranchised. But you probably weren’t considering that the collective strength and credibility of the Republican choir’s one voice would add up, in the minds of Republican voters, to decisive confirmation that the election really had been stolen and that the certification of Biden’s fraudulent victory really would amount to a coup.
And then Trump incites a seditious mob animated by lies you actively promoted and they trash the Capitol while you’re in it pretending to contest electoral votes for lulz, because you’re a winner. Whoops.
Mitch’s damning statement suggests to me that he would have voted to convict had there been enough other Senate Republicans willing to risk defying their voters, because nothing is more likely to break Trump's spell than disqualifying him from running again. But he wasn’t going to whip those votes. He sees his caucus’ fears of getting primaried as completely rational and he generally gives his blessing to whatever you need to do to win — except in the unlikely event there's somebody in your state that he happens likes better than you waiting in the wings who can take you down in a primary and then go on to win the general for sure. But he knows that if his current crew gets primaried for voting to convict, it’s going to be by Trumpist morons who will put otherwise safe seats at risk.
So it was fine by McConnell that nearly everyone did the strategically right thing by doing the borderline treasonous thing and voting to acquit for transparently silly reasons Republicans hastily fabricated to rationalize their outrageous cowardice. So he did it, too. It gave his beleaguered boys measure of cover and it wouldn’t have helped any if he hadn’t. But here’s the important thing: Mitch knows that it it was the wrong thing, and that Democrats will very effectively use that fact to hammer his chances of getting his majority back in 2022. So the smart team play for Republicans not up for re-election in the coming cycle is to pivot as quickly as possible to the more popular, substantively correct position on the legitimacy of the election and Trump’s culpability for 1/6. At the same time, he’s not going to sweat his people if they need to publicly side with Trump. He’ll have their backs as long as they support him behind the scene when it counts. Otherwise, he’ll leave them for dead in a ditch.
It’s a very tricky play. On the one hand, the quicker they can all pivot toward sanity, the less Democratic attacks on the GOP as the pro-treason party will sting in 2022. On the other hand, the longer his troops facing re-election can go without attracting MAGA primary challengers, the better. That’s why Cyrus Vance getting his mitts on Trump’s taxes returns is terrific news for Mitch McConnell.
Again, Mitch is making it crystal clear that he thinks that his party’s increasingly deranged obeisance to Trump — especially in the face of the total unforgiveable outrage of what he actually did — is going to fuck over his otherwise incredibly good chances of winning back the senate majority, which he loves twice as much as Elaine Chao. Say what you will about Mitch, but he’s rarely wrong about what it takes to win.
Democrats need to listen hard when Mitch so clearly tells them that he's scared to death that he will be denied his precious if Democrats are relentless about hanging treason and Marjorie Taylor Greene around their necks while Trump's still out there trying to run a shadow government as a free man.
My money’s on McConnell, largely because Trump is in so much imminent legal jeopardy, which is obviously a major component of Mitch’s calculation. Trump knows it, too, which is why he threw everything he’s got at Mitch in his gorgeously bitchy statement. He’s got nothing to lose.
Game recognize game. Trump knows Mitch is a fucking snake who doesn’t take an ounce of shit. He knows Mitch knew exactly what he was stepping into when he launched verbal nukes from the Senate floor, which means he’s knows Mitch is already geared up to fuck him six ways to Sunday. Trump ain’t scared of a scrap. He knows how to win dirty. But he’s terrified of prison and I bet he’s shitting his pants over Mitch switching on the laser eyes, because the odds are approximately zero that he doesn’t know the location of some mass graves where Trump has buried many, many bodies. Stay-out-of-jail threat assessment is about the only thing Trump’s spectacularly good at, so I bet he really would have preferred not to escalate with the Louisville Slugger. But Mitch was coming after him anyway, so his best move is to stuff his entire delegitimating arsenal into a catapult, aim it at Mitch, and hope.
But what should we hope? Ultimately, America’s interests align with McConnell’s. We’re all better off if Trump’s ends up in prison for the rest of his life and his mob boss hold over the GOP fades. But we’re also better off if Mitch McConnell isn’t Senate majority leader. If he’s worried that allegiance to Trump will make it rather too easy for Democrats to brand the GOP as the party of unhinged, conspiratorial anti-democratic political terrorism, and that this will help Democrats hold the Senate, do we really want that to become less easy for Democrats right away? If Trump’s influence screws over Republicans for another cycle and then he goes to jail, could that finally breathe a gossamer whisper of faint possibility into moderates’ wild Romney/Hogan “after Trump” fantasies? Or is the danger posed by an actual party of unhinged, conspiratorial anti-democratic political terrorism too great to tolerate for even twelve extra seconds?
This is where I come up short. My head says one thing, my heart says another. What do you think? Double aneurysm is not an acceptable answer.