January 5, 2021 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
The fiction of McConnell vs Trump
Don't be fooled by McConnell's cunning.
I get it. Totally. It’s fun watching the Republicans squirm. Mitch McConnell would rather move on. The top Senate Republican would rather move on to sabotaging the new Biden administration. He’d rather not deal with some in his conference making noise about “voter fraud” in a doomed effort to save Donald Trump’s presidency. Liberals despise McConnell. Ergo, liberals take pleasure in watching him squirm.
Is he squirming? Seems so. Mike Allen, the most conventional member of a very conventional Washington press corps, says “the Republican battle lines being formed in President Trump’s final days—his loyalists vs. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s establishment—will shape American politics for the next four years.”
Knowing you can’t win a fight, and deciding against fighting it as a result, isn’t principled. It’s partisanship in basic form.
The presumption is that while Trump and his cohort are bent on smashing democratic norms, McConnell and his cohort are bent on defending them—at least when it comes to the willingness, even eagerness, of the “Republican establishment” to accept the outcome of a lawful presidential election. The tension arising from ideological conflict “will permanently define one of America’s two major political parties,” Allen said.
But looks can be deceiving. I’m not sure McConnell is squirming. I’m not sure there’s distance between “McConnell Party v. Trump Party.” (That’s Allen’s framing.) On the one hand, McConnell isn’t involved in a scheme to overthrow the republic. On the other hand, he knows the scheme is going to fail. Things might be different were the Republicans to control the House. They don’t. Knowing you can’t win a fight, and deciding against fighting it as a result, isn’t principled. It’s partisanship in basic form.
You could say McConnell is principled in preventing, or seeming to prevent, his party from raging full-on fascist. I suppose there’s honor in that. But that’s no doubt part of his cunning. It won’t do for the American people—especially the press corps—to see the Republican Party for what it’s become. It won’t do to have political reporters scrutinizing the Republican Party the way they scrutinized Sinn Féin, Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other organizations benefiting from disorder, anarchy and violence. Game over if that happened. You can’t con anyone if they don’t trust you. Better to let some in your conference appeal to Trump loyalists while appearing principled. Better to let the Washington press corps portray the GOP as a legitimate responsible party.
Same thing goes for Gabriel Sterling. His boss, Georgia’s secretary of state, is a target of Trump loyalists outraged by Joe Biden winning a GOP-controlled state. Sterling spent hours Monday refuting each and every conspiracy theory and allegation against Brad Raffensperger. In doing so, he got a lot of praise. Finally, some said, here are real conservatives willing and able to stand up to Trump. Perhaps there’s hope after all for the Republican Party. Perhaps it won’t take that final step in the descent into fascism.
Please. Sterling is complicit in a massive years-long effort to disenfranchise Black voters and voters of color. That effort went into overdrive after the US Supreme Court, in 2013, gutted provisions of the Voting Rights Act in ruling Shelby County v. Holder. Since then, Georgia and other states, especially in the South, have enacted so-called voter ID laws that have boxed out minority voters. To get these laws passed, the Republicans had to manufacture a problem demanding a solution. Voter fraud—the same problem Trump loyalists are saying sabotaged the presidency of Dear Leader. To be sure, Sterling seemed pissed yesterday. But it wasn’t the anger of the righteous. It was the anger of a Republican elite having to explain himself to Republican rubes.
Like Mitch McConnell, Gabriel Sterling knows the Republicans can’t win this fight. The numbers just aren’t there. But knowing the Republicans can’t win should not be mistaken for principle—or for anything that might constitute a moral foundation for trusting the Republicans to behave with honor in accordance to their stated values.
Like Sinn Féin, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, the Republicans benefit from disorder, anarchy and violence. Unlike them, however, they have yet to commit to terrorism. I don’t see a reason why they would act as they are now acting if Biden’s margin were smaller. I don’t see a reason why McConnell would not join his conference in trying to overthrow the republic if the Republicans controlled the US Congress. Indeed, all things being equal, they’ll try canceling Joe Biden one way or another. Partisanship means it’s not a matter of motive, but of opportunity. Hopefully, they’ll never see one.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.