Jane Mayer is an excellent reporter for the New Yorker magazine who has been following the career of Mitch McConnell for a long time. She has a new article examining his recent moves that seem to involve a distancing from Trump. The headline says that McConnell has dumped Trump but that was written just after he spoke in the Senate on January 6th saying that the election results should not be overturned. Since then, McConnell has edged back to Trump again.
But Mayer’s description of the McConnell-Trump dynamic is interesting.
For four years, McConnell and others in the establishment wing of the Republican Party embraced the conceit that they could temper Trump’s behavior, exploit his popularity, and ignore the racist, violent, and corrupt forces he unleashed. Ornstein observed that McConnell, in a cynical bargain, “used Trump to accomplish his goals of packing the courts and getting tax cuts.” (Since 2016, the top corporate tax rate has been nearly halved, to twenty-one per cent.) In exchange for these gifts to the Party’s corporate backers, McConnell stayed largely silent in the face of Trump’s inflammatory lies and slurs—even though, according to insiders, he privately held the President in contempt. He covered for Trump’s political incompetence, eventually passing budgets and pandemic relief, despite Trump’s tantrums and government shutdowns. And he protected Trump from accountability during the first impeachment trial, in early 2020, announcing in advance that there was “zero chance” a Senate under his leadership would convict the President.
But any pretense that McConnell could maintain control over Trump or over the Party’s fate unravelled after the 2020 election. McConnell was caught between denouncing Trump’s lies and alienating his supporters, thereby risking the loss of the two Senate seats in the Georgia runoff. Faced with a choice between truth and self-interest, McConnell opted for the latter. “He knew he had to keep the team together for Georgia,” a former Trump Administration official close to McConnell’s circle told me. “For him, being Majority Leader was the whole ballgame. It’s hard to overstate. It’s pretty obvious that for McConnell one of the reasons he was so indulgent of Trump was Georgia.”
Several Republican advisers argued to me that McConnell had no reasonable choice. If he had confronted Trump before the Georgia runoff, they said, Trump would have launched a civil war within the Party, possibly even commanding his supporters not to vote. “It could have been worse,” the former Trump official said. “Trump could have attacked” the two Republican Senate candidates, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, or the National Republican Senate Campaign Committee. As one of the advisers put it, “McConnell was trying to keep the wheels on the train for a few more hours.”
The documentary program Frontline has put online the entire interview they had with Frank Luntz for the documentary Trump’s American Carnage that I discussed in an earlier post and it is pretty interesting, in an inside baseball kind of way. He talks about what discussions were going on inside the inner sanctums of the Republican party all during the Trump era right up to the present.
Here’s the full Luntz interview.
For those unfamiliar with Luntz, he is a Republican pollster whose specialty is using focus groups and polls to help Republicans find ways to sell their unpalatable message to voters by using carefully chosen language. He managed to sell things like getting rid of the inheritance tax (that only affected very rich people) by calling it a death tax that would hit ordinary people who wanted to leave a small legacy to their children. He helped generate opposition to Obamacare by claiming it would take away their health care and eliminate their choices. While I utterly loathe the policies he was paid to advance, I do have grudging respect for his skill in listening to voters and using his understanding of what they want to create messaging that persuaded people to support positions that went against their own interests. He is also plugged in to all the top people in the Republican leadership and has access to them and thus can speak authoritatively about what is going on inside the party.
Luntz says that the low voter turnout in Republican districts turned out to be the significant factor in the two Georgia senate losses. He points out that both Republicans had significant leads in the November 3rd election, with one of them almost winning outright, but then lost in the run-offs. Trump never had any interest in winning the Georgia senate run-off races and indeed deliberately sabotaged the Republican candidates because he simply could not stand the idea that other Republicans could win in a state where he lost. He says that if Trump had simply got off his fat ass (his words) playing golf in Florida and held a rally in deeply red Augusta, the Republicans would have won easily. He says that if Trump had just been silent, they would have won. But instead, he set about undermining the Republican candidates. He says that he attended Biden’s rallies and they were clearly designed to get out the Democratic votes while Trump’s rally seemed designed to suppress the Republican vote by claiming that the election was totally rigged.
There were some other interesting things that he said. He started out by saying that while he was a Republican pollster and likely will always be viewed as such, around 2015 he changed his perspective from trying to craft things to favor Republicans to being more accurate. One has to take such distancing with a grain of salt. He also said that Trump did not like him and recounted an anecdote where during a flight on Air Force One, Trump brought in all his senior people into the room in order to have them ridicule Luntz about a suggestion he made that would be more effective in selling his border wall. Trump was firmly convinced that his own slogan of ‘Build the wall!’ was the best, whatever focus groups and polling might say.
Luntz also says that Nancy Pelosi drives Trump crazy because the tactics he usually uses with women don’t seem to work with her and that she knows how to needle him and get under his skin.
He says that his research shows that 50% of Trump voters want him to continue to contest this election, 50% want him to run again in 2024, more than 70% believe that Trump won this election, many of them want him to start a new party, and that there is now a majority of Republicans who will never, ever trust an American election again. He says that he has never seen anything like it before but that this is the bind that the Republican leadership finds itself in. Even if they want to, they cannot distance themselves from Trump, even though the majority of the country has moved on and accepted the election results.
The Republican party has no choice but to be ‘loyal’ (i.e., subservient) to Trump in order to not alienate his voters, while Trump has absolutely no loyalty to the party, making it a textbook abusive relationship.