Mitch McConnell’s late-career softening can be overstated. The man who leads the Republican minority in the US Senate remains a stubborn and sentimental supporter. His alienation from Trumpism was late and qualified.
Last week, however, he helped avert one of the country’s most frequent public debt crises. Thanks to its collaborative work, Democrats can now raise the debt ceiling by a simple majority of votes in the hemicycle. For his efforts, McConnell has suffered months of criticism as a sellout from his colleagues in the House of Representatives. One of them, Matt Gaetz, taking inspiration from Donald Trump, questioned his “backbone”.
As this language suggests, the House has become the unofficial seat of Trumpism. The Senate, because of its smaller size and longer terms of office, is less permeable to upstart politicians. Trump himself has only a fraction of the profile he enjoyed before social media giants downgraded him. As for the Supreme Court, it is appointed for a third by Trump, but naturally limited in what it can say or do.
This leaves the lower house as a populist for all. In recent months, a Republican has called a Muslim Democrat a “black heart” and joked about her potential as a suicide bomber. Another, perhaps unaware that cancer is not communicable, wonders why the disease is not leading to school closures when the coronavirus pandemic does. Still, a third posed with his gun family for a photo just days after a deadly school shooting. As with Gaetz, it is tempting to dismiss them as low-level members of the Washington firmament. But if Republicans return to the House next year, they will set the legislative agenda and populate important committees.
And it’s not like the Republican leadership in the House is putting on a much more dignified spectacle. The farce is chaired by Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who appealed to Trump in Florida after the Capitol siege last January. Adam Kinzinger, a Trump critic leaving the House, cites McCarthy as a key force in keeping the GOP attached to the twice-indicted demagogue. It certainly did not help McConnell’s tentative work to bring the party in a new direction.
This tension between the two Macs is more than a Washington melodrama. He captures the choice in the face of the game. McConnell keeps the promise of (relative) pragmatism. A future defined by McCarthy could be a lot like the past five years. What both have in common is that neither of them necessarily acts out of deep conviction. McConnell, the politician’s politician, can simply calculate that Trumpism commands a large minority of the nation, but not a lasting majority. As for McCarthy, he’s made a name for himself as one of the party’s far from extreme Young Guns, alongside former House Speaker Paul Ryan. Trumpism is something he adopted over time.
Motivations aside, anyone concerned about America’s civic health should hope that McConnellism prevails in the party. He will soon be 80, and that’s not the only fact that makes his plan to keep the party in check so intimidating. Since the eruption of Newt Gingrich and his “revolution” of 1994, the House has led the radicalization of the Republican Party. Tea Party attendees continued the trend in 2010. There is even vehement talk of Trump’s return as Speaker of the House. Even though he is moving away from frontline politics, it is dark enough that his approach to politics now has an independent impetus and a base in the heart of Washington.