Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell is a modern-day Machiavelli. As reported by The Conversation, “Mitch McConnell’s legacy is a conservative Supreme Court shaped by his calculated audacity”; he arranged the appointment of three conservative Supreme Court judges, whose terms of office will last long after his own departure.
He is continuing in the same style, as can be seen from his remarkable twists and turns since the 2020 elections – seeming to alternate between support for Donald Trump and criticism of him. It appears that McConnell wants the Republican Party to win back control of Congress in the mid-term elections next year, and the presidency in 2024, without Donald Trump as party leader. What has been his thinking?
Trump lost the 2020 election, but he refused to accept defeat. When the Electoral College confirmed Joe Biden’s win on 15th December, after Trump’s legal challenges to election results had all been rejected, the BBC reported that Mitch McConnell: Top Trump ally breaks silence to congratulate Biden. This was the first moment when McConnell failed to support Trump.
A BBC report, Trump riots: 65 days that led to chaos at the Capitol, described Trump’s claims that the election had been ‘stolen’ and how he incited his supporters to march on the Capitol building on 6 January 2021 try to prevent Joe Biden from being confirmed as President. Morning Consult reported a short-term dip in approval then for Trump among Republican voters – Trump’s Popularity Declines Among GOP Voters After Brutal Week for the Country – but only down from 85% to 77%. Some of the continued support was because many voters believed Trump’s lies about the election having been stolen by the Democrats. A few Republican politicians have continued to feed those lies.
A CNN report, Angry Republican leaders float removing Trump from office, described how several prominent Republicans thought that Trump should be removed from office immediately. Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat Majority Leader of the House of Representatives, moved swiftly – as reported by the BBC on 13 January: Trump impeached for ‘inciting’ US Capitol riot in historic second charge. Ten Republicans joined the Democrats in voting to impeach him and the documentation was then submitted for a trial in the Senate.
Mitch McConnell at this point had to decide how to proceed – considering the future of the Republican Party and his own position as the leader of the Republican senators. A clear rift had opened in the party, between those who were critical of Trump and those who supported him. Some politicians might be concerned about the risk of being de-selected in primary elections if they oppose Trump – and McConnell risks losing the leadership of the party in the Senate if he upsets too many Trump-supporting Republican senators.
Politicians who are selected to run as Republican candidates must then face the electors in the wider public. They need to defeat Democrat opponents. The party had lost the 2020 election, so a simple continuation of Trumpism would not be sufficient to defeat the Democrats in future elections – and Trump’s support has been further weakened by the invasion of the Capitol building. Moderate Republicans would have a better chance of winning in swing States in 2022 and 2024.
Mitch McConnell had to steer a course between the pressures from Trump supporters in the short term and what will appeal to the electorate as a whole in the longer term. An Independent report on a 26 February interview, at the start of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) – Mitch McConnell says he would ‘absolutely’ support Trump if he becomes the Republican nominee in 2024 – tracked his behaviour in the seven weeks following the Capitol riots on 6 January:
- McConnell’s first decision was to nullify the impeachment process, and let Trump off the hook, by an adroit manoeuvre:
“The senator, then the majority leader, delayed an impeachment trial in the Senate until after Mr Trump was no longer in office.
… McConnell then backed a motion tabled by Senator Rand Paul that argued to dismiss the impeachment trial entirely, on the grounds that it would be unconstitutional to impeach a person who is no longer in office.”
- He then voted to acquit Donald Trump at the Senate trial on 13 February, but immediately after the acquittal he criticised Trump. He wrote that “There is no question former President Trump bears moral responsibility. His supporters stormed the Capitol because of the unhinged falsehoods he shouted into the world’s largest megaphone”.
- His statement on 26 February, that he would support Trump if he became the Republican nominee in 2024, was largely meaningless. It only confirmed that he would always support whoever was the nominee. It did not mean that he wanted Trump to be that person.
The party’s next problem is to ensure that suitable Republican candidates are selected in the Primary elections. The party faithful might still be supporting Donald Trump but they should consider what the wider electorate will vote for. McConnell’s criticism of Trump was probably intended to guide Republican party members to think more clearly about how to win the next elections: to keep the popular aspects of Trumpism but distance the party from the discredited ex-President. They also need to win over some who didn’t vote for Trump in 2020, so they should consider what voters really want.