Hours after video emerged of Donald Trump boasting about committing sexual assault, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell criticized Trump’s comments as “repugnant” and “unacceptable.” But were they disqualifying? McConnell wouldn’t say—until nearly a month later, when, days before the election, he declared that “we need a new president, Donald Trump, to be the most powerful Republican in America.”
The first part of McConnell’s wish came true: America got a new president in Donald Trump. Whether the second part came to pass remains up for debate. On paper, Trump may be America’s most powerful Republican—but that’s only because McConnell has allowed him to take that role. And as soon as he tires of the current arrangement, McConnell can swiftly reclaim the power he has ceded. McConnell, after all, mastered Trump’s nihilistic brand of politics years ago; he is, in a sense, a proto-Trump, with the same nihilistic thirst for power that drove Trump to the Oval Office. He is much better at this game than Trump. And if Trump attempts to defy or depose McConnell, he will not simply fail: He will put his presidency at risk.
Although Trump and McConnell come across as polar opposites at first glance—McConnell’s stiff, dry demeanor is worlds away from Trump’s shambling vulgarity—their histories and philosophies rhyme in curious ways. Like Trump, McConnell had a pronounced liberal bent early in his political career, supporting abortion rights and unions. Like Trump, McConnell had no problem jettisoning these beliefs when he realized the Republican Party was turning fiercely against them. Like Trump, McConnell routinely attacks his opponents on dubious grounds: He notoriously attacked one rival for missing critical Senate votes for paid speeches (he hadn’t, though McConnell later did), insinuated that another was gay (he was actually just single), and suggested in television ads that a popular challenger was addicted to “mood-altering,” “powerful depressants” (he wasn’t).
Long before Trump started questioning Barack Obama’s birthplace, McConnell had perfected the kind of baseless personal attacks that, through the force of pure repetition, gain an aura of plausibility. But just as importantly, McConnell had coupled this viciousness with a total ideological flexibility whose sheer audacity seemed to somehow mask its rank hypocrisy. McConnell proposed a constitutional amendment to limit money in politics, then decided that the First Amendment protects unlimited and anonymous political spending and contributions. He voted for another constitutional amendment to outlaw flag burning before deciding that flag desecration is free speech. He took a hard line against China before receiving huge sums from Chinese donors, at which point he became a vociferous advocate for normalizing Chinese relations. Indeed, as Alec MacGillis documents in his indispensable McConnell biography The Cynic, virtually all of McConnell’s political convictions seem to derive from how much money any particular vote will bring him.
It may go without saying that similarly stark reversals define Trump’s political climb. Trump was pro-choice and pro-gay before deciding that Roe and Obergefell were wrongly decided. He supported open borders before he became an immigration hard-liner. He encouraged the invasion of Iraq then insisted he opposed the war from the start. Politico once quipped that Trump has “turned the self-contradiction into an art form.” The list of reversals is too exhausting to document fully—which, of course, plays to Trump’s advantage.
McConnell, too, knows that the truth is vastly overrated and that conventional wisdom overestimates the value of consistency. These insights are coupled with an overwhelming drive for power, no matter the collateral consequences. After Obama’s election, McConnell, then Senate minority leader, notoriously proclaimed that his “No. 1 priority” was making Obama a “one-term president.” He did not embark upon this mission because he personally loathed Obama or feared his progressive politics. He did it because Obama’s popularity stood between him and his lifelong dream of becoming Senate majority leader, a dream that could not be realized so long as Senate Democrats were buoyed by their president’s popularity. McConnell explained the strategy to his caucus with remarkable candor. A fellow senator, the late Robert Bennett, recalled for MacGillis what McConnell had said:
We have a new president with an approval rating in the seventy percent area. We do not take him on frontally. We find issues where we can win, and we begin to take him down, one issue at a time. We create an inventory of losses, so it’s Obama lost on this, Obama lost on that. And we wait for the time where the image has been damaged to the point where we can take him on. We recognize the American people—even those who do not approve of him—want him to have success, are hopeful.
As MacGillis paraphrases this pep talk: “Wait out Americans’ hopefulness in a dire moment for the country until it curdles into disillusionment.”
McConnell’s campaign of obstruction flowed from this plan. Senate Republicans, under McConnell’s leadership, deployed the filibuster with unprecedented frequency, blocking routine appointments to agencies, courts, and ambassadorships. McConnell pressured moderate Republicans to refuse any compromises over health care, stimulus, Wall Street reform, and gun safety measures, and to join the blockade of key Obama appointees for little reason other than a raw showing of force. This part of the story is familiar, and it’s especially poignant today, since McConnell’s obstruction allowed Trump to inherit more than 100 judicial vacancies that were Obama’s to fill, including a Supreme Court seat.
The animating intuition of McConnell’s obstructionism is that the overwhelming majority of Americans do not much care about Senate. They do not care about its traditions or daily functions. They do not care about speeches or filibusters. They do not care about amendments and debates and reconciliations and all the parliamentary maneuvers that, by all accounts, fascinate McConnell to no end. Most Americans care only that the Senate “works”—that it performs its basic functions without collapsing into partisan squabbles.
McConnell recognized this fact early on, and also saw that when the Senate seems not to be working, Americans tend to blame the president. So, as minority leader, he brought the Senate to a grinding halt, then blamed Obama and the Democrats for his handiwork. This gambit was wildly successful, sowing anger and frustrating toward Democrats, and allowing McConnell to accrue an immense amount of power despite his deep unpopularity, both in Kentucky and nationally.
The animating intuition of Trump’s rise to power was that Americans’ indifference toward politics runs a lot deeper than perhaps even McConnell realized. As it turns out, a huge chunk of the electorate does not care whether politicians hold regular press conferences or release financial disclosures or refrain from saying horribly bigoted things on TV. It doesn’t matter if a presidential candidate mocks or vilifies disabled people and women and immigrants. It doesn’t matter if he releases coherent policy papers and adheres to clear positions on important issues. Americans—or, rather, a majority of the ones who matter, thanks to the Electoral College—just don’t give a damn about the formalities of politics that the overpaid consultants told us were crucial. Or at least, they don’t give a damn when your name is Donald Trump.
But whereas McConnell developed his theory of the Senate carefully, over the course of years, Trump essentially stumbled into his own discovery all at once, then coasted to the top on a wave of dumb luck. And that is the principal distinction between the two men. Trump is an imbecile; McConnell is a genius. Trump’s idiocy leads to a near-constant stream of unforced errors; McConnell almost never makes a misstep and calculates the risk of every action. At some point, Trump’s luck will run out; McConnell’s ingenuity will not.
That should terrify Trump, because once McConnell decides that Trump is no longer useful to him, he will turn on him. If Trump becomes mired in scandals that threaten to hurt the Republican Party—or challenges the supremacy of the legislature over the executive—his agenda will be in serious trouble. McConnell has little use for an unpopular president, even a Republican one, who won’t cooperate with his plans. And if he does foil even part of Trump’s agenda and bring Washington into gridlock again, Americans will not blame him. They will blame President Donald Trump.
Therein lies McConnell’s ace in the hole. He knows the game Trump is playing and has played a version of it himself. He broadly agrees with Trump’s desire, mostly unarticulated during the campaign but apparent in his actions since, to slash the social safety net and nullify minority rights. If Trump cooperates with McConnell, plays by the rules McConnell lays out—in short, treats the Senate as the ultimate arbiter of the Republican agenda—then the two will get along just fine. But if Trump steps too far out of line with McConnell, the wooden senator from Kentucky will quietly ensure that the president suffers. Trump may be “the most powerful Republican in America.” But he will only hold that title for as long as McConnell lets him.