Mitch McConnell owes it to Americans to stand up to Trump’s personality cult

Published 2:53 pm Thursday, November 2, 2017


Guest columnist

This column space is devoted to Kentucky politics, so you might expect to be reading about Republicans’ plan to rescue state pensions or the ethics complaint against Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes over access to voter files.

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But there’s still a lot more to know about those things, such as the pension bill’s language and its actuarial and budgetary analysis.

We do know this: The national Republican Party is in turmoil that is transforming it, and Kentucky’s senior senator is the most important player, after the prime cause of the turmoil and transformation: President Donald Trump.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made nice with Trump on Monday, then he declared war on Trump’s supposedly erstwhile political strategist, Stephen K. Bannon. This came days after Bannon declared war on “the GOP establishment” and most Republican senators running next year, seeking candidates who would pledge to oust McConnell as leader.

At last weekend’s Values Voters Summit, Bannon drew analogies to the first Roman dictator and his assassination: “It’s like before the Ides of March. … They’re just looking to find out who is going to be Brutus to your Julius Caesar.”

Caesar was stabbed, but Bannon has another method in mind for McConnell’s political demise: suffocation from lack of money. Bannon is going after McConnell’s funders, and he spoke as if McConnell was watching: “The donors are not happy. They’ve all left you. We’ve cut off your oxygen, Mitch. OK? Money’s not courageous, but money is smart.”

That appears to be wishful thinking so far, with one major exception (big Trump donor Robert Mercer), and Bannon probably realizes that he is unlikely to take down McConnell and other Senate Republican leaders. He told the crowd, “This is gonna take a long time, and it’s not any one election.”

But in raising the specter of primary challenges, Bannon applies pressure to Republicans to get in Trump’s tent and stay there. And that advances the transformation of the party into a populist, nationalist, nativist organization that many Republicans can’t stomach.

Among them are former President George W. Bush, who was implicitly critical of Trump on Oct. 19, defending immigration and free trade, the two issues that most separate Trump from traditional Republicans. “Bigotry seems emboldened,” and “Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication,” Bush said. “We know that when we lose sight of our ideals, it is not democracy that has failed; it the failure of those charged with preserving and protecting democracy.” That echoed the presidential oath “to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.”

A few days later, Republican Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona delivered withering, personal criticism of Trump that was more about his behavior than his policies, saying he’s not fit to be president. But their tongues were loose because they have decided not to seek re-election next year; other Republicans stayed mostly mum, fearing blowback from the Republican base, which is still strongly supportive of Trump.

A somewhat emotional McConnell said after Flake’s speech in the Senate, “We’ve just witnessed a speech from a very fine man, and who clearly brings high principles to the office every day and does what he believes is the best interests of Arizona and the country.” He thanked Flake for his service “and the opportunity to listen to his remarks.”

But McConnell uttered no judgment about those remarks. Flake is a fine man, but McConnell wasn’t about to say that he made a fine speech. As majority leader, he has to work with Trump, who has been critical of his failure to repeal and replace Obamacare and his support of the Senate filibuster rule. And polls in Kentucky show Trump more popular than McConnell, who’s also up for re-election in 2020.

At a press conference Monday after a working lunch, McConnell and Trump made a good show of cooperation on policy matters, and the president said of Bannon, “Some of the people he may be looking at, I’m going to see if we talk him out of that.”

McConnell apparently treated that as another worthless Trump statement, much like the president’s ridiculous declaration that “The Republican Party is very, very unified.” Two days later, the Senate Leadership Fund, the political committee that does his bidding, let it be known that it was going after Bannon, making him out to be a supporter of white nationalism.

Bannon has baggage, and his influence is still being tested, but he is riding a wave that could outlast him. Polls show Republicans are adjusting their beliefs on such things as Vladimir Putin, WikiLeaks and the National Football League to accommodate a different type of Republican president. And 72 percent of white evangelical conservatives say personal immorality doesn’t conflict with ethical performance of official duties; six years ago, only 30 percent believed that.

These are worrisome developments. “A party shouldn’t be about a man or an individual,” Republican Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania told PBS. “It should be about a set of ideas and a set of principles.”

However, Dent is another of those Republicans who aren’t running again, partly because they can’t stand to run under Trump’s banner or fear they will lose a primary. As long as anti-Trump Republicans give up or shut up, the transformation of their party will continue.

McConnell surely doesn’t welcome that transformation, but he is trying to accommodate a president of his party and still maintain its narrow control of the Senate. So his war is with Bannon, not Trump.

But the president’s personality cult is not just a threat to the GOP establishment; it is a threat to American democracy. The oath McConnell has taken six times is similar to that of the president’s, a pledge to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

Remember that last word, Senator.

Al Cross is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and associate professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. This column originally appeared in the Courier-Journal.