Mitch McConnell Is Now at Odds With Trump. That Doesn’t Mean Mitch Is Good.

The corporate news media have spent the last three decades ensorcelled by the indefatigable “Dems in Disarray” trope. Calling it out as a trope is actually so commonplace now — because the practice itself is so commonplace — that it has almost become a trope itself. I feel bad for the journalists stapled to that beat right now, because the real show is down the hall. Mitch McConnell, that banality of evil made flesh, has been revealed to be running a massive behind-the-scenes effort to displace Trump (himself a boorish evil made flesh, and thus is irony made flesh) from the Republican Party. If history holds, the two old curs will soon be at each other’s throats right out there in the campaign-year spotlight.

You have to wonder what it must be like to be McConnell these days. The minority leader for a year now, McConnell’s power and influence seem only to have grown in the intervening time. He had help in this, or course; the months-long policy debate within House Democratic circles devoured the summer and fall. McConnell appeared to have little else to do in that stretch except shore up his caucus, offer the occasional honeyed remark for Trump, and wait to see what emerged from the House. Every 16 hours or so, he’d send out another press release, like a grim bell tolling in the night: “We still say ‘no’ to everything… We still say ‘no’ to everything… We still sa– hey, is this thing on?” Tap, tap, tap.

Of course, McConnell had plenty to do. He made it clear that any legislation seeking to repair the Voting Rights Act was doomed. He played chicken with the debt limit and the government funding deadline. He also made sure Joe Manchin knew that at least one person — Mitch — appreciated the West Virginia senator’s infinite enmity and impatience for President Biden’s domestic agenda.

“Something is broken in the Senate,” Peter Nicholas wrote for The Atlantic at the peak of that long summer. “McConnell’s sustained commitment to stopping Democratic priorities, whatever the cost, has deepened the dysfunction that makes many Republican voters doubt the efficacy of government in the first place. In most democracies, a stubborn minority party cannot stop the majority from debating the nation’s worst problems, much less solving them. McConnell is one reason the United States remains an exception.”

Beneath the surface of seemingly still Republican waters during that time, however, lurked a riptide that threatened to suck McConnell’s political boat far out to sea. From his bespattered perch at Mar-a-Lago, the self-styled once-and-future-king Trump continued to ply his ragged wares, surrounded by a motley constellation of legal hacks, politicians seeking his precious endorsement, misfit media types who see Satan in a vaccine syringe, and former White House staffers who have nowhere else to go because nobody is hiring anyone from that White House. Would you? If so, count the forks.

The drumbeat emanating from this seething coalition grows louder by the day: “Trump won the election… crime of the century… say it… say it and join us… say it or we will bury you.” Over the summer, most Republicans were content to either support Trump’s mayhem campaign and keep their seat safe, or just keep quiet and hope the eye of Sauron did not fall upon them demanding a reckoning and an operatic oath of fidelity. They are incredibly powerful within the party, that Trumpy bunch. They believe their time is at hand.

So it must have come as a natural shock to see the New York Times headline pop on Sunday morning: “Inside McConnell’s Campaign to Take Back the Senate and Thwart Trump.”

If McConnell hoped to keep his anti-Trump activities under wraps, the Times put paid to that with a meaty thud. “As Mr. Trump works to retain his hold on the Republican Party, elevating a slate of friendly candidates in midterm elections, Mr. McConnell and his allies are quietly, desperately maneuvering to try to thwart him,” reads the Times report. “The loose alliance, which was once thought of as the G.O.P. establishment, for months has been engaged in a high-stakes candidate recruitment campaign, full of phone calls, meetings, polling memos and promises of millions of dollars. It’s all aimed at recapturing the Senate majority, but the election also represents what could be Republicans’ last chance to reverse the spread of Trumpism before it fully consumes their party.”

You have to hand it to McConnell; he does a mean Iago. Pulling off a stunt like this is like trying to arrange a massive surprise party where your worst enemy gets fired when they walk through the door. Sure, Mitch clapped back at Trump and the Republican National Committee over their description of the January 6 Capitol attack as “legitimate political discourse,” but he wasn’t straying terribly far with that; he called it a “a violent insurrection” on Monday, which is pretty much what he said the day it happened (though he’s been inconsistent in his condemnation, at other times). All the other days, however, the days where he carried gallons of post-election water for Trump while publicly avoiding any pointed critiques of the former president… that, as it turns out, was Mitch waiting in the tall grass.

At the end of things, it is robustly important to remember that the labors of McConnell in this endeavor are in like kind with those of David Frum, Colin Powell, and the other “Never Trump” Republicans who squeezed out a few good anti-Trump commercials back when there was a market for such tedious things. They are not your friend, any more than McConnell is. These people agree with virtually every policy idea the Trump administration had to offer, because all the Trump administration had to offer was road-bald radials from 1981, GOP policy down the line. They are fine with that, Mitch especially. They don’t like Trump because they think he’s “bad for the brand.”

According to the Times article, McConnell’s efforts to recruit a murderer’s row of Trump-resistant congressional candidates is meeting with limited success. There is daylight, but not quite enough for establishment Republicans to get excited about. What may be exciting is the trend that will not quit: Trump refuses to talk about anything other than the election (and he never stops talking), and implicit with his endorsement is the promise that his chosen candidates will follow suit.

The base will lap it up as usual, but even the rosiest forecasts show that number to be dwindling as voters focus more and more on issues like the pandemic and the economy. The GOP may be bereft of policy ideas, but an increasing number of them know a dead socket when they see one. More to the point, they are all too familiar with the results when the base chooses their favorite sons and daughters to run in tight races. “Privately, [McConnell] has declared he won’t let unelectable ‘goofballs’ win Republican primaries,” reads the Times report.

Them’s fightin’ words, Mitch… but gadzooks, who do you root for in that brawl? The insurgent racists and sideways conspiracists who pepper the Trumpian horde in their quest to be the face of the party? Or the establishment Republicans like McConnell, desperate in their senescence, who have lost control of the party’s base even as they once created it. The prodigal son has come home.

Now who’s in disarray again?