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The United States passed a somber milestone on Tuesday, as the number of deaths officially attributed to Covid-19 exceeded 100,000. The only commemoration that Donald Trump undertook was a tweet boasting that “if I hadn’t done my job well, & early, we would have lost 1 1/2 to 2 Million People, as opposed to the 100,000 plus that looks like will be the number.” Aside from this note of self-congratulation, he spent the day on unusually frenzied attacks on political and journalistic foes. He mocked Joe Biden for wearing a mask and railed against “crazy Nancy Pelosi.”
He also continued to speculate, without any basis in fact, that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough might have murdered a staff member in 2001 when he was a congressman. The Scarborough tweets are particularly demented because the widower of the deceased woman asked Trump to stop bringing the matter up, since it only brings pain to her family. Even the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, one of the few newspapers that regularly carry water for the president, denounced Trump for “debasing his office,” saying “he’s hurting the country.”
Trump also tweeted that mailed-in ballots will lead to a “Rigged Election.” His two tweets were so egregious that for the first time ever, Twitter appended a fact check to Trump’s tweets noting that the claims were “unsubstantiated.”
Whether consciously or by reflex action, Trump is stirring up culture-war controversies with the media and Democrats as a way to move the discussion beyond the pandemic and the economic crisis. A distraction strategy makes sense because Trump has effectively given up on crafting any serious policy response to the pandemic. As Greg Sargent of The Washington Post wrote, “Trump’s war on reality has veered into a new place. Trump is responding to our most dire public health and economic crises in modern times with a concerted, far-reaching effort to concoct the mirage that we’re racing past both.”
“The signs of this,” Sargent said, “are everywhere: in a new federal testing blueprint that largely casts responsibility on the states. In Trump’s new rage-tweets at the North Carolina governor over whether a full convention will be held under coronavirus conditions. And in demands for liability protections for companies so sickened workers can’t sue.”
Trump’s response to the pandemic, now that the first wave has peaked and is perhaps beginning a slow decline, is to ride it out. He is going to do as much as he can to pretend that it is all but over and to distance himself from any responsibility for the continuing deaths.
Trump has in effect gone AWOL. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has been equally derelict, taking repeated breaks from Washington and focusing his energies more on filling court vacancies than crafting a policy response to the pandemic. In mid-March, the hashtag WheresMitch gained currency because he recessed the Senate to return to his home state of Kentucky to celebrate the elevation of a protégé, Justin Walker, to the federal bench.
Last Friday, the Senate started another recess, this one lasting three weeks. That leaves the $3 trillion relief package that the House has passed in limbo, awaiting McConnell’s return for negotiations to even start deliberating about any Senate revisions. His decision to delay the relief package comes at a time when unemployment is about to approach 20 percent, a catastrophic level not seen since the Great Depression. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell warned that the recession could last until the end of 2021.
Trump and McConnell are often treated like an odd couple, a pair of opposites who have been forced together. Trump is the loud outsider who has no real understanding of how government works. McConnell is the low-key consummate insider, skilled at gaming the system through backroom deals.
Jane Mayer’s in-depth profile of the Kentucky senator in The New Yorker quotes many Washington observers who draw a contrast between the two men. One former Trump administration official told Mayer, “It would be hard to find two people less alike in temperament in the political arena. With Trump, there’s rarely an unspoken thought. McConnell is the opposite—he’s constantly thinking but says as little as possible.” The official added, “Trump is about winning the day, or even the hour. McConnell plays the long game. He’s sensitive to the political realities. His North Star is continuing as Majority Leader—it’s really the only thing for him. He’s patient, sly, and will obfuscate to make less apparent the ways he’s moving toward a goal.”
But as Mayer makes clear, McConnell’s single-minded focus on keeping his position as majority leader aligns him in a deep way with Trump, despite their superficial dissimilarities. Both Trump and McConnell are nihilists, eager above all to hold on to power and to serve the wealthy donors of the Republican Party. She quotes John David Dyche, a conservative lawyer in Louisville who had been a McConnell admirer until recently and wrote an admiring biography of him. According to Dyche, McConnell “of course realizes that Trump is a hideous human being & utterly unfit to be president” but doesn’t do anything about it because the senator has “no ideology except his own political power.”
Far from being an odd couple, Trump and McConnell are a perfectly paired duo. They work well together as a grifter team. Trump is the clown who grabs all the attention, while McConnell picks the pockets of the distracted crowd.
As grotesque as Trump is, McConnell is worse. McConnell has been around longer and has helped create the conditions that made Trump’s rise possible. McConnell’s obstruction during the Obama years, including blocking the Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland, contributed to the demoralization of the Democratic base and the larger feeling in America that Washington is hopelessly gridlocked. In 2016, Trump skillfully exploited the anxiousness created by gridlock and sold himself as the outsider who could fix it.
Democrats are eager to defeat Trump in the fall election. But they should bear in mind that McConnell is the bigger villain. The goal should be to make sure McConnell loses his position as majority leader. Even sweeter would be if he is ejected from his seat.