After four years of an uneasy alliance that often seemed on the verge of fracturing, Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell are finally at each other’s throats. With his characteristic two-faced duplicity, the Senate minority leader tried to play both sides during Trump’s second impeachment, this time for fomenting insurrection. After refusing to allow the Senate to begin its trial in the waning days of Trump’s term, McConnell voted to acquit, claiming the Senate had no authority to convict a former president. But on Monday McConnell also took to the pages of The Wall Street Journal to offer a stern rebuke to Trump.
“There is no question former President Trump bears moral responsibility,” McConnell argued. “His supporters stormed the Capitol because of the unhinged falsehoods he shouted into the world’s largest megaphone. His behavior during and after the chaos was also unconscionable, from attacking Vice President Mike Pence during the riot to praising the criminals after it ended.”
Trump was reported enraged by McConnell’s words. The former president dictated a letter which, according to someone close to Trump who talked to Politico, contained “a lot of repetitive stuff and definitely something about [McConnell’s] having too many chins but not enough smarts.”
The more polished letter, reportedly cleaned up by Trump aide Jason Miller, was scarcely better, accusing McConnell of being a weak and corrupt leader.
In the letter, Trump asserted that
McConnell has no credibility on China because of his family’s substantial Chinese business holdings. He does nothing on this tremendous economic and military threat.
Mitch is a dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack, and if Republican Senators are going to stay with him, they will not win again. He will never do what needs to be done, or what is right for our Country. Where necessary and appropriate, I will back primary rivals who espouse Making America Great Again and our policy of America First.
The letter clearly shows Trump wants to remain a shaping force in the Republican Party and even hints that he may run again in 2024. As Trump reenters the political fray, his feud with McConnell will only intensify.
For Democrats, the prospect of a fracturing Republican Party presents both opportunities and dangers. A divided GOP won’t be able to offer the kind of unified opposition that McConnell so skillfully assembled during the Obama presidency. McConnell told The Wall Street Journal that opposition to Covid relief would “help unify our party.” Speaking to reporters, President Biden responded to McConnell’s comment by saying, “It may unify Republicans, but it would hurt America badly.”
The logical corollary of Biden’s comment is that what unites the GOP hurts America and what divides the GOP helps America. As long as the Republican Party remains committed to intransigent obstruction, Democrats should welcome a strife-ridden GOP.
There are ways the Democrats could even stir the pot. With his desire to look presidential, Biden of course wants to stay above the messiness of Republican internecine conflict. In a CNN Town Hall on Tuesday, Biden said, “I’m tired of talking about Donald Trump. I don’t want to talk about him anymore.”
But even if Biden maintains his stately presidential silence, other figures can speak up, using Trump as a wedge to embarrass and divide the GOP. Nancy Pelosi’s call for a commission to investigate the January 6 riot serves that function, even if a congressional investigation would be better. Constant reminders of the riot and Trump’s culpability will serve as a wedge between the majority of Republicans who are still supporting Trump and the minority who have broken with him, including the 10 Republican members of the House who voted to impeach and the seven Republican senators who voted to convict.
As they risk being shunned and censured by Trump supporters, Democrats would do well to encourage these anti-Trump Republicans to start thinking of themselves as a distinct faction, one not beholden to party loyalty. It’s easy to imagine a scenario where Senator Lisa Murkowski becomes an independent. Even so conservative a figure as Mitt Romney seems to have entered into a strange post-Republican existence where he’s advocating for a child care plan that is in some ways—certainly in simplicity and funding—superior to Biden’s proposals.
These anti-Trump Republicans are likely to remain a minority within their party for the foreseeable future. In the short run, Trump’s stature within the GOP remains dominant and even on the rise. A poll of Republicans led Morning Consult to conclude, “Former President Donald Trump has emerged from his second impeachment trial relatively unscathed with Republican voters in yet another sign of his continued strength with the party’s base.”
The poll shows that 54 percent of Republicans want Trump to be the next nominee, putting him far ahead of Mike Pence (12 percent) Nikki Haley (6 percent), Donald Trump Jr. (6 percent), Mitt Romney (4 percent), and Ted Cruz (3 percent).
In any fight between Trump and McConnell, Trump is almost guaranteed to win. According to a YouGov poll, among Republicans Trump has a net favorability of +75 (87 percent favorable, 12 percent unfavorable). By contrast, McConnell has net favorability of -15 (36 percent favorable, 51 percent unfavorable).
The dangers of a Trump-dominated Republican Party are hard to overstate. There is little Democrats can do to alleviate the danger other than to keep hammering away at Trump’s crimes and corruption with a view towards keeping the GOP off balance. There’s some evidence that even as the party re-embraces Trump, it is also becoming smaller as disaffected voters leave. According to G. Elliot Morris of The Economist, “Since Nov 2020, there has been a significant decline in the share of voters calling themselves Republicans, according to The Economist/YouGov polls. A monthly average of 42 percent of voters called themselves Reps before 11/3; today, 37 percent do. Capitol riot may have accelerated the trend.”
The long-term goal of a de-Trumpified GOP will take years. In the meantime, this trend to a smaller and more divided Republican Party could give Joe Biden the breathing room he needs to govern. Such breathing room is crucial, because if Biden can push ahead with a robust stimulus, a large infrastructure bill, and a Federal Reserve committed to full employment, Democrats will have a much better chance of winning in 2022 and 2024.
Ultimately, Trumpism is a political problem. Making sure the GOP suffers an extended electoral exile will help drain Republican enthusiasm for their favorite demagogue. As long as Republicans keep Trump as their de facto leader, there is every reason for Democrats to keep hammering away at him.