December 8, 2021

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The Donald Trump-Mitch McConnell Rift Is Exploding Into Open Warfare

They had an alliance forged, if not in admiration, then in a shared recognition that the success of their projects was intertwined. Mitch McConnell wasn’t the type to join Donald Trump on the golf course like Lindsey Graham, and Trump rarely spoke of McConnell in the kinds of personal terms—positive or negative—that he did with others in the GOP. Theirs was a business relationship, and a profitable one at that: McConnell remade the courts, and Trump remade the Republican party.

But political marriages of convenience tend to dissolve after they no longer serve their purpose, and the end of theirs has been particularly acrimonious. The “dear leader” praise, the late night scheming to pack the bench? Those days are over. Sure, McConnell voted to acquit Trump at his second impeachment trial last week—he’s still a Republican, after all—but he followed it with as blistering a criticism of the former president a member of the GOP has issued this side of Mitt Romney. “There is no question,” McConnell said of the January 6 attack on the Capitol, “that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day.”

No longer needing McConnell to lend the imprimatur of establishment legitimacy to his populist movement, Trump wasted no time hitting back, releasing a statement via his Save America PAC in which he excoriated the “dour, sullen, and unsmiling” Senate Minority Leader for lacking in “political insight, wisdom, skill, and personality.” “He doesn’t have what it takes,” Trump wrote. “Never did, and never will.” It was typical Trump, the kind of rage he has always unleashed in response to even mild criticism, but apparently an original draft was even worse: According to Politico, an earlier version of the statement went after both McConnell’s political dexterity and his looks. “There was also a lot of repetitive stuff,” a person familiar with the composition of the statement told the outlet, “and definitely something about him having too many chins but not enough smart.” (Jason Miller, a Trump adviser who helped craft the statement, denied to Politico that a previous version had gone after McConnell’s looks.) 

Advisers apparently persuaded Trump to nix the chin bit, but even without the schoolyard taunt it was plenty explosive, opening up yet another front in the GOP’s civil war. Until he lashed out against McConnell, the battle lines were drawn between the deranged sect of MAGA loyalists, which included the cowardly, the calculating, and true believers alike, and people like Romney and Adam Kinzinger, who have called on the party to be about something other than, as Ben Sasse memorably put it, “the weird worship of one dude.” But in blasting McConnell, Trump also declared war on those who enabled him not out of total devotion, but in pursuit of their own ends.

McConnell, whose nihilism is matched only by his political skill, may have reached those ends regardless of Trump. But without McConnell, Trump’s presidential “achievements” may have amounted to little more than enraging people on Twitter for four years straight. But for the MAGA base, for whom Trump can never do wrong, those are Trump’s wins alone. And in the event of a political divorce, there’s no doubt whose side they’ll take. Some in the party worry this new phase of infighting could spell doom for them at the ballot box. “Mitch McConnell working with Donald Trump did a hell of a job,” Graham said in an interview with Sean Hannity Tuesday night. “They are now at each other’s throat.” “I am more worried about 2022 than I’ve ever been,” Graham added. “I don’t want to eat our own.”

What Graham doesn’t seem to grasp—and which McConnell perhaps finally has—is that while their interests may briefly intersect with Trump’s, they will never fully align. Winning elections, packing courts, advancing ideology—the things they care about matter to Trump only inasmuch as they solidify his power. The only Republicans who will succeed in the Party of Trump are those who fully embrace that. Those who don’t, be it because of principle like Romney or politics in the case of McConnell, will be cast aside.

The irony, of course, is that few did more than McConnell to build this iteration of the Republican party. He imbued Trump with political power, enabling both his empty grievance movement and his individual lies. including the big one for which he’d eventually rebuke him on the Senate floor. That he finally did so doesn’t make him the hero he’s tried, in the days since, to cast himself as. It merely underscores how unholy their alliance was all along.

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