Here's the reality behind the brewing battle between Trump and McConnell

Here's the reality behind the brewing battle between Trump and McConnell
Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and former President Donald Trump are fighting like a pair of dogs. But if you've actually ever seen two dogs fight, you know it's often not what it initially appears. Dogs will bark, snap, tackle, wrestle, and snarl — but frequently, no one gets hurt at all. They know they're not in real danger from each other. They're putting on a show and playing a game.

Sometimes, though, the play can get out of hand, and or signals can be misread, and the mock fight turns deadly serious in a flash. That's always the risk.

Right now, Trump and McConnell are merely play fighting, even it looks ugly to outsiders. McConnell started the newest round of conflict on Saturday with a resounding denunciation of Trump's Jan. 6 insurrection, calling him "practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day." He even suggested that Trump might face criminal prosecution.

But if you looked just below the surface of his speech, you could see it was all bark and no bite. McConnell notably voted to acquit Trump, declaring him "not guilty," even while harshly denounced his actions. He cited a frivolous Constitutional argument to justify this decision, based on a technicality that he personally engineered into existence. And though he said Trump could be prosecuted, McConnell also said he didn't believe Trump's conduct in question rose to the level of a crime. It wasn't really a condemnation — it was yet another permission slip.

Trump has lashed out at Trump in response in a lengthy letter, but it's also clearly for show. Trump used colorful language, calling McConnell a "dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack," knowing the media would eat it up. But his criticisms of McConnell were transparent. He said:

My only regret is that McConnell "begged" for my strong support and endorsement before the great people of Kentucky in the 2020 election, and I gave it to him. He went from one point down to 20 points up, and won. How quickly he forgets. Without my endorsement, McConnell would have lost, and lost badly.

But Trump knows this isn't true. McConnell doesn't need Trump's endorsement to win in Kentucky, and no serious observers thought the GOP leader was at risk of losing his race. Trump also surely knows that McConnell knows this attack isn't true, nor do any allies who matter.

Trump also lobbed another odd attack on McConnell, targeting his wife, Elaine Chao: "McConnell has no credibility on China because of his family's substantial Chinese business holding. He does nothing on this tremendous economic and military threat."

This is hardly a credible attack, since Trump nominated Chao to serve in his own Cabinet for four years.

Now, just because these attacks are mostly for show doesn't mean there isn't real animosity behind them. Their genuine anger with one another, as it happens, comes from a similar place: they both see the others' political flaws. But neither one is able to recognize their own.

For instance, they both blame the other for the loss of two GOP Senate seats in Georgia. Trump said:

...and then came the Georgia disaster, where we should have won both U.S. Senate seats, but McConnell matched the Democrat offer of $2,000 stimulus checks with $600.

Meanwhile, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, McConnell placed the blame implicitly on Trump:

"Georgia was a fiasco," Mr. McConnell said. "We all know why that occurred."

McConnell blames Trump for losing Georgia runoffs on Jan. 5 because his sore-loser campaign and conspiracy theories about the election may have depressed Republican turnout. But McConnell indulged those conspiracy theories too, for a time. And McConnell may share equal blame for another reason for the loss of Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue's seats, as Trump said. The GOP Senate leader stood in the way of the popular idea to send out $2,000 checks at the end of December, which Trump had called for. The Democrats who took the Senate seats successfully campaigned on this policy and were able to credibly say it was Senate Republicans — led by McConnell — who blocked them.

But neither Trump nor McConnell can admit that their own mistakes contributed to the loss. They'd rather just blame the other.

The same dynamic applies to the rest of the 2020 election. Trump tried to claim credit for GOP success:

In 2020, I received the most votes of any sitting President in history, almost 75,000,000. Every incumbent House Republican won for the first time in decades, and we flipped 15 seats, almost costing Nancy Pelosi her job. Republicans won majorities in at least 59 of the 98 partisan legislative chambers, and the Democrats failed to flip a single legislative chamber from red to blue. And in "Mitch's Senate," over the last two election cycles, I single-handedly saved at least 12 Senate seats, more than eight in the 2020 cycle alone...

But this is covering up for his own failures. Trump's vote total was much closer to 74 million than 75 million, and Biden won more than 81 million. House Republicans did make significant gains in 2020, but only after a blowout loss under Trump's leadership in 2018. Nancy Pelosi is only House speaker because Democrats took control by campaigning against Trump's policies. And while Republicans failed to win back the House in 2020, they lost the Senate and White House, giving Democrats the coveted trifecta. This is a record of Trump's electoral failure, not success, despite the structural advantages Republicans have.

If Trump could have been less divisive, abrasive, and dismissive of the country's needs, he might have much more easily won re-election, and McConnell can rightly blame him for those failures and the loss of GOP control of the Senate. But McConnell probably could have made up for all of Trump's deficits if he had simply let Congress pass another COVID relief bill in September, providing a boost to the economy right before the election, rather than waiting until three months later to approve the legislation. McConnell's blocking didn't even achieve his ostensible goal of fiscal restraint, since it is likely the reason Democrats now have enough power to pass a bill comparable in size to their initial proposal.

So the grievances between Trump and McConnell are real, even if their fighting, as of yet, is harmless. If Trump were somehow able to get back into power in 2024, he and McConnell would find a way to happily work together again, because it would be in both their interests to do so.

But the fighting could take a turn for the worse.

McConnell said the only thing he cares about is "getting candidates who can actually win in November," making clear that he has no desire in principle to root out authoritarian Trump-types from the party. But that may be the eventual goal.

"I personally don't care what kind of Republican they are, what kind of lane they consider themselves in," McConnell told the Journal. "What I care about is electability."

This shows that he might find himself in conflict with Trump, if Trump chooses to push for a Republican candidate in a primary who McConnell thinks would be weaker than the alternative. But McConnell also made clear he's willing to work with Trump, if he thinks the former president is doing what is best for the party.

"I don't rule out the prospect that he may well be supporting good candidates," he said. "I'm not assuming that, to the extent the former president wants to continue to be involved, he won't be a constructive part of the process."

It's not clear how serious Trump is about getting involved in primaries, and if he is, what kinds of candidates he'll prioritize. But if he invests his ego in seeing his acolytes get elected over McConnell objections, they may find themselves in serious conflict.

The truth is that if McConnell and Trump were able to overcome their own pathologies, they would likely make a powerful pair. Instead, their half-hearted feud might escalate into a real brawl. If blood is drawn, the GOP is likely to suffer for it.

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