This is the second in a series of posts that explore followers in a pandemic – this pandemic. During the coronavirus crisis leaders have been regularly, even relentlessly examined, explored, deciphered, and dissected. The American obsession with the American president, Donald Trump, has been especially virulent, as if he alone is solely responsible for everything bad that has happened, and for that matter everything good. In other words, as is typical, followers, in this case Trump’s followers, have been ignored. More precisely, they have been ignored not in individual instances – but as a group. They have been ignored as a group that was deeply involved in bringing us to this point – and now in our frantic effort to cure what ails us. Each of these posts is, then, intended as a corrective. A corrective to the misleading, mistaken idea that our fixation on Trump is warranted – as if he were not just the leading actor but the only actor. In brief, if there is blame, blame must be shared.
II – The Party
From the beginning, when Donald Trump first declared himself a presidential candidate, has been a staunch band of Never-Trumpers. It originally comprised and still does a seriously determined, if ultimately deeply ineffectual, small group of Republicans who all along refused to recognize Trump as their leader.
This group – which has had a series of names from Meeting of the Concerned to The Lincoln Project – has never been particularly productive. It has not at any point in the process had much of an impact – not during the campaign when Trump’s inexperience and lack of expertise, not to speak of his dubious and salacious behavior, were amply in evidence. And not during his time in the Oval Office when he was able to escape from under a mountain of evidence that testified to his personal, political, and financial corruption, and that included sworn witnesses at only the third presidential impeachment and trial in American history.
The obvious question is why. Why, given the failed presidency of Donald Trump, and given the president’s own screamingly glaring deficiencies, did the Never-Trumpers fail to get any traction? It will not suffice to look at whatever their inadequacies. In fact, they consisted in the main of highly accomplished men and women with extensive political experience. So, we need to look elsewhere, at the large majority of Republicans who all along opposed the Never-Trumpers – at those who supported Trump early on and have continued to do so no matter his flagrantly flawed personal character and woefully inadequate political performance.
In my previous post I addressed the wellspring of Trump’s power – his base. That large majority of Republicans voters who for years have deeply believed that Trump could do no wrong – or, even if he did, it weighed less than what he did that was right. This brings us to Party professionals, specifically to Republican members of the U. S. Senate who have similarly stood staunchly by the president, no matter his “screamingly glaring deficiencies.” More than any other group of Americans – including wealthy Republicans who continue even now to pour money into Trump’s coffers – it has been Republican Senators who have been Trump’s enablers. Who have made it possible for Trump to remain in office even when it seemed the deck was stacked heavily against him.
To be clear, not every Republican Senator has fallen into line. But those who did dare to deviate from the norm – which was to follow the president in lockstep – have paid for their resistance by being sent into exile. An example was Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, a traditional Republican conservative, who early on believed Trump was poisoning the party. Flake’s private disillusionment and public disaffection earned him no end of abuse from Republican right wingers, who in no time flat caused Flake’s numbers to collapse. It’s why he decided (in 2018) not to seek reelection. So while his declaration of independence from Trump – who he finally described as “reckless, outrageous, and undignified” – no doubt salved his conscience, and no doubt earned him the silent admiration of a few fellow Republicans, it also ensured that for the duration of Trump’s reign, Flake would be far, far from the corridors of power.
If Flake was an exemplar of a Republican Party dissident, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been the exemplar of a Republican Party faithful. For his own self-interested reasons, McConnell has protected Trump at virtually every turn, up to and including prohibiting witnesses at his impeachment trial, therefore effectively guaranteeing the president could and would remain in office. In a recent article in the New Yorker, Jane Mayer quotes well known Never-Trumper, Bill Kristol: “Under McConnell’s leadership, the Senate, far from providing a check on the executive branch, has acted as an accelerant. Demagogues like Trump, if they can get elected, can’t really govern unless they have people like McConnell.” Kristol goes on to add that Trump’s base would have stuck by him in any case. “But the elites might have rebelled if not for McConnell. He could have fundamentally disrupted Trump’s control, but instead [he] has kept the trains running.”
Whatever we might think of McConnell, he has been, up to the current crisis anyway, extremely effective as Majority Leader. He has set much if not most of the Republican Senate agenda. He has passed many if not most Republican Senate bills. He has obliged Republican Senators nearly invariably to toe the line. And he has been able successfully to manage up – to manage the president despite their differences always in style and sometimes in substance.
McConnell has been, then, an exceptionally powerful leader – while being at the same time an exceptionally abject follower. Not for nothing is the title of Mayer’s piece, “Enabler-in-Chief.” The Senate Majority Leader has presented the president with Republican heads served on a silver platter.
A final note on the critical connection between this post, on the Republican Party, and the previous post, on the Republican base. As Mayer reports, in 2017 McConnell took a brief break from his feckless fealty to the president. After the white-supremacist riot in Charlottesville, and after Trump claimed there were “fine people on both sides,” McConnell issued a statement condemning the “KKK and neo-Nazi groups.” For his indirect criticism of the president, the Majority Leader was punished. He was punished by Trump’s base who in droves withheld their approval from McConnell until he reversed course – until he began again to back Trump with unswerving dedication. Said one local operative, McConnell’s support of Trump during the fight to seat Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, “rescued him with conservatives, who said that finally he was acting like a Republican and supporting our President.”