The Headsman's Axe Always Finds A Spine

Mitch McConnell acts, as ever, out of a well-honed sense of self-interest.

Mitch McConnell broke with Trump in a major way yesterday, speaking from the Senate floor in comments addressed to Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris, he used the words “congratulate” and “President-Elect” and “Vice President-Elect”.

This display came several hours after Russian president and Trump’s aspirational figure Vladimir Putin sent a congratulatory cable, citing as McConnell also did the Electoral College vote as having been definitive.

Now, in a better world, a high ranking official of either party merely acknowledging the outcome of an election as his caucus was already in the process of opening negotiations with the winner and nearly a month and a half after the election had ended would only be noteworthy in a “What took you so long?” sense, but such is the shocking level of obeisance that Trump commands from his party that this entirely bland and formulaic expression of sentiment constitutes "standing up” to Hair Furor, as reflected by this article which Donald Trump tweeted out himself.

I would say that the Electoral College vote and the Putin message both increased the pressure on McConnell to admit the truth here even in defiance of the Tan Who Would Be King, but for my money the thing that really boxed him in was Trump retweeting a prediction that he would have Republican state officials in Georgia arrested for failing to follow his wishes.

I noted at the time that Republicans who had been biding their time to find an off-ramp before Trumpism reaches its final destination were running out of chances. If Trump starts arresting his own party members for perceived disloyalty or failure, then they’re all complicit in that, or they’re in jail.

So while we could say that Republicans who speak out now, even as neutrally or pro forma as McConnell has, have found at long last found their spines, the truth is that it’s hard not to be hyperconscious of the existence of one’s spinal column when one fears it is about to be severed.

Yes, it’s easy to find one’s spine when one’s neck is on the chopping block. Hard to miss it, even.

Mitch McConnell surely knew that there would be trouble between him and Trump as soon as he publicly recognized Biden won, which is why he didn’t do it sooner. If he waited until Trump actually starts sending federal marshals or militia stormtroopers to Republicans’ houses then he has lost the option of doing it later. He picked the moment of maximum safety for it.

For Mitch McConnell in particular there’s an added inducement to stand up to Trump (or at least plant his feet firmly in passive opposition to him) at this moment in time: by tradition, the highest ranking elected official of a party is the party’s leader at the national level. Right now and through January 20th, Donald Trump is the leader of the Republican Party. When he leaves office, that role will devolve to Mitch McConnell.

Of course, Donald Trump has been no great respecter of traditions and has shown few signs of stepping away from the spotlight or relinquishing his stranglehold on a sizable chunk of the Republican Party base, despite his pre-election promise that if he lost he’d go away and we’d never hear from him again.

But the hope of the establishment GOP under Trump has always been to outlast him, to still be standing and ideally thriving when he fades into personal political irrelevance. That moment isn’t here, but by cynically speaking up for Biden’s victory at the very minute it becomes inevitable that he do so, Mitch McConnell may have helped hasten that moment’s arrival.

If a feud heats up between Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump in the coming days and weeks and, as a consequence of this Mitch winds up speaking stronger words or even taking actions, we should remember that this was not his redemption but his self-preservation.

There’s nothing noble about protecting one’s own spine when one’s own neck is the one on the line.