INDIANAPOLIS—History can have a mean streak.
In years to come, historians and other close observers of the American experience may come to wonder what cruel trick of fate allowed Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell to come to prominence and power at the same time.
Together, these two men have laid waste to many American institutions, weakening the process of self-government at every level and all but destroying Americans’ faith in their ability to meet significant challenges.
The most recent example is the controversy involving Americans’ perceptions that the U.S. Supreme Court—once revered as being above crass political considerations—has become about as apolitical as a ward heeler’s backroom.
Amy Coney Barrett, the newest Supreme Court justice, recently tried to lay the controversy to rest. In a speech, she attempted to reassure that the nation’s high bench wasn’t filled with “partisan hacks.”
But she did so while speaking at the University of Louisville’s Mitch McConnell Center—and after McConnell himself introduced her.
McConnell, with the active compliance of then President Trump, rewrote the rule book regarding judicial nominations and then rewrote it again to pack the court with conservative ideologues.
As Senate majority leader, the Kentucky Republican first refused President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland a hearing and a vote. As justification, McConnell cited a “rule” that he made up on the spot. He said such nominations shouldn’t be considered in election years so the voters would have a chance to speak.
But then, once Trump was in office, McConnell rammed through the nominations of Brett Kavanaugh and Barrett in the election years of 2018 and 2020, respectively.
It is hard now for many Americans to understand what a break with precedent that was. For much of our history, the nomination process had been designed to make sure judicial appointments were as close to consensus choices as possible. The goal was to inspire confidence in the judicial branch’s commitment to fairness and impartial application of the law.
McConnell trashed that.
Trump abetted him in the campaign of destruction by outsourcing the process of vetting his judicial appointments to the ideologically driven and hyper-partisan Federalist Society.
Even when it became clear that elevating Kavanaugh and Barrett would damage—perhaps permanently and fatally—the credibility of the Supreme Court, McConnell and Trump kept going, heedless of the destruction they were wreaking on the country and constitution they took oaths to defend.
Because that’s who they are.
Bookends of devastation.
That the two men detest each other only adds irony to the tragedy. Trump in his public appearances now routinely blasts McConnell as weak and imbecilic. McConnell, through a series of strategic leaks to authors of tell-all books, has made it clear he thinks the former president has all the intellectual capacity of a wood stump.
It shouldn’t be surprising that the two men can’t stand each other.
Trump is nothing but impulse, able to summon all the restraint and personal discipline of a rabid dog in heat. But he is imbued with an intuitive grasp of the main chance and has an instinct for survival—no matter how close he dances to the fire—that is unrivaled. This instinct for survival is aided and enhanced by the man’s magnetism. Even people who abhor him can’t stop themselves from watching him.
McConnell, on the other hand, has all the spontaneity of an adding machine and all the charisma of a cinder block. He weighs odds with the ruthlessness of a computer and ponders the consequences of his actions with the compassion of a wrecking ball.
The only things that unite these two very different men are a shared amorality and a shared conviction that the ends always, always, always justify the means. They want what they want, and they don’t care at all who or what gets hurt while they get what they want.
Different as they are, it’s hard to imagine many other times or circumstances in which they could have been partners.
It is our great misfortune and America’s that they found each other in this time and these circumstances.
Yes, history can have a mean streak.