In Navy SEAL training, winners of competitive events are often rewarded with extra chow and rest. Losers are punished. As the cadre constantly reminds trainees, “It pays to be a winner.”
As we’ve seen with the Democrats’ impeachment debacle and the Republican Senate’s ongoing successes with judges—including the confirmation of Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh—Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) knows how to win. The New York Times grimly reported, “Democrats have called Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, the grim reaper. He embraces the nickname with enthusiasm.”
Indeed, his effectiveness is remarkable only because it is so rare among Republicans. Republicans traditionally delight in stiffing their voters. Has everyone forgotten the late Senator John McCain’s dramatic refusal to repeal Obamacare after years of promising to do so? While McConnell is a low-key guy, he is at peace with Trump, has focused on their common goals, and is not hostile to the wishes of his most important constituents, Republican voters.
In spite of their differences in style, Trump and McConnell share an important agreement regarding their fundamental understanding of politics: they both know that politics is about power and winning.
Working Together, As a Party Should
Trump’s embrace of power is undeniable. He has employed executive power to assert American interests on trade. He has deployed military power in a limited way against America’s enemies abroad, particularly in the case of ISIS. Trump has used executive power to move defense budget money around to build a wall.
McConnell and Trump both have grasped that judges have been an important stumbling block to Republican agenda items and have worked hard to ensure a record number of judges are confirmed during this window of opportunity.
Republicans were not always like this. An old friend—and one who is typical of the NeverTrump mindset—insists that how you play the game is more important than winning. But actually, it’s not. This is not baseball. Politics is high stakes. The genteel refusal to deploy power against the Left is an artifact from a different kind of politics in a different kind of country.
We are no longer having a “national conversation” among friends. It’s not about who has the better arguments. It’s a war. We count votes as a shorthand measure for numbers and power. As in war, you win first and worry about principles later.
There’s a reason the American War for Independence, which was treason to the crown and concluded with the mass expulsion of Loyalists, as well as the various illegalities and savage use of military force during the Civil War, were later recast as episodes of high morality. These laudatory accounts were the product of victory, the most clarifying event in war and politics.
Trump stumbled upon something that should have been obvious, but that had been suppressed and pilloried: that there is power in pursuing policies that are popular.
Instead of alienating and redirecting the enthusiasm of Republican voters, he instead harnessed their energy with the politics of nationalism. As our own Julie Ponzi observed regarding the sovereign people, “It’s time now for the GOP to regroup and remember who’s the boss. None of this is to say that statesmen never need to or should not attempt to correct the sovereign when he is out of line. But ignoring or deceiving him is always a bad idea.”
Weak Paul Ryan Missed an Opportunity
McConnell’s adjustment to reality and concern for results should be contrasted with former Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Ryan ran as a conservative, mouthing the right words about abortion, gay marriage, and big government. But, when in office, he tended to be AWOL on the culture war and diffident about Republican voters, much like President George W. Bush, who reflexively chastised them.
During the Bush years, Ryan was the model Republican, concerned more with fiscal issues than cultural ones, and gladly acting as a water boy for big business, whose wants were laundered into high minded and “principled” policy positions through the think tanks they fund. Bush and Ryan both pushed for tax cuts, immigration amnesty, and government transfer payments to the pharmaceutical industry, and nothing they did stopped a single abortion, dealt with the long-term impact of demographic replacement, or addressed the mass death and demoralization among working-class Americans.
Ryan is the reason that what should have been the most effective years of the Trump presidency were wasted. He promised Trump’s wall money in exchange for a business-as-usual budget and then failed to deliver. He spent inordinate time wringing his hands about Trump’s twitter feed, as if the tastes of Washington, D.C. media figures were his lodestar. And he remained speaker even as he announced his plans to retire, offering little in the way of direction or assistance to embattled GOP congressmen during the transition, which contributed to Republicans losing the House in 2018.
Ryan and the rest of the NeverTrump crowd fundamentally misunderstood GOP voters in other ways. These voters are not libertarians, are not necessarily in love with big corporations, and they are not enthusiastic about “free trade” or nation-building. They don’t buy into the moral code of the elite. Even if these voters cared about manners and tone, they cared more about finding someone to resist a hostile elite and their decades-long culture war against Middle America.
In other words, Trump’s voters knew the American people were in a real fight against a real enemy. And to fight you need a fighter, not Ned Flanders. But the only group Republicans like Paul Ryan, Jeff Flake, and Justin Amash were willing to fight for—to the point of “retiring” and leaving their seats vulnerable—were their megadonors and the media.
While some NeverTrumpers are lunatics hell-bent on revenge, Ryan was more typical. He was polite and conflicted. In spite of his superficial differences with his opponents, he fundamentally bought into the pseudomorality of the Left. The professional class’s morality is steeped in the feminism of the businesswoman and her beta lackeys, who recoiled in horror at the “Access Hollywood” tape.
This is the same group that considers Trump’s jokes worse than Bill Clinton’s rapes. The group who palled around with terrorists like Bill Ayers and child sex traffickers like Jeffrey Epstein. This group presumes to tell us about Trump’s breaking of norms. Weak and useless, Ryan never challenged the illegitimacy of the corrupt elite or their anti-morality.
McConnell, while clearly not a populist of the Trump variety, has been far more effective than Ryan because he has been willing to adapt, understands the stakes, and is respectful of his voters’ convictions. He is also willing to use the same bare-knuckle skills that he perfected during the Obama years when he was the minority leader.
Whatever he is doing—and he is doing most of it discreetly and behind the scenes—is working. Combined with Trump’s message and popularity, this has proven to be a powerful combination. As all warriors know, it pays to be a winner.