The day before the Capitol Hill riot, Jonathan Last of The Bulwark wrote a dark valediction for Sen. Mitch McConnell’s attempts to “manage, contain and outlast Donald Trump.”
As a master of institutional power, McConnell probably believed that he had the upper hand over Trump, because only institutional power can actually turn political passions into policy and law.
But what if, Last wrote, your voters “don’t really care about policy outcomes anymore?” Well, “then institutional power has nothing to give them and popular power is everything.” And since Trump has popular power and McConnell doesn’t, it doesn’t matter that the president will soon be out of office and the Senate’s soon-to-be minority leader will remain institutionally in charge: The party will still belong, soul and body, to Trump and only Trump.
Last takes a darkest-timeline view of American conservatism, and the events of the last two weeks have tended to validate his point of view. But those same events have also presented an interesting opportunity for McConnell — a last and unexpected moment of true institutional leverage, where his power in the Senate matters more than Trump’s resilient popular support.
That’s the best way to think about why, notwithstanding the fact that Trump will be out of office and the vast majority of Republican voters will still be resolutely opposed to his impeachment, McConnell might conceivably extend himself to rally 17 Republican votes for a Senate conviction.
The point wouldn’t be to punish Trump or alter the majority leader’s public reputation or create a moment for the history books. It would be to use a power that Senate Republicans have now, and will presumably never have again — the power to guarantee that Trump cannot be a candidate for president four years from now, which can be accomplished by a simple majority vote following a Senate conviction.
As a political move this would be a gamble whose costs can be easily foreseen. It would cast Trump as a martyr to the perfidious Republican establishment, and so struck down, he could potentially emerge more influential (with some of his supporters, at least) than before. Some of the scenarios I wrote about earlier this week, where the aftermath of the Jan. 6 riot actually breaks the GOP, could follow from Trump’s conviction by the Senate: A surge of grassroots rage, a raft of Trumpist primary campaigns against reality-based Republicans, and eventually the nomination of Don Jr., and a real schism, in 2024.
However, one of the striking things about Trump’s popular power is that it hasn’t been easily shared or transferred. There are various Trump-y figures flitting around the House of Representatives (from Matt Gaetz to Marjorie Taylor Greene, the QAnon congresswoman) and various senators and governors who have adopted bits and pieces from the Trumpist potpourri. But there’s nothing like a coherent Trumpist movement in the party, the way the Tea Party movement existed for a time as a reasonably coherent force. Trump’s inner circle has retained the misfit-toys quality that characterized his closest support in 2016, and lately it has shrunk enough to barely fill a presidential helicopter.
Meanwhile, long before his electoral defeat most of the Trumpist policy agenda had been diminished or discarded, reducing Trumpism’s animating purpose to its leader’s mere occupation of the White House — which enabled his supporters to “win” against a baffled, freaked-out liberal establishment by simply holding power in defiance of every norm and expectation.
But is this kind of appeal adaptable to a world where Trump himself cannot legally hold power any more? Some adaptation is imaginable: The Q realm can doubtless spin stories where Trump is secretly the president, or where he has ascended to a higher plane of power, governing as a pantocrator for whom the presidency would be a demotion. And one can imagine more grounded scenarios in which voting for members of his family is interpreted as a way to let him rule from exile, with a Trump son or daughter playing the role that Lurleen Wallace played for George Wallace when he was term-limited out of the Alabama governor’s mansion and she got elected in his place.
That kind of scenario, though, demands a level of Machiavellianism that Trump has — at best — inconsistently displayed, and a willingness to publicly subordinate himself and build up others that he has almost never shown. Does Trump actually want an heir, a successor to whom his legacy belongs? (Ask Mike Pence.) Does he want to live in a world where a son he used to disfavor — to say nothing of someone who isn’t his flesh and blood — is nominated for president instead of him?
At the very least, we can say that the inability to hold power himself would weaken some of Trump’s appeal to some of his supporters, and also weaken some of his own appetite for the political fray. If he intends to remain a dominant figure in the Republican Party, being banned from high office would require more adaptation from the soon-to-be ex-president, more creativity, more institutional exertion — all tougher “asks” for a septuagenarian than just running another primary campaign.
And, of course, the ban will definitively make it impossible for him to rule the Republican Party from inside the White House again, to combine popular power with institutional power (however weakly exercised) as he has these last four years.
Whereas as much as Republicans want to believe in the “just fade away” narrative, if Trump can be the nominee in 2024, he really might be, and even the shadow of that possibility will shape and warp the party’s effort to leave the events of Jan. 6 behind.
What McConnell has before him, then, is an opportunity to exert agency, to wield power, that is entirely unique to early 2021, and will be long gone by 2024. There is no guarantee that using it will work, but at a moment when every Republican scenario looks bad, it seems more likely to leave Trump weakened than just doing nothing and hoping that some kind of wasting disease will carry his political potency away.
My expectation is that the lure of doing nothing and hoping for the best will still prevail, as it has for Republicans so often in this era. But there is a chance, at least, that a man who understands institutional power so well will see the opportunity before him, the chance to actually prevail over Trump and not just manage and contain him — and for all of our sake, take it.
Ross Douthat is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.