Question: What do you do when virtually no one likes you?

Answer: You tell the few people who do like you to take a flying leap!

That, at least, is Mitch McConnell’s answer to the question.

For years, Mitch has been one of the least popular politicians in Washington, D.C. – in a town where most big-name politicos are way underwater in terms of favorability to start with.

Recently, Mitch decided that, with no one left in his corner except hardcore conservatives, he might as well go out of his way to alienate them too, by deriding (ex-)President Trump as our Instigator-in-Chief. By parroting the Democrats’ talking points about the recent “insurrection,” in other words, Mitch ensured that conservatives would come to loathe him almost as much as liberals always have. Brilliant!

All this would be funny, of course, if it weren’t also tragic, both for the country and for the conservative movement. After all, nowadays, the Republican caucus in the Senate is the one thing standing between the Democrats and total mastery over the federal government. In fact, not only does every Republican have to hold together to stop the Dems from packing the Supreme Court, adding new (deep blue) states to the Union and abolishing the filibuster, but Republicans also need at least one Democrat – Joe Manchin, we’re looking in your direction – to prevent this cascade of calamities. Thus, it is critical at this juncture in our history that Senate Republicans be well led. And these are the circumstances in which Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, in a fit of pique about the Capitol riot (as well as in the aftermath of the debacle in Georgia, which cost him his Senate majority), decided to start an open feud with our former president, who is by far the most popular Republican in the country and who may well be its standard bearer for a third time in 2024. Incredible!

McConnell’s remarks after Trump’s recent acquittal, to the effect that the ex-president was “practically and morally” responsible for the riot because, for months previously, he had made comments about the 2020 election that were false and tended to rile up his base, are seriously galling to most Republicans, and for good reason. Yes, Trump spoke often and heatedly about the “stolen election,” but by no means were all his claims “baseless,” as the media would have us believe and apparently as Mitch himself believes.

Trump pointed to the frightful bias in media coverage surrounding the election, and rightly so. Trump pointed to the extralegal shenanigans that occurred in the administration of the election and the counting of votes in many states, and rightly so. He pointed to statistical anomalies, troubling witness testimony and the stonewalling of election monitors and of efforts to audit the vote, and rightly so.

In voicing these concerns, Trump was only acting according to his political interests and in accordance with his First Amendment rights. Indeed, does anyone doubt that, in a similar position, Democrats would have voiced many, if not all, of the same concerns? And they would have been entirely within their rights to do so. After all, the right to free speech would not exist if it were not intended to allow Americans to communicate unpopular and even incendiary ideas. Likewise, the right to challenge elections, the opportunity to litigate them in the federal courts and the procedures to contest the certification of the Electoral College votes in the Congress would not exist, unless the framers and the authors of the relevant statutes had not intended that candidates for office might occasionally make use of them, and inevitably they would do so under contentious circumstances. No, President Trump did nothing wrong in contesting the election – and he did nothing that Democrats have not done themselves in prior election cycles, and will do again in subsequent ones.

Moreover, if the rhetoric surrounding Trump’s effort to contest the election grew pointed at times, that too is standard operating procedure in modern politics. Last time I checked, we have the right as Americans to speak our minds and to grow agitated about it, just so long as we don’t cross the line into violence or illegality. And Trump, not to mention Sens. Cruz and Hawley, certainly never crossed any such line. That ought to settle the matter.

Frankly, though, even if Mitch McConnell were right, and Trump pressed his case about election fraud beyond the point where it was likely to do any good, or used rhetoric that was, by some definition, “over the top,” that does not make him responsible for the illegal actions of his followers in the course of the Capitol riot, any more than it would make Democratic politicians responsible for the shooting of Steve Scalise or for the carnage that beset our cities in the summer of 2020, because of their rhetorical flourishes (usually misleading, although not always “baseless”) about Trump-Russia collusion and police racism. For, surely, if we were to apply Mitch’s pious standards regarding the dissemination of misinformation and the cultivation of anger to Democrats, not a one of them would be left un-impeached … not that this seems to have occurred to Mitch himself.

The bigger point is this: The Republican Party may well be one in which Trump-lovers and Trump-haters can coexist, but it is unquestionably also one in which the former massively outnumber the latter. It is incongruous, to say the least, therefore, for someone who seems to regard President Trump as a criminal and a scoundrel to lead a caucus dominated by those who proudly supported him for the last four years, and who may well do so again in 2024.

What makes the situation insupportable, however, is the fact that McConnell’s infamous facility for parliamentary maneuvering, which was always his trump card as the leader of his caucus, is now in jeopardy. That’s because Mitch’s uncanny ability to organize the Republican caucus will inevitably be severely compromised both by his personal unpopularity (even Kentuckians have parted ways with him!) and his forfeiture of the status of “honest broker” between the pro- and anti-Trump factions of the party. McConnell, arguably, was just what Senate Republicans needed, back when Trump was president and McConnell himself was tolerated, if not always liked, by GOP senators of every ideological stripe. Now, though, by declaring his abhorrence for Trump, McConnell has become a lightning rod and a liability. For this reason alone his fellow Republicans would be justified in replacing him.

Reasonable people can disagree about the merits and demerits of President Trump, as a leader and as a man. One thing that has become clear in the last four years, however, is that those who deprecate Trump have bleak futures in the Republican Party, especially in its upper echelons, because, in effect, by rejecting the head of the party, they are also rejecting the party’s base and the populist, patriotic values that animate it. In other words, you cannot hold Trump in contempt without implicitly condemning his supporters as well.

In choosing this path for himself, Mitch McConnell has, whether he or his GOP Senate colleagues yet realize it, destroyed his viability as minority or majority leader. It’s time Mitch returned to the backbenches, therefore, and allowed a more pragmatic and genuinely conservative, Trumpian figure to succeed him.

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