That would be a mistake, and an undeserved gift for Mitch McConnell.
Barring Trump from running again wouldn’t stop the Republican Party’s growing extremism, but it would offer the GOP political protection from a figure who advertises the party’s increasingly toxic attributes to the alienated swing voters it desperately needs to retain.
McConnell exemplifies the GOP’s self-created Trump problem at a time when 46 percent of Republicans say they would leave the GOP for a Trump party and just 27 percent say they would stay. The now minority leader spent years facilitating the party’s descent into anti-majoritarian extremism, a process that accelerated under Trump. As a result, adherents of nativism, racism, and opposition to democratic institutions now comprise the base of the Republican Party, and control much of the party’s infrastructure. Extremists are no longer the fringe of the GOP, but its core.
As McConnell recognizes, however, an increasing majority of the nation’s voters recoil at the toxic stew that leaders like him have allowed the Republican Party to become, as demonstrated by Trump’s electoral loss, as well as that of the Georgia Senate candidates who modeled themselves on him. That quandary—a problem within the GOP that Democrats have no direct stake in—has recently led McConnell to take a series of contradictory, and disingenuous, steps to make a public pretense of challenging Trump’s legacy, while actually leaving the party’s extremist infrastructure in place and unchallenged. He is attempting to hide the rot at the center of the party, while avoiding any meaningful effort to address it.
For months following Nov. 4, McConnell steadfastly refused to challenge Trump’s big lie that he was cheated out of victory by fraud. Even as many of his own Senate colleagues began to repeat Trump’s false claims, McConnell said only that “[t]he future will take care of itself.” This was because McConnell’s singular focus was on ensuring that Trump supported the party’s Georgia Senate run-off candidates, Kelly Loeffler and David Purdue; McConnell recognized that his silence in the face of Trump’s effort to undermine democracy was the cost of retaining Trump’s support, as well as that of the many GOP voters who shared Trump’s aversion to majority rule.
Yet the gambit failed; in the Jan. 4 Georgia runoff, the same previously reliable GOP suburban voters who had rejected Trump in the general election also rejected Loeffler and Purdue, who had openly pandered to Trump’s, and their party’s, conspiratorial opposition to the constitutional order.
Immediately thereafter came the Jan. 6 insurrection. In the immediate wake of the direct attack on democracy Trump and others in the GOP had engineered, McConnell decided to make it known both that he would be pleased to see Trump impeached, and that he might even vote to convict. Along with every other GOP politician who criticized Trump, however, McConnell was met with immediate blow-back from Republican voters, party officials and officeholders, including other Senators.
McConnell then pivoted, and made it plain that he would not allow an impeachment trial to proceed until Trump left office, again appeasing the large constituency in his party that identified with Trump’s radicalism.
When the trial finally went forward, McConnell tried to thread the needle with one of the most cynical maneuvers of a career characterized by extraordinary cynicism: He voted to acquit based on the proposition that, because McConnell himself had delayed the trial, it was unconstitutional. But McConnell then gave a speech declaring Trump’s conduct to be “a disgraceful, disgraceful dereliction of duty,” apparently hoping that he could thereby disqualify Trump without alienating the many Republicans who share Trump’s now overt opposition to the nation’s democratic institutions. That gambit also failed. In the wake of his creative maneuver, McConnell has faced rare challenges from fellow GOP senators, like Lindsey Graham, who responded to the speech by saying: “He doesn’t speak for most Republicans”. McConnell was also attacked by Trump himself, who called him a “dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack,” and was censured by some Republican Party leaders in his home state, underlining the fact that Trump’s power in the GOP remains unchallenged.
While Trump’s reactionary views remain ascendant in the GOP, much of his personal power as a political leader comes from his threat to be a candidate for president in 2024. That prospect is likely chimerical. The 74-year-old faces a huge number of legal and business challenges that are very likely to consume much of his remaining years; and Trump could well be facing a prison term by the time the presidential primary season heats up. Yet Trump’s power over his party derives largely from the threat that he will continue to be a political player, and a potential presidential candidate, however unlikely his candidacy—let alone victory—may be.
That is where the Democrats’ threat to disqualify Trump from future office comes in. In the wake of the Senate’s failure to convict Trump, former lead House impeachment manager Jamie Raskin and others have argued for the passage of a congressional resolution barring Trump from serving as president again. There is a strong argument that such a resolution would be effective. Under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, anyone who “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” against the United States is barred from the presidency. While the provision was included in the post-Civil War Amendment to address former Confederates, by its plain terms, it should also apply to a modern-day insurrectionist like Trump. Furthermore, Congress has enforcement power under Section 5 of the 14th Amendment. Accordingly, constitutional law scholar Bruce Ackerman and others argue, the Congress could, by majority vote, pass a similar resolution disqualifying Trump for his insurrectionist conduct under the terms of the Amendment.
But while the Democratically controlled Congress likely has the power to disqualify Trump from running for office again, doing so would not be prudent. As McConnell knows better than anyone, so long as Trump remains the leader and face of the GOP, he will remind swing voters of the sewer of extremism, and outright opposition to democracy, the party has become, an identity that is simply unacceptable to large swaths of voters, and could doom McConnell’s plans to retake the Senate, just as it doomed the GOP Georgia runoff candidates weeks ago.
With or without Trump, the GOP’s extremism is not going to go away soon—and is highly likely to increase. As Ronald Brownstein has explained, polling has found that between one sixth to nearly one fifth of Republicans express praise for the Jan. 6 insurrection; and state party organizations—and many GOP officeholders—are, if anything, far more radicalized. As even Trump booster Graham acknowledges, “he dominates the Republican Party, but… a majority of the general population wanted to convict him.”
The dominance of Trump, and with it his overt opposition to constitutional democracy, was displayed on Sunday, when Rep. Steve Scalise, the second highest ranking House Republican, suggested that Biden’s election victory was the product of illegal actions by state officials, and adamantly refused to acknowledge that Trump bears any responsibility for the violent attack on Congress. That creates a real problem for McConnell as he attempts to retake majority control of the Senate in two years. Trump’s continued presence as the titular leader of the GOP makes it painfully obvious to swing voters that a vote for the GOP is a vote in favor of insurrectionism.
In yet another gambit, McConnell has declared that the “only thing I care about is electability,” and is making it plain that he wants to be free to support candidates who distance themselves from Trump, and thereby make it appear (however, falsely) that they will stand against the GOP’s increasing radicalism. But that is easier said than done in a party ever more tightly controlled by extremists, in which any deviation from the most radically reactionary positions is met with rebuke.
With the GOP in a political bind of its own creation, Democrats would be wise not to give McConnell and other GOP leaders the gift they have been not so secretly pining for ever since the election: The compelled political retirement of Donald Trump.
Trump is the GOP’s problem; let the Republican Party live with him, for as long as possible.