Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) kicked off his 2020 reelection bid last Wednesday with a dose of high-octane trolling.
In addition to touting his record “defending conservatism” and “delivering for the commonwealth,” his fresh new website included a 404 error page featuring perhaps his signature achievement: a photo of Merrick Garland, the Obama Supreme Court nominee whom McConnell blocked.
The page quickly went viral, with establishment GOP figures tweeting their approval and amusement.
Later in the day, McConnell’s campaign team posted a short video, set to DJ Khaled’s triumphant “All I Do Is Win,” of the senator posing with a blank smile as highlights from the last two years rolled.
Hoping to win his seventh term in office, McConnell is trying a new tactic this time around. In addition to touting his powerful perch in the Senate and the good it does for his home state of Kentucky, the majority leader and his very online advisers are also attempting to cement his unlikely status as a right-wing internet folk hero. Rubbing the Garland failure in the faces of liberals is just part of it.
“If you spend more than two seconds online you will encounter some left-wing troll invoking Merrick Garland as justification for all brands of hate towards McConnell,” said Josh Holmes, a longtime former aide to McConnell. “He knows this is a partisan viewpoint, and frankly it doesn’t bother him, so he chooses to have a sense of humor about it rather than wring his hands and be a scold like so many in politics.”
A buttoned-up 77-year-old Kentuckian might not seem like the ideal template for the role of King of the Internet Troll. But that’s the role he is quickly beginning to master. McConnell’s path toward social media stardom kicked into high gear in 2018. That year, disgraced West Virginia coal baron Don Blankenship, then running in the state’s GOP primary for U.S. Senate, cited the discovery years ago of cocaine packages on a ship owned by the father of Elaine Chao, McConnell’s wife, to dub McConnell “Cocaine Mitch.”
McConnell found the nickname hilarious, according to Holmes, and wanted to embrace it as his online “alter ego.” When Blankenship lost the primary, McConnell’s team tweeted an edited promotional picture from Narcos, the Netflix show about drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. In the tweet, McConnell was superimposed over Escobar and surrounded by plumes of cocaine.
In some conservative internet circles, McConnell GIF’s have become common additions to tweets and posts. Images of the majority leader smirking have become synonymous with “owning the libs.” And McConnell, in turn, has embraced the idea that his most significant achievements, like blocking Garland and pushing Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination through the Senate, continue to gin up outrage on the left.
“A lot of those brand pieces for McConnell came from attacks his team flipped into positive attributes, and it works that they have a member who relishes in being the strongman when it comes to Senate accomplishments,” said a Republican strategist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about McConnell’s strategy.”
“For years, he’s been the left’s foil,” the strategist added. “He didn’t always get appreciated for it on the right until it came to fights like Merrick Garland. The way the left attacked him on Merrick Garland was what the right needed to hear to turn him into that folk hero.”
Team McConnell's meme acumen has been so impressive that it’s been noticed by others in the conservative social media universe. “CarpeDonktum,” a Trump meme-maker whose video edits have been reposted by the president, called McConnell “extremely memeable” based on the contrast between the wild “Cocaine Mitch” persona and his reserved nature.
“It's become endearing,” CarpeDonktum wrote in a Twitter direct message with The Daily Beast. “The interplay of the two competing ideas... Drug Kingpin Mitch McConnell. The right is very good at embracing ludicrous branding and turning it on its head.”
On Reddit’s pro-Trump “The_Donald” forum, Trump fans gush over the majority leader they call “The Turtle”—in honor of his reptilian resemblance—festooning posts about him with turtle emojis.
“Let’s show this hero-turtle some love!” read one highly upvoted post about McConnell from October.
“THAT’S OUR TURTLE,” cheered another after the Senate confirmed Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
But the pro-Trump internet posters who have embraced McConnell because he infuriates liberals have also turned their meming abilities against McConnell when he’s fallen out of line with the president. That’s never more true when it comes to the inability of Congress to pass money to fund the border wall.
“Generally he has been supportive of Trump's agenda, but you never know where he will fall,” CarpeDonktum said.
Observers of the McConnell meme phenomenon acknowledge that there is some separation between hardcore pro-Trump people on social media and those who get their kicks by posting triumphant McConnell GIFs. But the expectation is that those universes will continue to overlap and that McConnell’s Garland troll will simply be the opening salvo for 2020.
“If history is your guide,” said Holmes, “my guess is that you’ll see a lot more ‘Cocaine Mitch’ this cycle.”