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Trump outlasts Republican old guard

Trump outlasts Republican old guard

When Mitch McConnell announced on Wednesday that he will not seek another term as Senate Republican leader, he said “it’s time for the next generation of leadership.”

In reality, for the Kentucky Republican, it was well past time.

McConnell, dubbed “Old Crow” by Trump after the discount Kentucky-made straight bourbon, had long overstayed his welcome in a party where his robust brand of internationalism abroad and traditional conservatism at home increasingly collided with Donald Trump’s populism.

Alongside a presidential primary where GOP voters have turned up their noses at a Reaganism past its sell-by date — as former Vice President Mike Pence, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley all discovered — McConnell’s exit served as perhaps the final punctuation mark on a bygone Republican party.

“There wasn’t enough respect for what Trump represented,” Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), who backed Rick Scott of Florida in the last leadership election, said of McConnell’s reign. He added that “Trump represented half of the country more upset with this place, and I think whoever the new leader is better be smart enough to understand that.”

Indeed. Both on matters of style and policy, McConnell’s Southern gentility paired with a Machiavellian approach to politics and a mastery of Senate procedure. But his ability to employ those tricks and traits were no longer a match for Trump’s blunt force.

Perhaps the most remarkable of ironies, in the end, was that McConnell balked at using the tools of the Senate (an impeachment conviction) to rid the body politic of Trump. His belief was that the courts — and maybe the voters — could do it themselves. He chose to play on Trump’s turf and, it now appears, could well be beat.

But the significance of McConnell’s departure wasn’t just that Trump outlasted the senator himself. It was what it said about the entirety of Trump’s drubbing of the GOP’s old, more elitist establishment class. It has been a humiliation campaign dating all the way back to his first run for office in 2016.

That year, Trump laid waste to the Bush dynasty, mocking “low energy” Jeb Bush as he brutalized him in the presidential primary. There was Sen. Mitt Romney, whom Trump dubbed a “RINO,” and his niece, Ronna McDaniel, whom Trump tapped to lead the Republican National Committee but who, more recently, Trump chased to the exits. And then there was former Rep. Liz Cheney — her family name synonymous with the old guard of the GOP — ousted in a primary in Wyoming after becoming one of the party’s most vocal critics of Trump.

There will soon be no Bushes or Romneys or Cheneys sitting in positions of power. Instead, the Senate Republican caucus, regardless of whom it picks as its leader, seems likely to be more Trump friendly, as the House GOP already is. Braun recently found himself in conversation with another GOP senator counting the number of new members who have slowly tilted the composition of the body in the former president’s favor: “15 of the last 17 senators elected since ‘18 lean toward some new paradigm here in D.C. that would be fixing what wasn’t working for Republicans,” he noted, without mentioning McConnell.

And if the next leader is not more amenable to Trumpism, Braun said, “they’re probably misreading where the party has been headed.”

McConnell and Trump — who haven’t spoken to one another since before Jan. 6, 2021 — always made for an odd couple in the GOP universe. Trump made a habit of trying to bait the laconic McConnell by employing a racist taunt against his wife, Elaine Chao, whom the former president called “Coco Chow” and his “China-loving wife.” McConnell never bit, even after Chao did.

In other ways, McConnell acted as a midwife to the Trumpism he clashed with: His tenure was capped off by news that backchanneling between the two men could ultimately result in McConnell endorsing Trump, the man he once said after the Jan. 6 riot had “totally discredited himself.”

McConnell spent a political lifetime refusing to surrender. And then he did: to Trump and, like a good Kentucky bourbon, to time.

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