McConnell’s Task: Purging the Crackpots and BigotsRoundup
tags: Republican Party, conservatism, far right, Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell
Kevin M. Schultz teaches history at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). His books include Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to its Protestant Promise.
In a career of unprincipled partisanship and playing it both ways, Saturday marked a new high for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). But it also showed a leader in peril and the work he has to do to shore up the Republican Party.
On Saturday, McConnell and 42 other Republicans voted to acquit former president Donald Trump for the crime of leading an insurrection. But immediately after voting to acquit, McConnell gave a blistering speech mincing no words. “Former President Trump’s actions that preceded the riot were a disgraceful, disgraceful dereliction of duty,” McConnell said. “Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events” of Jan. 6.
McConnell’s effort to have it both ways demonstrates the trouble he faces in deciding what to do with Trump supporters — a challenge he seemed to acknowledge in a post-impeachment interview with Politico. On the one hand, he has condemned what he called the “loony lies and conspiracy theories” of the likes of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and promised to aggressively involve himself in primary elections in 2022. He views purveyors of paranoia like Greene as “a cancer for the Republican Party and our country.” On the other hand, however, many think he voted to acquit a man he knew was guilty because he was afraid of alienating the farther reaches of his party. (McConnell cited constitutional arguments about post-presidency impeachments.)
In dancing this dance, McConnell might well look to the Republican Party a half-century ago as a guide. Before the GOP’s ascendancy into the powerful party of Ronald Reagan, right-wing leaders of the 1950s and 1960s had to cut out the extremists among them to make conservatism acceptable to broad swaths of Americans. Only after they had done so were they able to take over the Republican Party and shift the center of political gravity in the United States to the right.
In the 1950s and 1960s, William F. Buckley Jr. led the charge against fringe elements on the right. Steeped in conservative thought as a child, Buckley learned from his father to oppose the New Deal, hate communism and preserve what he saw as the Christian heritage of the country. As Buckley came of age, he wanted to become a “salesman” for conservatism, as he put it.
The problem? Right-wing thought was too far beyond the pale of acceptability for prime time. Its outer reaches needed trimming. So that is exactly what Buckley did. Through National Review, the magazine he founded in 1955 and edited for more than 50 years, and “Firing Line,” the television show he launched in 1966 and hosted for more than 30 years, Buckley sought to make conservatism safe for America.