Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Mitch McConnell Fights

Though less visible than Trump, the Senate majority leader is the brains behind America's conservative judicial makeover.
mitch mcconnell gun waving

As the chaos and conspiracy theories swirling around the train-wreck presidential election continue apace, many MAGA diehards seem positive that without Donald Trump, the GOP is useless. It is hard to tell who speaks for the president and who doesn’t these days, but Trump attorney Lin Wood is willing to play brinkmanship with the Senate, urging people not to vote in the two Georgia runoff races. If the GOP holds the Senate, Biden will be prevented from court-packing, the Equality Act, and other transformative elements of his agenda. If the crackpots driving the Trump clown car get their way, the Democrat could end up controlling both houses of Congress as well as the presidency.

Despite what many Trump supporters are saying, the election outcome was not a disaster by any stretch. As I noted in a previous TAC column, the rise in support from racial minorities indicates the potential for a new fusionism of social conservatism and economic populism. As it turns out, demography is not destiny. American voters also delivered a firm rebuke to the progressive fringe increasingly dominating the Democratic Party, not only denying them the expected blue wave but handing the GOP enough congressional seats to make a Republican takeover of the House in 2022 likely. The Democrats and their progressive allies spent the year trumpeting critical race theory, grievance politics, and gender ideology. Voters told them to shove off.

But over the past month, I’ve seen many conservatives increasingly insist that the GOP needs Trump because “he fights.” Without Trump, the narrative goes, we wouldn’t have a conservative-leaning Supreme Court, an increasingly conservative judiciary, and a laundry list of other policies favored especially by social conservatives. Many are ignoring the fact that Trump has no idea how to actually govern. Trump didn’t write the executive orders. He didn’t create the policies. He merely enabled them, while long-time (and much-maligned) GOP stalwarts did all of the heavy lifting. Trump certainly deserves credit for that, but the idea that he was the strategic brains behind the policy successes of the last four years is delusional.

A perfect example is the Supreme Court. After Trump stood by Brett Kavanaugh throughout the excruciating Democratic witch hunt, many Trump fans insisted that no other GOP president would have done such a thing. That is obvious nonsense. George H.W. Bush stood by Clarence Thomas when he was accused of sexual misconduct by Anita Hill, and that’s why Thomas is on the Court today. Trump’s judicial picks were selected by others, and the credit for the new makeup of the Supreme Court and the hundreds of other judges goes not primarily to Trump, but to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—a creature of the D.C. swamp if there ever was one. McConnell was there when Trump arrived, and he’ll be there long after Trump goes—and America’s judicial makeover is due to his years of careful planning.

Trump is vaunted as a fighter because he doesn’t back down, but the gutsiest political move in recent memory was McConnell’s decision to hold Antonin Scalia’s seat open for over a year until Trump could confirm Neil Gorsuch. Nobody thought McConnell could hold the entire Republican caucus together for that long while staring down the president of the United States, but he did it. McConnell made no bones about why he was willing to do so, either: “We’re not giving a lifetime appointment to this president to change, on his way out the door, the Supreme Court for the next 25 or 30 years.” McConnell had been radicalized by the savage treatment of Robert Bork in 1987, after which he stated that if a Democratic president “sends up somebody we don’t like” when the GOP controlled the Senate, Republicans could return the favor. He got his chance.

Mitch McConnell sees the courts as his legacy, and he has been both methodical and relentless in his efforts to transform the judiciary. He filibustered Obama’s nominees, finally triggering a frustrated Harry Reid into abolishing the filibuster for judicial nominations, allowing Obama to keep judges sailing through (although McConnell still slowed the process enough to hand 105 vacancies to Trump.) Prophetically, McConnell warned the Democrats: “You’ll regret this. And you may regret it a lot sooner than you think.” It was due almost entirely to his efforts that Trump got to make three Supreme Court picks, with 87-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsburg being replaced by staunch conservative Amy Coney Barrett, a favorite of social conservatives. Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List told me that when Trump called her shortly after RBG’s passing, she urged him to select Barrett as her replacement.

But as it turns out, Trump had already received this advice. Almost immediately after her death, a statement RBG had dictated to her granddaughter was circulated by the press: “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.” Unfortunately for progressives, it was Mitch McConnell’s most fervent wish that she be replaced by a conservative. He took control of the situation immediately, calling Trump on Air Force One that very evening. “McConnell told him two things,” McConnell’s former chief of staff Josh Holmes revealed in a recent interview with PBS. “First, I’m going to put out a statement that says we are going to fill the vacancy. Second, he said you’ve got to nominate Amy Coney Barrett.” Barrett is young—only 48-years-old—and know as a rock-ribbed conservative. Thirty-eight days after Ginsburg’s death, Barrett was confirmed to her seat on the court.

It is certainly true that Donald Trump’s presidency has been a catalyst in many ways. His victory and impressive showing in 2020 highlight new potential paths forward for the GOP. He has emboldened conservatives by illustrating the simple fact that things are only unsayable until someone says them. He has consistently exposed both the press and progressives. But for all that, he has been a volatile and narcissistic leader with an absolute inability to exercise impulse control (if he had, he’d have easily won a second term.) And the idea that it is primarily Trump who is responsible for the policy achievements, the Supreme Court justices, and the hundreds of judicial appointments over the last four years simply isn’t true. The very rank-and-file Republicans who get trashed by Trump supporters as useless cucks are the ones who strategized and delivered all that. 

If the GOP can learn the right lessons from Trump’s presidency, they—and us—will be better off without him at the helm.

Jonathon Van Maren is a public speaker, writer, and pro-life activist. His commentary has appeared in National Review, The European Conservative, the National Post, and elsewhere. Jonathon is the author of The Culture War and Seeing Is Believing: Why Our Culture Must Face the Victims of Abortion as well as the co-author with Blaise Alleyne of A Guide to Discussing Assisted Suicide.