GOP leaders: Trapped between "legitimate political discourse" and the Trumpian abyss

McConnell and McCarthy, though spineless and soulless, would love to move on. But a Certain Someone won't let them

By Heather Digby Parton


Published February 9, 2022 9:30AM (EST)

Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The Republican National Committee's censure resolution against Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger continues to reverberate through the halls of congress. That ill-advised phrase "legitimate political discourse," referring to the Jan. 6 insurrection, has GOP officials tied up in knots, not wanting to offend their base while at the same time wanting nothing more than to change the subject.

You wouldn't know any of this by the coverage on Fox News, however. As Aaron Rupar notes in his newsletter, Public Notice, the formerly fair-and-balanced network is barely covering the story at all. Instead, Fox hosts are focusing all their attention on the anti-vax trucker protests in Canada, which they are cheering on hour after hour. Former President Donald Trump has been egging the Canadian truckers on as well, sending out a statement of support on the letterhead of his supposed new company, Trump Media Technology Group, inviting them to use his new social media company (assuming it ever gets off the ground) and announcing that "thankfully the Freedom Convoy could be coming to DC with American Truckers who want to protest Biden's ridiculous Covid policies."

That's right. Donald Trump is once again inviting "protesters" to Washington. There's no word on which government building he wants them to storm this time, but you can be sure "it will be wild."

RELATED: Tucker Carlson: Canadian truckers protesting vaccine mandate being treated like "terror group"

He has not learned his lesson and neither have the right wing media networks who are ignoring Jan. 6 and pushing for more obnoxious pro-Trump right-wing demonstrations in the streets ahead of the November elections — which is actually the last thing the Republican establishment wants. The Cheney and Kinzinger censure has put the GOP congressional leadership in a bind, with reporters literally chasing them through the halls trying to get them on the record:

In another hallway footrace, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said the "legitimate political discourse" line referred to some people in Florida and refused to answer whether he supported the resolution. His deputy, Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, who succeeded Cheney when the latter was purged from the leadership, was a bit more straightforward, saying, "My reaction is the RNC has every right to take any action, and the position I have is that you're ultimately held accountable to voters in your district."

Over in the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell took the opposite tack, saying that Jan. 6 was a violent insurrection (as if that were really in dispute anywhere on Planet Earth). He then took a shot at the RNC censure but parsed the point pretty fine, saying that is problem was that the committee was "singling out members of our party who may have different views from the majority — that's not the job of the RNC." He has good reason to be concerned about that. The last thing he needs is Trump purity tests if he's going to win back the Senate in November.

Republicans are feverishly working in the states to tilt the playing field by suppressing the vote and putting partisans in charge of the election machinery. But Senate elections tend to be very close these days, and they know they'll need every vote they can get. McConnell understands that endless drama over the Big Lie will not be helpful to him in certain statewide races where they need to rope in independents and more moderate Republicans in order to win.

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He got the public support from the usual suspects like Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah and Susan Collins of Maine, but for the most part Republican senators blabbered on about a "big tent" and how the RNC could speak for itself, as if they didn't represent that party in the highest legislative body in the land. Not a single one came out and said the simple truth that can't be uttered: Donald Trump lost the 2020 election.

While the conventional wisdom is that the Democrats have already lost in 2022 and we might as well cancel the election and let McConnell take over, the truth is that the Senate map is not particularly good for the GOP this cycle. The Democrats are defending fewer seats and there are a number of toss-ups along with a few open seats. McConnell has come up empty in recruiting the top contenders in states like New Hampshire and Maryland where he had hopes of picking off a Democratic incumbent or two. Why don't "moderate" governors like Chris Sununu of New Hampshire and Larry Hogan of Maryland want to run? Because they'd be faced with defending the Jan. 6 insurrection and Trump's petty obsessions, and they clearly don't have the stomach for it. With Trump out there nationalizing the election around his grievances, it may not end up being quite the cakewalk everyone expects.

The situation in the House is problematic in a different way. Whereas McConnell has ostentatiously separated himself from Trump for all the reasons set forth above, McCarthy has a fractious caucus that's highly tuned in to the Republican base, which is just as obsessed with the 2020 election as their Dear Leader, and just as thirsty for vengeance on the RINOs who dared to oppose him. Unfortunately, they are absolutely embracing the idea that the Jan. 6 Insurrection was "legitimate political discourse," which explains why the RNC was so willing to throw Cheney and Kinzinger on the pyre. Unlike McConnell, McCarthy cannot afford much daylight between himself and Donald Trump.

The leadership of both houses want more than anything to be able to run their campaigns against Joe Biden and the Democrats. In normal circumstances, that would be obvious to everyone concerned. But Donald Trump, narcissistic as always, sees the 2022 election as a demonstration of loyalty to him, and fealty to the Big Lie is his litmus test. Whether the Republicans who roam the corridors of the Capitol like it or not, the base of the party is with him on that.

Just last month, the USA Today/Suffolk University poll found that a majority of GOP voters still believe Biden wasn't legitimately elected. An even larger majority of Republican voters believe the Jan. 6 rioters "went too far, but they had a point." These numbers are virtually unchanged from a year ago. As much as the GOP establishment may want their voters to move on, they are simply not doing so.

The RNC appears to have accepted this, and is acting accordingly. Spokeswoman Danielle Alvarez put it this way: "Outside of the D.C. bubble, our grassroots are very supportive of the decision to hold Cheney and Kinzinger accountable." No doubt they are. If any of these other RINOs push back too forcefully, they'll find out the hard way who's really in charge. 

Read more on the "legitimate political discourse" of Jan. 6, 2021:

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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Adam Kinzinger Commentary Donald Trump Liz Cheney Republicans Ronna Mcdaniel