“I like the evil ones better,” McConnell replied, with a thin smile.
No joke. At 78, after a half-century in politics, Addison Mitchell McConnell Jr. now stands at the precipice of what most Republicans only a generation or two ago would have said was impossible: conservative domination of the Supreme Court.
For McConnell, this is a personal triumph worthy of the history books. But history may record it differently. It seems probable that McConnell’s epitaph will note instead that no one since the Southern segregationists of the 1940s and 1950s did more to cripple the proper functioning of all three branches of government, not to mention faith in the very idea of one America.
Historian Rick Perlstein has long described this chapter in the American story as “Nixonland,” a jagged terrain of White racial fear and populist resentment of the federal authority that began in the mid-1960s. But while GOP presidents from Richard Nixon to Donald Trump have tilled that soil when it suited their purposes, McConnell has been, over the years, its most constant gardener, mixing arcane legislative procedure and judicial appointments to turn emotion into lasting policy.
He has jammed hundreds of conservative judges onto the federal bench, making it younger, Whiter and more male — and far more partisan — in the process. In concert with the Federalist Society, McConnell is transforming the federal judiciary from sometimes-defenders of the poor, immigrants and people of color into the Praetorian Guard of corporations, the wealthy, and those whose cultural and racial privileges make them, at best, oblivious to their collective responsibility to all Americans. At the same time, McConnell is standing in the schoolhouse door of dozens if not hundreds of pieces of needed legislation, rendering the “world’s greatest deliberative body” an empty pantomime of itself.
And if he succeeds in forcing another pliable justice onto the Supreme Court, he may prove responsible for undercutting whatever legitimacy a possibly disputed presidential election might have if, as many suspect, it must be settled by that court. One reason to move fast and give the court a 6-3 conservative majority? To take the relatively independent (and therefore unreliable) Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. out of the equation.
McConnell has been around so long people think they know him. But they don’t, and that is by design. When you are the apex predator of U.S. politics, you don’t really care what anyone thinks. In Kentucky, where I worked for six years as McConnell was beginning his rise, he is not so much loved as endured. People talk about him like the rainy Ohio River Valley weather: It’s a pain, but it waters the crops. He retains an iron grip on state politics, has been elected statewide six times and is likely to win a seventh term in November. Democrats are pouring millions into defeating him. It’s not a great bet.
McConnell, reduced to his essence, is a state party chairman on steroids. His eye for detail, and his feral sense of approaching threats, is total. In the summer of 1968, working for a U.S. Senate candidate that year, he traveled the state from Pikeville to Paducah with another young Republican, Jon Yarmuth, now the Democratic member of the U.S. House representing Louisville. After work, as they hunkered down at yet another rural motel, Yarmuth would suggest that they go out for a drink. Mitch would have none of it. “What he wanted to do was sit in the room,” Yarmuth recalled, “and read every report and statistic about the county.”
His granular focus on local matters derives in part from the fact that McConnell isn’t Kentucky-bred. He was born in North Alabama and spent his childhood there and in Georgia before moving to Louisville as a teen. He and his family lived in the city’s South End, where newcomers from the Deep South settled in a city whose moneyed ruling class saw itself as tweed-clad country cousins of the Eastern elite. McConnell absorbed the middle-class resentments of his neighborhood.
From boyhood on, he pursued every title he could find: high school student council president; college student president, law school bar association president, state president of the Ripon Society and so on, up the ziggurat of perches and entitlements, all the way to Senate majority leader.
These days he pitches himself to historians as the heir to the godfather of distributed power, James Madison. McConnell has a point, in one sense. The contrapuntal effect of the federal courts is valuable, even indispensable; a piece of Newtonian balance that the founders knew was important. But McConnell is not interested in balance: He is interested only in total dominance, and in a bulwark against change, whatever the cost to the country.