In 2005, while bragging about his history of sexual assault, a reality TV host laid out a simple theory of power. “When you’re a star,” Donald Trump explained to Access Hollywood host Billy Bush, “they let you do it.”
Fifteen years later, Trump has gone from The Apprentice to the Oval Office, from grabbing women without their consent to picking a woman to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the supreme court. Yet his approach to power has remained quite consistent.
“When you have the Senate, when you have the votes, you can sort of do what you want,” he told Fox & Friends.
This is what political scientists call “constitutional hardball” and what the rest of us call “doing whatever you can get away with”. It is not a philosophy unique to Trump. In fact, it’s one reason why he and Kentucky senator Mitch McConnell, a man as dully calculating as Trump is garishly impulsive, have become such inseparable late-in-life partners. The majority leader has spent decades in Washington treating public service as a sport, going so far as to title his memoir The Long Game. In McConnell’s view, the purpose of politics is to accumulate as much power as possible by whatever means available. In Trump, he’s found a kindred spirit.
Now, both men have the chance of a lifetime: the opportunity to confirm a far-right justice to replace a liberal icon just weeks before election day. It’s hardly surprising that even cursory talk of principle or restraint has gone out the window. Politically speaking, Trump and McConnell are stars. We will, they assume, let them do it.
In the short term, they may be right. Unless four Republicans defect, they can install a deeply conservative justice in the waning days of the president’s first term. But in the long run, the great loser of McConnellism might turn out to be McConnell himself. No one should be rooting for constitutional hardball. But if hardball must be played, there are plenty of reasons to think that Democrats will ultimately come out on top. In fact, enraged Democrats don’t even have to embrace Donald Trump’s whatever-you-can-get-away with mentality to undo Mitch McConnell’s life’s work. All they have to do is exercise slightly less restraint.
For one thing, America’s political institutions are currently biased – in many cases quite aggressively – in favor of conservatives. Restrictive voting laws make casting a ballot disproportionately difficult for lower-income, non-white and young Americans. Unprecedented gerrymandering gives Republicans a built-in advantage in the race for the House, and according to FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver, the Senate’s bias toward rural states makes the chamber about seven points redder than the nation as a whole. Thanks to the electoral college, two of the past five presidential elections have been won by Republicans who lost the popular vote – one reason why even before Justice Ginsburg’s death, 15 of the past 19 supreme court justices were appointed by GOP presidents.
The conservative movement, in other words, already had it pretty good. The average American disagrees with Republican orthodoxy on every major issue: healthcare, climate change, gun violence, immigration, taxes, Covid response. Yet thanks to the biases embedded in the American political process, Republicans have not just remained viable, but secured extraordinary amounts of power. We can’t know for certain who would benefit from upending the status quo that existed at the time of Justice Ginsburg’s passing – but we do know which party has the most to lose.
What’s more, the GOP has not just benefited from the bias of the American political process – they’ve benefited from the fact that many Americans don’t realize such a bias exists. Despite some politicians increasing eagerness to erode our democracy, large majorities of Americans still believe in representative government. Among other things, they want to see higher turnout in elections; they want wealthy interests to have less influence in our politics; they oppose the electoral college; don’t want President Trump to rush through a judicial pick so close to an election; and were horrified when attorney general William Barr teargassed peaceful protesters earlier this year.
It’s possible that as fights over our political process become more high-stakes and more public, Americans will become less supportive of democracy. But it seems more likely that they’ll grow increasingly resentful of the party which views representative government as a threat.
McConnell and Trump may also not realize the extent to which they’ve benefited from a double standard in American politics. For decades, Republicans have broken norms whenever they believed they could. Democrats have broken norms whenever they believe they had no choice.