Profiles in cowardice: Mitch McConnell
Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and his fellow GOP senators secured their place in history with Trump's acquittal. | Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call via AP

Mitch McConnell and 42 fellow Republicans who acquitted Donald Trump Saturday earned their niche in history, right next to Georg Neithardt and his four fellow jurists.

Georg who?

Neithardt headed the five-judge panel that twisted the law into a Bavarian pretzel and all-but exonerated Adolf Hitler over the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch.

Hitler and his armed Nazi henchmen tried to overthrow the democratically-elected government of Bavaria, whose capital was Munich. They plotted the putsch—German for coup—in a Munich taproom, hence its name.

Hitler was charged with high treason. Neithardt and his brother jurists sympathized with the Nazis’ rabid anti-Semitism and nationalism, so Hitler got the lightest sentence on the books: five years.

He spent less than nine months behind bars in a comfortable cell in which he wrote Mein Kampf. (The book, which became the Nazi bible, spelled out Hitler’s homicidal hatred of Jews and his plans for European domination.)

In a statement, Kentucky Democratic Party Chair Colmon Elridge likened McConnell and Rand Paul, Kentucky’s junior Republican senator, to a pair of turncoats better known to Americans than Judge Neithardt.

“History will forever list them as cowards who caved to the mob they so desperately tried to use to stoke fear in Kentuckians,” the statement said. “Make no mistake about it, history will view these cowards as traitors to our union no different than Benedict Arnold or Jefferson Davis.”

McConnell and the other senators, Trump toadies to the end, ignored a mountain of evidence that proved he incited the deadly Jan. 6 riot in which the MAGA faithful attacked and sacked the Capitol, terrorizing lawmakers and staffers. Trump’s storm troopers aimed to keep him in office by overturning last November’s free and fair election that made Joe Biden president.

No sooner did McConnell judge Trump not guilty than Kentucky’s longest tenured senator trotted out his trademark cynicism. He said Trump really did egg on the Capitol attack and was therefore guilty of “disgraceful dereliction of duty.”

More than a few pundits jumped on McConnell’s misdirection. Democrats howled at the hypocrisy.

In explaining his vote, “Mr. McConnell said his hands were tied,” Carl Hulse and Nicholas Fandos wrote in The New York Times. They added:

“He spoke at length about the unfortunate coincidence of timing that he said deprived the Senate of jurisdiction in the trial, alluding to ‘scheduling decisions’ by Speaker Nancy Pelosi to withhold the impeachment charge until Mr. Trump had left office. He did not dwell on his own refusal to call the Senate back to hear the case while Mr. Trump was still president, except to say that he had been right ‘not to entertain some light-speed sham process to try to outrun the loss of jurisdiction.’”

Hulse and Fandos also wrote that angry Democrats saw the maneuver as vintage McConnell:

“Create a politically expedient standard and then argue that the standard left him no choice but to do what suited him in the first place. They argued that he had tried to have his politics both ways, appeasing Mr. Trump’s supporters with his vote to acquit while trying to signal to establishment figures that he sided with them and they should continue backing Republican candidates.”

The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus wrote that it would be easier to applaud McConnell if he “hadn’t stayed so silent for so long as Trump spouted his false statements about the election; if he hadn’t made it impossible to hold the trial while Trump was in office; if he had managed to state flatly that he would have voted to convict Trump absent the supposed constitutional bar; and if he endorsed some other measure, like censure, against Trump now.”

Pelosi saw through McConnell’s disingenuity and shot back in a statement: 

“On January 15, the House Impeachment Managers were gathered to deliver the Article of Impeachment. They were told that because the Senate was closed the Article could not be received. It is so pathetic that Senator McConnell kept the Senate shut down so that the Senate could not receive the Article of Impeachment and has used that as his excuse for not voting to convict Donald Trump.

“Tragically, Senate Republicans who voted not to convict chose to abandon the Constitution, the Country and the American people with this vote. Thank God for the judges and Republican elected officials across the country who pushed back against Donald Trump’s attempted overturning of our election which fueled the insurrection.”

Reputable American historians won’t be any kinder to McConnell and the Trump enablers than credible German historians have been to the feckless Bavarian jurist-enablers who could have stopped Hitler long before he took power, started World War II, brutally conquered most of Europe, and oversaw the murder of six million Jews.

“Now that Republicans have passed up an opportunity to banish him through impeachment, it is not clear when—or how—they might go about transforming their party into something other than a vessel for a semiretired demagogue who was repudiated by a majority of voters,” Alexander Burns wrote in The New York Times.

McConnell and his brother and sister sycophants probably don’t care if they fail to fare well in history.

Oh, maybe Trump is finished politically. Transgressions like his alleged pre-presidential financial funny business—and his attempt to strong-arm Georgia GOP bigwigs into turning the Peach State vote in his favor—might yet land him in prison.

I’m not predicting the rise of a stateside Hitler from the GOP. But you can bet more than a few far-right authoritarian wannabes, encouraged by Trump’s acquittal, wait in the wings of the MAGA movement. Trumpism, largely rooted in white supremacy and white nationalism, shows no apparent signs of fading. Just as the failed Beer Hall Putsch didn’t doom Nazism, it appears the unsuccessful Trump Putsch hasn’t thwarted Trumpism.

Trump himself thinks his movement is waxing, not waning. “Indeed, in a statement celebrating the Senate vote on Saturday, Mr. Trump declared that his political movement ‘has only just begun,'” Burns also wrote.

Anyway, some pundits also have suggested Trump would have been toast in a secret ballot Senate vote. They claim many Republican lawmakers can’t stand him and think he’s an embarrassment to the GOP but won’t cross him because they’re afraid he’ll sic the MAGA base on them.

That might be true. Mark it for what it is: profiles in cowardice. But why McConnell and the other 42 other Republicans did what they did doesn’t matter. What they did does.

A vote is a vote-calculating, craven or keen.

In any event, if self-preservation is the first law of nature, self-aggrandizing is the first law of Mitch McConnell.

It’s irrelevant what he personally thinks of Trump. He hitched his wagon to Trump’s star because he knew that the bloviating, bigoted Yankee George Wallace was a natural for the 87% white, Bible Belt conservative-to-reactionary Bluegrass State.

Of course, we knew that in the end, McConnell would stay true to Trump, who won Kentucky twice in blowouts. Mitch notched another term in a landslide last November.

If McConnell ever had a moral compass, he tossed it in the trash long ago.

Alec MacGillis aptly titled his 2014 McConnell book The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell. “At some point along the way, Mitch McConnell decided that his own longevity in Washington trumped all—that he would even be willing to feed the public’s disillusionment with its elected leaders if it would increase his and his party’s odds of success at the polls,” MacGillis wrote. “In the contest of cynical striving versus earnest service, Mitch McConnell already won.”

He still likes to compare himself to his mentor, Sen. John Sherman Cooper, a moderate Republican in national terms, a liberal in his native Bluegrass State.

Here’s more from MacGillis: “Where Cooper took positions on weighty issues that put him at odds with many in his party and many of his constituents—on civil rights, Vietnam, and much else—McConnell has, by his own admission, been forever attuned to his self-preservation within his party and his state…. In moving rightward with his party, he surrendered himself to the current, rather than fighting against it.”

Whatever else he is, Mitch McConnell is no Sen. Cooper. (Neither is Rand Paul, a bush-league wacko who won’t get much ink in any reputable history books.) Dubbed “the Global Kentuckian,” Cooper was a statesman in the truest sense of the word. Hence, history has been kind to him and rightly so.

History is pretty rough on grasping, cynical politicians like McConnell—hacks always with an eye out for the main chance and whose lodestar is power for himself or herself.

I’ve heard McConnell called a “grifter.” But a grifter is a petty con man. There’s nothing small-potatoes about the con Mitch—and Trump—has run on Kentucky and the country.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.


Berry Craig
Berry Craig

Lifelong Kentuckian Berry Craig is an emeritus professor of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and a freelance writer. He is a member of American Federation of Teachers Local 1360, recording secretary for the Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council, webmaster-editor for the Kentucky State AFL-CIO, and a member of the state AFL-CIO Executive Board. His ninth book on the history of his state, “Kentuckians and Pearl Harbor: Stories from the Day of Infamy,” was published by the University Press of Kentucky in November 2020.