There have been a lot of reports in the past week about how Sen. Mitch McConnell made a tactical mistake by censuring Sen. Elizabeth Warren on the floor of the Senate during the debate over Jeff Sessions’s nomination as Attorney General. However, two things I have seen have made me question whether McConnell’s mistake was a mistake at all. The first was Donald Trump’s statement to Democratic Senators that “Pocahontas is now the face of your party.” The second is a poll reported by the Hill today, taken the day after Warren was censured, which found that in a 2020 matchup, Donald Trump trailed an unnamed Democrat by 8 points, but led Elizabeth Warren by six. It’s certainly possible that McConnell, after 40 years in politics, unthinkingly censured the leader of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party for opposing Trump’s nominee for Attorney General. However, I think it is more likely that McConnell and Trump were running play #2 of the Dictator’s Playbook: Marginalize the Opposition.
How do they marginalize the opposition?
The “opposition,” in this context, means both opposing political parties and institutions, like the Press or the Courts, that a leader wishes to discredit (Trump’s White House has already declared the Press the opposition). In order to expand a leader’s power beyond its intended scope, especially if he has a small but fanatical base of support, he needs to make the opposition look radical and dangerous to voters’ interests while making himself look like a savior. This reduces the support of opposing political parties to their fringes and leaves the center with no other perceived choice than to support the leader’s increasingly authoritarian policies and actions. Where a large portion of the population, left and right, have lost faith in a democracy’s core institutions, he can remove those institutions as a check on his power if he links them to a marginalized political opposition.
Silencing Warren was over the top, and predictably elevated her with the base
I’m not saying Elizabeth Warren is a radical. However, she does represent the most left wing faction of the Democratic Party, and she can be painted as a radical by even a mediocre propagandist, given that faction’s anger and active resistance to the Trump Administration. With that in mind, review the events of last week:
Tuesday night, McConnell silenced Warren on the floor of the Senate for reading a damning letter submitted by Coretta Scott King during Sessions’s failed 1986 nomination as a federal judge. He said “she was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” The next day, he allowed two male Senators, Sherrod Brown D-OH and Tom Udall D-NM, to read the same letter into the congressional record. Over the course of the day on Wednesday, McConnell’s words were put on memes, T-Shirts and everything else they could be printed on, and “nevertheless she persisted” became a feminist rallying cry. The left went wild in support of Warren. Then, on Thursday, Trump said “Pocahontas is the face of your party.”
It seems, at first glance, like a blatantly sexist faux pas, doesn’t it? However, McConnell is not an idiot – in fact he is a pretty gifted political tactician. I think Mitch McConnell knew exactly what he was doing, and that he intended for Elizabeth Warren to go viral and become the face of the Democratic Party.
How does Warren’s rise help Trump?
Elizabeth Warren, whatever her actual policy prescriptions, is the face of the Left. The Left and the Democratic Party are not synonymous, and the more Trump can associate the Democrats exclusively with the Left, the more he can associate them with, for instance, the undocumented workers he has sworn to deport or the violent protests at Berkeley. He can use that association to damage their chance to retake Congress in 2018 and undermine core institutions, especially the Press, as agents of radical opposition to a duly elected President. Trump has already been calling mainstream, traditional news outlets “fake news.” He and his administration have consistently alleged that the Press is biased toward the Democratic Party, and is therefore illegitimate. The more Trump can define the Democratic Party as radicalized, the easier it is for him to dismiss the Press. The more he can show that the Courts are delivering progressive results, apparently in response to protests led by Warren and other progressives, the more he can paint them as the enemy of change and the policies his voters asked for. The Press and the Courts are his greatest obstacles to expanded power, and I think it just got easier to undermine them. Perhaps these developments were just a happy accident for the Trump Administration, and perhaps they were not. Either way, I think it makes sense for all of us to look for the deeper motives behind any shocking political event, and ask how it benefits Trump.