The cynics


I recently finished Alex McGillis’s short book, The Cynic, a biography of Mitch McConnell as a political figure. It’s well worth a read — it runs a tidy (and, for a book about politics, action-packed) 120 pages.

I always get a queasy feeling when reading biographies of political animals — people for whom politics is more sport than a battle of ideas or morals. It reminds me a bit of biographies of serial killers, where the author presents all the signs that were missed. (E.g., an excerpt from an article about Nikolas Cruz, Parkland shooter: “The killing began with the squirrels. As a fourth-grader, Nikolas Cruz would try to bloody them with his pellet gun. Then he started going after chickens. By the time Cruz was a teenager, he was sneaking into his neighbors’ yard across the street and trying to get his dogs to attack their baby potbelly pigs. One resident watched him take long sticks to rabbit holes, ramming them down as hard as possible to kill any creatures trapped inside.”)

In the case of the serial killer, the acts of psychopathy on a small scale presage the ultimate one. In the case of the political cynic, like Mitch McConnell, the same is true: the (relatively) small-stakes races he ran for student body president or local office provide all the clues needed to understand his behavior in the United States Senate. And not to belabor this (somewhat tortured) analogy, but I find the motivations of a serial killer just as obscure as those of this type of politician. The lack of any moral convictions, let alone a moral compass; the attitude that other people are useful only as means to end; the notion that everything is a game and that life doesn’t matter — it’s tough to fathom. I came away from the book understanding McConnell on an intellectual level, but not really getting him on an emotional one.

The preface of McGillis’s book talks about McConnell’s first big race, for “Jefferson County Judge/Executive”, which is the head of government for the county that encompasses Louisville. McConnell hired political consultants, including Bob Goodman, who gave the following appraisal:

The challenge was obvious, said Goodman. “Being dramatical was not his style. We saw it as his weakness as a politician and we said, ‘How do we take this fellow who doesn’t do all the political things and endear him to a constituency that just wants to talk common sense? How do we lighten him up and make him human, reach the human feelings of hope and love?’ He was open to that, because he recognized that wasn’t his strength.”

And so the young man submitted to the consultants’ instructions like no candidate they had known. “He was wonderful,” said Goodman. “He was like a kid doing a new thing. He was very easy to deal with. He was like the kid who was never in the school play, who really didn’t have the talent that way, but was very willing to do the things asked of him.” Said Plesser: “We didn’t have to deal with the ego. Mitch was the best client to have. He really listened, he didn’t argue…We were absolutely starting from scratch. We could build something just the way we wanted, with no pushback.” And when the candidate proceeded to exceed the low expectations others had for him — finally nailing the clip on the sevenths or eighth take — he glowed with gratification, said Goodman: “He appreciated a compliment: ‘You did that great!’ It was like the kid who says, ‘Gosh, I really can do the school play.’” One of the guys on the film crew came up with a behind-his-back nickname for the eager striver: “Love-me-love-me”.

Oddly enough, it’s never clear why McConnell wants to be county executive in the first place. I read through McGillis’s description of his campaign a few times, and the best explanation seems to be that McConnell viewed it as a stepping stone to greater things. The point of accruing power is to accrue more power. And the point of having political positions, apparently, is to convince people to vote for you, so that you can accrue power. For instance, “[McConnell] told the unions that he would support passing a state law to legalize collective bargaining for public employees, a liberal position that even Hollenbach [his opponent], the Democrat, had reservations about. It paid off: the labor council endorsed McConnell.” Once elected, McConnell dropped the pledge, acknowledging that it “was nothing more than ‘open pandering’ to the unions.”

I don’t mean to convey a shocked attitude towards all of this. Of course politicians lie, and of course many political positions are adopted only for convenience’s sake. Bernie Sanders and Kirsten Gillibrand were gun rights advocates when representing the rural Northeast, and then pivoted when trying to appeal to a broader and more progressive audience. McConnell unsurprisingly tacked rightwards while Kentucky broke free from its Democratic roots. Hillary Clinton was impressively feminist and progressive as a college student at Wellesley and was forced to moderate to help Bill win election to the governor’s office in Arkansas. I get it. People play the political game.

But surely there is a difference between temporarily abandoning one’s positions and not having any in the first place? Looking back at Hillary’s Wellesley speech, I do believe she actually meant this:

The question about possible and impossible was one that we brought with us to Wellesley four years ago. We arrived not yet knowing what was not possible. Consequently, we expected a lot. Our attitudes are easily understood having grown up, having come to consciousness in the first five years of this decade—years dominated by men with dreams, men in the civil rights movement, the Peace Corps, the space program—so we arrived at Wellesley and we found, as all of us have found, that there was a gap between expectation and realities. But it wasn’t a discouraging gap and it didn’t turn us into cynical, bitter old women at the age of 18. It just inspired us to do something about that gap.

Navigating the gap between her own expectations for herself and the realities of being a woman in a woefully regressive society — that struggle arguably defined her political career. What is the comparable statement of purpose for Mitch McConnell?

At the end of the book, McGillis presents a litany of quotes about McConnell’s cynicism, from both his allies and his enemies, Republicans and Democrats:

Those who have worked alongside McConnell, friends and rivals alike, struggle to identify the governing purpose that has motivated him throughout decades of exertion in the public sphere. “I don’t have the vaguest idea,” says Chris Dodd, who spent a quarter century alongside McConnell in the Senate and who was once invited to give a lecture at the McConnell Center in Louisville.

What has motivated McConnell has not been a particular vision for the government or the country, but the game of politics and career advancement in its own right. “It’s to win and have power,” says Harvey Sloane, McConnell’s 1990 opponent.

“He literally eats and sleeps and digests politics every hour,” says Lance Tarrance, the pollster for McConnell’s first Senate campaign. “I don’t think I ever met anyone who was so hardwired for politics.”

“He’s playing the game,” says Brian Atwood, the former USAID administrator who faced off against McConnell over foreign aid budgets. “He’s doing it for himself and his game.”

Politics “is his avocation, vacation, vocation, all three,” says Alan Simpson, the former Republican senator from Wyoming.

“I don’t think he stands for anything. Politics is sport to him. It’s how he lives,” says Frank Greer, who managed Sloane’s 1990 campaign.

“He’s like Bobby Fischer,” says Bruce Lunsford, McConnell’s 2008 opponent. “Fischer could only do chess—he was so socially inept, he couldn’t do anything else. That’s what Mitch is like.”

“It’s always been about power, the political game, and it’s never been about the core values that drive political life,” says John Yarmuth, the Democratic congressman from Louisville who used to work with McConnell. “There has never been anything that interested him other than winning elections.”

It reminded me of Boogie Man, an excellent documentary about Lee Atwater, campaign manager for George H. W. Bush in 1988 and longtime Republican strategist. Here’s what Eric Alterman said about him

Isn’t it a shame that he didn’t decide to become a Democrat because it would have been just as easy for him. He didn’t really believe in any of those things. I don’t really think Lee gave a [expletive] about policy. He liked politics because he could kick the other guy’s ass.

And here’s a similar sentiment about Roger Ailes, who, before becoming the brains behind Fox News, helped launch Mitch McConnell’s political career in 1984:

But Ailes and McConnell shared one thing in common. And it trumped all difference, as well as any misgivings McConnell might have about hiring someone with an unscrupulous reputation. As Janet Mullins, McConnell’s manager for the coming campaign, later recalled: “Roger lived it and breathed it and wanted to win as badly as Mitch did.” Or as Ailes himself put it in his favorite office mantra: “Whatever it takes.”

Arguably the most dangerous people in politics are men like McConnell, Atwater, and Ailes. They are not propagandists like Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter, pseudo-intellectuals like Jordan Peterson or Charles Murray, or scions of royalty like George W. Bush or John McCain. Instead they are pure political operators — they understand nothing besides winning and losing elections. And because they do not feel constrained by conscience or ideology, they are willing to countenance virtually anything in order to win at politics (no matter what that win is for). For Atwater, it was trafficking in hoary racial stereotypes and exploiting racial resentment. For Ailes, it was engendering partisan division and hate through sensationalism and fear-mongering. And for McConnell, it was abetting treason and enabling the next gun massacre, and the next, and the next. With Nikolas Cruz, the signs of psychopathy were written in the bloodied squirrels and dead rabbits. With Mitch McConnell, they are written in the faces of the victims, the ones he has ignored already and the ones he will again the next time.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s