The Steve Bannon–led campaign to depose Mitch McConnell as Senate Majority Leader is “a coalition of populists, constitutional conservatives, and more libertarian types,” one Bannon ally tells Axios. Alternatively, it “could win over a loose coalition of social conservatives, tea-party activists, and values voters,” another tells CNN. So it is designed to advance literally every faction in the party, including some (populists, who favor nativism and bigger government) diametrically opposed to others (libertarians, who favor the opposite). In other words, the purge has no ideological content whatsoever. This naturally raises the question of why so many Republicans are hell-bent on decapitating an effective legislative tactician who has dutifully carried out the president’s bidding.
One answer is that conservatives are purging McConnell because purging is what they do and who they are. The modern Republican Party was created through purges, and it has never stopped.
The event that most directly shaped the GOP, and marked its evolution into a party controlled by the conservative movement, was the right-wing revolt against the 1990 budget deal. That agreement, forged by George H.W. Bush with both parties, traded a small increase in the top tax rate for deep spending cuts. Republicans in the House, led by bomb-throwing backbencher Newt Gingrich, denounced the deal as a sellout. When Republicans won control of the House in the 1994 elections, Gingrich took over as Speaker, replacing as his party leader the retiring House Minority Leader Robert Michel, whom the right had deemed too conciliatory.
Gingrich presented himself as a revolutionary bound to overthrow decades of liberal-government overreach, and shut down the government in an effort to force President Clinton to accept his terms. But it was not enough for conservatives, who eventually concluded their former ally had gone soft. By 1997, Gingrich was fending off constant coup plots from conservatives, who believed he had “retreated on making tax cuts a priority, eliminating affirmative action programs, and eliminating money for the National Endowment for the Arts.”
Gingrich was finally forced out at the end of 1998. His replacement, Bob Livingston, resigned almost immediately due to a confessed sexual affair. Dennis Hastert ironically managed to last a decade mostly unchallenged, despite having been a serial sexual predator of teenage boys. After Hastert departed, John Boehner succeeded him, and was hounded by constant coup plots from discontented ultraconservatives. Boehner gave way to Paul Ryan, who has also faced regular coup threats from the right.
The Senate Majority Leader position has been somewhat more stable, but the pattern of right-wing discontent has also appeared regularly. Conservatives have regularly lambasted their leaders for weakness and faintheartedness. Gingrich once dismissed Bob Dole as “the tax collector for the welfare state.” His replacement, Trent Lott, initially excited conservatives, until they shortly decided he was merely “Dole with a drawl.” (National Review had already demanded Lott resign well before his praise for the 1948 Strom Thurmond Dixiecrat campaign forced his ouster.) The causes of conservatives dismay have long since been forgotten — allowing votes on regulations of HMOs, the passage of a chemical weapons treaty — but all were seen at the time as infuriating betrayals of sacred principle.
The constant undertow of discontent with whoever happens to be leading Congressional Republicans at any given time is a consequence of conservative ideology. The American right has never accepted the legitimacy of the New Deal, and has continued to dream of rolling it back despite a country largely comfortable with its functions. The chasm between the party’s ambitions and the practicality of government has essentially institutionalized leadership coups as a feature of conservative politics. When pure right-wingers could be put into power, they would inevitably fail, forcing the conservatives to search for even more extreme right-wingers to replace them. Dole was the right-wing alternative to Howard Baker, until Dole became synonymous with the cowardly Establishment. In 2010, Jim DeMint held up Marco Rubio as the perfect tea-party insurgent. “I’d rather have 40 Marco Rubios than 60 Arlen Specters,” he boasted. Now Rubio is the epitome of fecklessness. (DeMint himself was ironically deposed from his perch at the Heritage Foundation, where the banana-republic style has bled into a putative bastion of scholarship.)
The DeMints of the conservative world exist in a state of almost permanent insurrection. When Bannon announced his plan to depose McConnell, he activated a preexisting insurrectionary apparatus of right-wing media and organizers: the Heritage Foundation, FreedomWorks, the Senate Conservatives Fund, Tea Party Patriots, Judicial Crisis Network, and many others.
Why McConnell, though? One obvious reason is that the Senate is the locus of the Trump administration’s most high-profile defeat, the failure to repeal Obamacare, which managed to pass the House. The Trump administration obviously does not want to blame this defeat on Trump. Just as obviously, it doesn’t want to admit that the party spent seven years making impossible promises to repeal Obamacare and replace it with an almost-but-not-quite-finished plan to give everybody better insurance without costing anybody anything. McConnell is the obvious patsy.
There is also, however, another possible motive: to prevent Republicans from removing Trump from office.
Bannon seems to take the prospect of Trump’s removal seriously — he has reportedly told people that Trump stands only a 30 percent chance of finishing his term. Impeaching the president requires a majority of the House and two-thirds of the Senate. It is highly plausible that Democrats could capture the House majority in the midterm elections. They have no chance to get anywhere close to two-thirds of the Senate. That means the balance of power for a potential impeachment would rest on the roughly 17 or 18 Republicans most independent of the administration. And that happens to be where Bannon is striking.
Bannon plans to support primary challenges against up to 15 Republican senators running for reelection. His preconditions for a senator to avoid his wrath are pledging opposition to McConnell as Majority Leader, and support for a rule change abolishing the filibuster.
Of course, this would be in keeping with the Trumpian message that McConnell is to blame for the failure of Obamacare repeal, and that the Senate is foolish to preserve the filibuster in any form. It would be very difficult for Republicans to win enough elections in 2018 to actually pull off filibuster repeal. They have 52 members right now, an unknown but probably large number of whom do not want to eliminate the filibuster. Two of those Republicans senators are currently trailing in polls against Democrats. The chances that the GOP emerges from the midterm elections with 50 senators who are willing to eliminate the filibuster are nil.
On the other hand, the chances that they emerge with 34 senators unwilling to impeach Trump even in the face of strong evidence of criminality are much healthier. Bannon doesn’t have any way of targeting potential impeachment votes directly. But Republican senators who don’t want to purge McConnell or eliminate the filibuster are a pretty decent proxy. These senators are the institutionalists, the ones least likely to blindly support Trump. In any impeachment scenario, the Republican base is likely to be whipped up into a pro-Trump frenzy. Which senators are most likely to stand up to the base? Probably the same ones who would oppose angry demands for McConnell’s head on a pike. It is a crude but potentially effective heuristic for identifying secret enemies — a bit like the way the Khmer Rouge executed people merely for having eyeglasses, since glasses indicated they might be an intellectual.
If this is indeed Bannon’s strategy — there’s no way to know — the most telling detail is Senator Rand Paul’s omission from his target list. Paul played a decisive role in the defeat of the last Obamacare-repeal bill. While Paul does not face reelection until 2022, he’s the only one of the three Republican senators who opposed the last repeal bill who is vulnerable to a conservative primary challenge. (Susan Collins can run as an independent, and John McCain is battling cancer and retiring.) And yet Paul has managed to cozy up to the president, and rather than facing any punishment for his decisive no vote, was invited to the White House to endorse Trump’s executive actions to weaken Obamacare.
It might be a mistake to attribute any serious strategic planning to Bannon. Some men just want to watch the world burn. Whatever goal he has in mind, his means are entirely serious. Bannon intends to defeat or intimidate any Republicans who might stand in Trump’s way. Trump’s time on the public stage might be short, but Bannon’s obvious intent is to reshape the party in a way that will last long after he is gone.