Since 2007, Senator Mitch McConnell has been the leader of the Republican caucus in the Senate and by far the most effective political strategist in his party. He was the architect of the scorched-earth opposition to everything President Obama did, which paid dividends in the form of the Republican wave in 2010 and eventually Donald Trump's victory in 2016. McConnell did all he could to hold open federal court seats during Obama's terms, which allowed Trump to stuff the district and appellate courts, and the Supreme Court, with far-right partisans.
But McConnell is 78 years old, a survivor of polio, and clearly has some health problems. He does not appear to be in any immediate serious medical danger, but he also will not last forever — and there is nobody of his skill or temperament waiting to replace him. When he finally retires or dies, the Republican Party will be all crazy, all the time.
Since 2009 and the rise of the Tea Party — which appears rather quaint by modern standards, but was genuinely nutty at the time — there has been a long debate about if or when the fever would break on the right. For a while after Republicans lost in 2012, I suspected there might be a conservative reform movement, but I don't think I have ever been so wildly wrong. Since then, the crazy ultra-right has become even more crazy with every passing year, and gained ever more power in the GOP.
A key part of this process has been the complete irresponsibility of the dwindling number of Republican elites who have not abandoned their senses. Over and over again, they have chosen to ride the tiger of lunacy rather than tell their base unpleasant truths. John Boehner shamelessly fed the Tea Party red meat to win the 2010 elections and become Speaker of the House, only to find it near-impossible to govern because his caucus was so unruly and unwilling to make even the tiniest compromises. (He is clearly enjoying retirement a great deal more than political office.) Paul Ryan did the exact same thing in the same position. Now the Freedom Caucus is being outflanked on the Republican far right by a growing number of open QAnon conspiracy theorists.
Similarly, when the "grab them by the pussy" tape came out during the 2016 campaign, a few top Republicans briefly and quietly distanced themselves from Trump, only to clam up when his poll numbers did not dive. That, of course, was only because those same elites refused to really denounce him, and because the hermetically-sealed propaganda chamber that conservatives had built over the years downplayed or ignored the story.
Indeed, Trump's whole candidacy was built on exploiting the shameless lies and hysterical nonsense that Republican elites and conservative media have been telling the GOP base for years, like tax cuts pay for themselves or that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim socialist born in Kenya, and so they could not refute him. As Talking Points Memo's Josh Marshall wrote at the time, "the slow accumulation of nonsense and paranoia … built into a massive trap door under the notional GOP leadership with a lever that a canny huckster like Trump could come in and pull pretty much whenever."
Yet throughout this time, McConnell has been able to maintain a certain coherence to Republican political strategy, with a laser-focus on what he cares about — namely, winning elections and installing conservative judges — always staying on message, and fading into the background at all other times. Every other Republican at the top of the party either lacks his discipline and vision, or is a shameless attention hound more concerned with building a celebrity following (and thereafter making money) than political victory.
Since Trump has lost re-election, once again almost all Republican elites are either indulging his treasonous nonsense about the election being stolen, or actually believe it. As Paul Waldman writes, Trump appears to be positioning himself for another run for president in 2024, in which case most Republicans apparently think they have to appease him or lose their seats.
Now, McConnell is also disliked by the crazy ultra-right, but for a different reason. He is willing to indulge conspiracy paranoia, but he too obviously doesn't much care about it himself. He is much more notably concerned about personally avoiding the coronavirus than the average Republican elected official, for instance. As Alex Pareene writes, at bottom McConnell is a nihilistic and ruthless parliamentary tactician, not a stupid loudmouth who cares more about going on television than governance; that is why he faced a primary challenge from a Tea Party dolt in 2014 (who he beat easily).
So it will be bleakly interesting to see what will happen without McConnell providing some semblance of strategic direction to the party. His logical successor, Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) evinces little of McConnell's amoral will-to-power, nor much Trump-style charismatic bluster. The temptation for other Republicans to attack Thune, or whoever else ends up on top in the Senate, for insufficient support of future Republican presidential nominee Peter Brimelow will be strong. One amusing possibility is that voting itself will be considered the mark of RINO sellouts. A recent Twitter flame war saw Newt Gingrich and Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Tex.) — themselves the bleeding edge of the extreme right when they were first elected — arguing with Lin Wood and Michelle Malkin over whether Georgia Republicans should vote in the upcoming special Senate election.
I wouldn't bet too much on that happening, however. Logical consistency is not a requirement for political success, and most Republicans probably tacitly still believe that voting works, even if they can't admit it to themselves — otherwise why continue to rig the process with gerrymandering and vote suppression? It's just that future Republican governments will be even more divorced from lived reality in this country than they currently are.