I have been wanting to read The Cynic ever since I saw a picture of Mitch McConnell, student activist, organizing a civil rights march to Frankfort and learned he witnessed the signing of the Voting Rights Act. How did someone who has done so much to degrade voting rights start in such a different place? He began his career as a pro-life, pro-civil rights, moderate Republican and ended up as a nihilist Senate Majority Leader who has done more lasting damage to democracy than Donald Trump. What happened to him?
Well, it turns out nothing happened to him, at least not in the way most people would understand how people come to change their entire worldview and all the values they once held. He was already on the road to nihilism, for example, after graduating college he was eligible for the draft, so he joined the reserves as “an honorable alternative that wouldn’t ruin my career or taint my advancement.” Even before he ran for office the first time, he was already making his choices based on his ambitions.
He also hired Roger Ailes to run his campaign with the kind of ruthless mendacity that made sure McConnell won and McConnell loved it. He has since always campaigned with a ferocity for personal destruction that would shame most people, but McConnell seems incapable of shame.
MacGillis takes us through issue after issue where McConnell flipped on a dime, not just due to heavy-duty donations, but also where he saw partisan advantage. He went from sponsoring campaign finance reform to opposing it. He went from loathing soft money to loving it when he realized Republicans got more money from it. Many people attest to McConnell’s extraordinary love of fundraising, a task most politicians endure as a necessity, but one McConnel enjoys.
One thing has stayed the same. When McConnell was a state politician he stifled anti-choice legislation by not letting it come to a vote. Now as Senate President, more than hundreds of bills wither on his desk. He has changed the Senate from “the greatest deliberative body” to the place where bills go to die. He has changed it from a collegial environment to partisan enmity. If democracy dies in America, his fingerprints will be on her throat.
I can’t really say I enjoyed The Cynic. No one who loves our country can really enjoy seeing a senator with no moral fiber, no principle, no guiding star other than power. It has been demoralizing to see a party that had ideas and policies turn into a rudderless power grab without any desire to accomplish anything more than winning the next election, but that is who Mitch McConnell is and what he has made the Republican party.
The Cynic is fascinating. I had no idea McConnell was using his wife’s position as Secretary of Labor to reach down into the civil bureaucracy to punish individual mine inspectors and investigators who run afoul of the criminally negligent and corrupt coal barons. The length of his pursuit of investigators reveals petty vindictiveness that seems completely Trumpian. It seems he and Trump are truly birds of a feather, corrupt to the bone and mean, vicious, and vindictive. The mild-mannered, bespectacled turtle is just a cover for a deeply malignant man. Considering his once high-minded goals, there is something tragic in the evil he has embraced.
- The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell at Simon & Schuster
- Alec MacGillis at ProPublica