On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) joined the ranks of Republicans who are very annoyed by Donald Trump’s ambivalent response to neo-Nazis, but who haven’t revealed any plans to actually do anything about it. For some reason, however, McConnell’s heavy-on-rhetoric-light-on-action statement led to some veteran political reporters painting the Republican Senate leader as a champion of civil rights.
McConnell was “livid,” USA Today’s Heidi Przybyla reported on Thursday, over Trump’s “chaotic news conference equating counter protesters with the Nazis they came to resist.” Then she described McConnell as a “pro-civil rights Republican who lived through the 1960s.”
A day earlier, CNN’s Manu Raju wrote a similar piece where he described McConnell as someone “who has a long history of working on civil rights issues,” and odd phrase that could easily give the reader the misimpression that McConnell has a history of working on civil rights issues on the side of civil rights.
Just going to leave this right here. pic.twitter.com/hPmAfZ2QuA
— KY Democratic Party (@KyDems) February 8, 2017
The reality is that, while McConnell did support some civil rights legislation — often bills that received little opposition from either party — he’s been happy to cast civil rights aside, especially when he or his Republican Party stands to gain. McConnell praised the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in his memoir, but opposes efforts to restore the portions of the law struck down by Republicans on the Supreme Court. He supports voter ID laws, a common method of voter suppression that disproportionately targets African Americans, and even attempted to pass such a law at the national level.
According to Mitch McConnell, “there are no serious barriers to voting anymore anywhere in America.”
McConnell didn’t just endorse a racist candidate for president, he held a seat open on the Supreme Court for more than a year until that president could fill it. When an African American constituent asked McConnell’s opinion of the Black Lives Matter movement, McConnell gave a politically loaded response — “Well, I think all lives matter.”
Indeed, McConnell’s cynicism on matters of race extends back to the very beginning of his political career. As journalist Alec MacGillis recounts in The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell, the future senator wrote a resignation letter to President Gerald Ford while McConnell was serving as a deputy assistant attorney general. In it, the ambitious lawyer urged Ford to place justices on the Supreme Court who oppose busing as a means to cure segregated public schools.
As one of President Ford’s aides said in a memo explaining why McConnell made the recommendation, “In 1977 Mitch plans to run for the post of county judge in the Louisville area as a Republican. He says the busing issue down there is a very big political factor and he would like to position himself to take advantage of it in the 1977 election.”
McConnell’s record, in other words, reveals someone who doesn’t have particularly strong convictions about civil rights in either direction. He’s willing to vote for civil rights legislation, especially where there’s no strong opposition to a bill. But he cares far more about growing his own power and influence than he does about racial justice, and is happy to strip political power from African Americans if he sees personal gain in doing so.