McConnell’s “advice” to the business leaders to “stay out of politics” and not to pick sides “in these big fights” came after several major American companies, including Delta and Coca-Cola, which are both headquartered in Georgia, condemned the state’s new laws restricting ballot access and Major League Baseball decided to move this year’s All-Star Game out of Atlanta in protest of the move by the Republican-controlled state government.
Although McConnell’s comments appeared most targeted at corporate response to Georgia’s new law regarding voting, he expanded his critique of business taking positions on political issues that differ from those of the GOP. “From election law to environmentalism to radical social agendas to the Second Amendment, parts of the private sector keep dabbling in behaving like a woke parallel government,” he said in a statement on Monday.
These comments sound particularly absurd coming from a leader of a Republican Party that for generations has been the party of big business, not least because CEOs and other business leaders have long been an important fundraising source for the Republican Party and for McConnell specifically. While McConnell may be upset about business opposing Republican efforts to make it more difficult for people to vote, his party would suffer if CEOs decided to stay out of politics by stopping their campaign contributions.
The flareup between the Republican Party and the GOP also comes at a time when President Joe Biden and the Democrats are seeking to pass a massive infrastructure bill that would be paid for, in part, by increasing the corporate tax rate. This is an issue around which the Republicans should be mobilizing support from business leaders. Instead, they may now be at loggerheads over state-level laws that are good for the Republicans but less so for businesses who want to continue having a diverse base of customers.
By criticizing the business community in this way, McConnell, who is known for his keen strategic mind, revealed a fair bit about where the post-Trump Republican Party is heading. As the leader of his party in the Senate, McConnell has two key short-term political goals: winning back control of the Senate for the Republicans in 2022 and making sure that he remains the leader of his party’s Senate caucus. It is in this context that the positions he takes must be understood.
Toward the end of the Trump administration, there was much speculation about whether the GOP after Trump would return to being a more conventional conservative party or whether it would change to reflect Trump’s impact on the party. To the extent that was ever really a question, it is now apparent that the latter scenario is the one that has come to pass. By speaking out against businesses who oppose the new Georgia law, as McConnell and others including some in the Georgia state legislature and several Republican US senators have done, the Republicans have made it clear that, rather than proposing a cohesive conservative vision for America, they are continuing to emphasize the politics of White grievance that have always been an integral part of Trump’s political support.
The decision to pursue this approach rather than, for example, publicly rallying big business around opposing corporate tax increases reveals a great deal about the post-Trump GOP. Primarily, it indicates that in the wake of a decisive defeat in the 2020 elections, the Republicans are building a political strategy based on three components: voter suppression, gerrymandering and the politics of White grievance.
The core issue in Georgia’s business-GOP clash is the law that Biden has called “Jim Crow in the 21st century” and others have described as partisan and racist. The legislation, passed last month, would make it more difficult to vote in Georgia by imposing measures like new voter identification requirements for absentee ballots, limiting the number of ballot drop boxes and making it a crime to approach voters in line to give them food and water.
These measure are expected to impact African Americans more than most other voters. Similar laws are being proposed in Texas and more than 40 other states around the country.
Many Republicans base their case for these laws on unfounded claims of voter fraud last year. The reality is that if they hope to reverse their losses and not expand their party vision to welcome in more potential voters, they need to reduce turnout in minority communities, which are more likely to vote Democrat. Covid-related changes to election laws made it easier to vote in 2020, helping to drive up turnout in states like Georgia, where Biden took the state from Trump and the Democrats flipped both US Senate seats. In Texas, too, Trump’s less-than-six-point margin of victory was too close for Republican comfort. The GOP might not want to fight with their CEO friends over much, but clearly McConnell sees the implementation of these voter suppression laws as a greater Republican priority.
The second component of the emerging GOP political strategy is gerrymandering — drawing district lines for state and congressional elections that create fewer competitive districts. Gerrymandering is essential to Republican success at the state level and will play a critical role in the Republican’s chances to retake the House of Representatives in 2022, but the only way the GOP can preserve this advantage is by defeating the For the People Act, which ends congressional gerrymandering and which the US House of Representatives has already passed. While it faces an uphill battle in the Senate, McConnell and the GOP would face further political peril if the business community decided to support that proposal with the same energy they have mobilized against the voter suppression laws in Georgia.
The third component of the Republican strategy is also very evident in McConnell’s comments. While his recent remarks were a stern, if surreal, warning to the “CEOs of America,” he was reminding Republican voters and members of Congress that it is still Trump’s party and he is willing to accept that. McConnell’s true feelings about Trump may well be complex as suggested, for example, in his comments following the impeachment trial, but that is precisely why it is important for his own political future that he convince Republican voters and leaders that he recognizes Trump’s role in the party.
This is the corner into which Trump has backed Republicans. Either they move back to their conventional pre-Trump style and see voter enthusiasm potentially wither or they embrace the resentment and sense of victimhood that defined Trumpism, fighting against powerful CEOs along the way. McConnell may think he is making the right strategic choice, but it is tough to see how this will work for the GOP in the long run.