No figure in the Republican Party, save President Trump himself, has been more polarizing than Mitch McConnell. For a time, the party was split between the populist MAGA populist branch of Donald Trump, and the conservative establishment wing, represented by Mitch McConnell. Let’s remember that Steve Bannon and the “MAGA” wing of the party actually went to war against McConnell in the Roy Moore debacle in Alabama that cost the GOP a Senate seat. In the wake of Trump’s unexpected win, the idea became to push out the establishment conservatives that the populists viewed as being at fault for many of their grievances, and were even willing to nominate deeply flawed candidates such as Roy Moore to see it done. Then, two things happened that shifted the course of GOP politics:
First, Moore, a deeply flawed candidate on numerous levels, lost resoundingly and gave up what should have been a safe Senate seat, validating McConnell’s view that in order to win, you have to nominate people that CAN win a general election.
Secondly, Don Blankenship burst onto the national scene in the West Virginia Senate race. Blankenship arrived in full insurgent mode, taking on McConnell with the full range of anti-establishment rhetoric, and dubbing McConnell “Cocaine Mitch.” The Cocaine Mitch title originated as a result of an accusation that a company McConnell had ties to was trafficking cocaine, and this was Blankenship’s strategy: to somehow tie McConnell via unproven allegations to something nefarious. Blankenship was trounced, but Cocaine Mitch stuck, and almost singlehandedly rehabilitated McConnell’s establishment image. Let’s take a look at how it happened.
First, we know nicknames work. We see it elementary school bullying, all the way up to the workplace, and yes, in Donald Trump’s climb to the presidency. From Crooked Hillary to Pocahontas, nicknames have the power to shape the perception of an individual, tying them to a particular theme or idea, so that every time it’s uttered, it conjures up a specific negative element of the person. When President Trump says “Crooked Hillary,” images of email servers, or Clinton Foundation corruption, or Benghazi hearings might pop into your head. It’s an amorphous title that conjures in the listener some negative element about the person, that the listener can interpret in their fashion. Donald Trump does this expertly, his nicknames sticking to people and helping to define who they are as they deal in his realm. His evisceration of the Republican field in the primaries was a work of art and helped in no small way by his branding of opponents.
Don Blankenship is no Donald Trump.
Cocaine Mitch is far too ludicrous to be a serious negative nickname association. As soon as it was uttered, memes flooded the internet of Mitch McConnell sitting on top of mounds of cocaine, his face superimposed over images of Scarface and other iconic movie drug lords. Within days, every innocuous line McConnell uttered took on a different connotation. Now, instead of being the figurehead for the reviled GOP establishment, McConnell, the majority leader of the Senate, was seen as some sort of kingpin, presiding over the Senate as drug baron might preside over his minions. McConnell fully embraced the nickname, even having himself photoshopped into various situations with cocaine raining down over him as he dunked on Blankenship for getting crushed in the race. Everything McConnell was involved in suddenly took on a new light. Parliamentary tricks in the Senate, which are normal day to day operations, suddenly took on new meaning as Mitch ruthlessly shuttled through Donald Trump’s judicial nominees and even the historic tax cuts. All of a sudden, Mitch McConnell went from MAGA pariah to overlord of the Senate, shepherding through Donald Trump’s will with ruthless efficiency. Delivering crushing monologues on the Senate floor became routine occurrences, and seemed to get just a little bit edgier.
There is a concept in psychological circles called Nominative Determinism. Essentially, it is a theory that names somehow dictate the type of person one might become, the jobs they might do, or the attitude they take on in life. For example, many studies have been done showing that people with surnames like “Counsel” are more likely to be lawyers, and people named “Farmer,” are more like to be a farmer. It’s also an ego projection, designed to manifest into reality what someone wants to be true, which is why fighters always have ridiculous sounding nicknames, like The Devastator, or the Notorious. This brings me to the question: Did Mitch McConnell become edgier due to the Cocaine Mitch nickname? It’s an interesting question of perception how the most reviled establishment Republican in the country and the poster boy for everything wrong with the GOP, suddenly became popular with the MAGA crowd. Or, it could just be that people like McConnell and Lindsey Graham learned the lessons of Donald Trump and how to fight, as we’ve been clamoring for them to do for some time. Graham, in particular, has been a juggernaut of late, decimating all comers with a newfound brazen attitude.
All one has to do is a Twitter search of “Cocaine Mitch” over the past week, and you’ll find populist Republicans who hated McConnell cheering him on as he rallied votes to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. In a way, Don Blankenship actually helped to unify the GOP by turning McConnell into some sort of badass leader through his failed nickname strategy. McConnell is now a Republican icon, who some consider to be one of the most consequential Senate Majority Leaders of all time. He now faces virtually zero opposition within the party and has become a critical ally of President Trump. Even those that aren’t fond of him, no longer outright oppose him, as his work on the judiciary will live long after he’s gone. How much of present-day Mitch McConnell is the kindly old man, and how much is the ruthless “Cocaine Mitch?”
We may never know, just hope that one day you can get as effective of a nickname as Cocaine Mitch.
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Steve is the author of Forging the Iron Mind, and is the founder and CEO of Americana Prime.