The Paradox of the Pro-Trump #Resistance

Jon Kyl will make a fitting Senate replacement for John McCain. He’s hailed by Trump critics — and a stalwart supporter of Trump and his agenda.

Jon Kyl and John McCain at the 2016 Legislative Forecast Luncheon hosted by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry in Phoenix, Arizona. (Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia)

There’s good news and bad news for the #Resistance since the death of one of its leading lights, John McCain. The good news is the man chosen to take his Senate seat, former three-term Arizona senator Jon Kyl, is the ideal choice to carry on McCain’s legacy in Congress. The bad news is, that means he won’t be doing a whole lot of resisting.

Kyl is a logical choice to fill McCain’s spot. The two were friends and colleagues for more than two decades, with Kyl co-chairing McCain’s exploratory presidential campaign committee in 1998. And their worldview and politics have significant overlap.

Kyl, like McCain, is a right-wing Republican — except several degrees to McCain’s right. Whereas McCain had a lifetime rating of 80.91 from the American Conservative Union (which tracks closely with the 83 percent of the time he voted with Trump), Kyl held a lifetime rating of 96.58 by the time he left Congress in 2012 — the ninth most conservative member of the Senate at that time, particularly impressive when you take into account his twenty-five years of service. In other words, expect Jon Kyl to be an even more loyal Trump ally than McCain was.

It’s not just his ACU score that suggests this, however. The positions he’s espoused over the years suggest he’ll be entirely compatible with Trump’s agenda.

When first elected to the Senate in 1994, Kyl was described by political scientist Bruce Merrill as “heavily tied to special interest groups like manufacturers, large businesses, Chamber of Commerce,” and he helped lead the Conservative Opportunity Society, an activist group of House Republicans in the 1990s. He’s a foe of government regulations, was a consistent, longtime supporter of a balanced budget amendment, and was the chief proponent of a constitutional amendment that would have required two-thirds majorities in both houses to raise taxes.

Speaking of taxes, Kyl doesn’t like them, particularly when they fall on the wealthy. He tried year after year to have the estate tax repealed, right up until his final years in Congress. At one point, he introduced a measure to eliminate the estate tax just as the US was launching the Iraq War, and later claimed that its abolition “actually helps the wealthy least of all.” As part of this quest, in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina had laid waste to New Orleans, Kyl and Jeff Sessions hoped to find business owners who had been killed in the disaster and use them as rhetorical props to argue in favor of the repeal. Time described it as “legislative ambulance chasing.”

Kyl led the GOP’s brinkmanship on the debt ceiling and government funding during the Obama years, refusing to do anything unless Obama guaranteed the survival of Bush’s tax cuts for the rich. As unemployment hovered around 10 percent, he opposed extending unemployment insurance because he thought it was a “disincentive for [people] to seek new work.” Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist once bragged to Politico about the control he had over Kyl during debt negotiations, and Kyl made it explicitly clear that he believed only higher spending needed to be offset to rein in the deficit, never cuts in taxes, as naked an acknowledgement of GOP deficit hypocrisy as you’re likely to hear. Kyl refused to countenance any tax increase, even as he and McCain fought Obama’s stimulus because of its price tag, and even as he demanded trillions of dollars worth of cuts from Democrats.

Kyl is also a social conservative, so much so that he voted against funding care for people dying of AIDS in 1995. Fervently anti-abortion, Kyl also once justified his opposition to funding Planned Parenthood on the grounds that “well over 90 percent” of what they do is abortions, a statistic that is not remotely true. After a volley of criticism, Kyl’s office clarified that it “was not intended to be a factual statement.”

Like McCain, Kyl is an inconsistent “moderate” on immigration. In the mid-2000s, he did put together a compromise bill that would have made undocumented immigrants leave the US and apply for finite guest worker visas from their home countries, which got him in hot water with the GOP base for not being harsh enough.

At the same time, he voted against restoring food stamps for documented immigrants and refugees, tried to limit immigration from countries designated as sponsors of terrorism, defeated an attempt to clarify a law that labelled human rights victims as terrorists, and sponsored an amendment that in effect mandated the collection of DNA from all undocumented immigrants arrested or detained. He questioned whether birthright citizenship was simply rewarding the “illegal behavior” of undocumented immigrants. Worse still, in 2009 Kyl invited far-right Dutch Islamophobe Geert Wilders to Capitol Hill, where he screened a racist documentary.

None of these positions are in any way opposed to Trumpism. But if Kyl does end up resisting Trump in any meaningful way, as with McCain it will be solely in the arena of foreign policy.

Kyl is a hawk who’s opposed nearly every attempt at diplomacy over the years. Name a major arms-control agreement over the past couple of decades, and Kyl has probably tried to undermine it. He argued against ratifying the Chemical Weapons Convention, an agreement supported by Republicans, then insisted on a bill that undermined it by restricting inspections in the US. He opposed and helped kill the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the first time the Senate had defeated an international pact since the Treaty of Versailles. He urged on Bush’s globally criticized withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which Kyl called “an anachronism of the Cold War.”

Kyl came close to a crowning achievement when he almost single-handedly torpedoed the New START arms-control treaty with Russia in 2010, the centerpiece of Obama’s attempt to “reset” relations with the country. New START was backed by US military leaders, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking Republican, and Henry Kissinger, Condoleezza Rice, and George Shultz.

But Kyl, whose support the administration was desperate for, would only grant it if Obama agreed to fund a nuclear arsenal modernization program, as well as extend Bush’s tax cuts. After the administration did both, he then refused to vote for it anyway, and demanded the vote be delayed until a new Senate with five more Republicans took office. “My conclusion is he’s acting in bad faith,” said the executive director of the Arms Control Association.

Kyl was similarly obstructionist when it came to peace with North Korea, offering another clue about the McCain-like sort of resistance he’ll offer Trump. Shortly after Bill Clinton signed the historic 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea, Kyl, like many other Republicans, voted against funding for the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, established to send heavy fuel oil to North Korea in accordance with the deal. Thanks to years of similar behavior in opposition to peace from congressional Republicans like Kyl, North Korea also began reneging on its commitments, providing Kyl the opportunity to blame the deal’s failure wholly on the Koreans, to rubbish the concept of negotiations, and to ramp up pressure on North Korea through sanctions.

Kyl has been a reliable friend to military-industrial complex. He served on the board of the military contractor-funded Center for Security Policy, and despite his alarm over the deficit, threatened to quit the deficit-cutting supercommittee if further Pentagon budget cuts were requested. With cuts worth of $350 billion over ten years, “defense has given enough already,” he explained. In 2011, with sequestration cuts looming, he teamed up with McCain to save the Pentagon from $600 million in cuts by looking to slash the same amount of government spending elsewhere.

Since leaving the Senate, he has co-chaired the American Enterprise Institute’s American Internationalism Project with Joe Lieberman, urging the US to invest in missile defense and nuclear weapons while warning against an “isolationist trend” in the parties.

Meanwhile, Kyl insisted against asking for UN authorization for the Iraq War, a war he publicly backed, voted to lift a ban on research and development of smaller nuclear arms, supported John Bolton’s appointment in the Bush administration, put forward a measure that effectively called for war with Iran, and urged the abandonment of “naive negotiations” with both North Korea and Iran. Kyl called the idea of a nuclear weapon-free world “loopy,” warned that Obama’s attempt to expand cooperation with Russia “could drive a wedge” between allies, and suggested that Obama had given Moscow too much influence over its nuclear policies.

When Kyl made these remarks in 2011, they were considered relatively hawkish and extreme. Today, they’re indistinguishable from a Rachel Maddow segment. Liberals concerned by Trump’s gestures toward reduce tensions with other nuclear powers will no doubt be glad to hear they now have another ally in Congress.

One area where Kyl differs from McCain is that while the latter took care to mask his steadfast support of Trump’s agenda with carefully placed verbal criticism of the president, Kyl doesn’t bother to do this. Kyl defended Trump during the 2016 campaign, blaming his loose rhetoric on the long days on the campaign trail. The farthest he’s gone is calling Trump “loud” and “boisterous,” and saying Trump “could be much more effective” if he wasn’t so “boorish.”

Keen-eyed readers may notice that none of these mild comments are actual criticisms of Trump. That hasn’t stopped several anti-Trump news outlets from referring to Kyl as a “critic” of Trump, or for other outlets to claim Kyl won’t be “jump[ing] on the Trump train anytime soon.”

In fact, Kyl’s been on that train for a while. Early last year, Kyl worked behind the scenes to get Jeff Sessions — one of Trump’s earliest supporters and a man with a checkered history of racism — confirmed as attorney general. Kyl’s now doing the same thing for Trump’s second Supreme Court pick (who, incidentally, McCain also supported). Last year, Kyl also lobbied for Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, on behalf of the Judicial Crisis Network, a right-wing group run by a former clerk for Clarence Thomas.

Kyl once worked for the Mountain States Legal Foundation, the anti-environmental legal group whose first president served as Ronald Reagan’s interior minister, where he prefigured the Trump administration’s current hostility to the environment. Since becoming a lobbyist, Kyl has also lobbied for weapons manufacturers Northrop Grumman and Raytheon, as well as Walmart and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a powerful trade group for the pharmaceutical industry.

One would think supposedly anti-Trump conservatives would oppose a man whose political beliefs not only overlap with Trump’s, but who has quite literally been working to help Trump achieve two of his most significant political victories. One would be wrong.

Jeff Flake, the nominally anti-Trump Republican who made a reputation (and a lot of money) for himself on the back of criticizing Trump while resolutely voting for his policies, called Kyl an “excellent choice” to fill McCain’s seat. McCain’s family, who turned the late senator’s funeral into what one liberal writer called a “Resistance meeting,” have been equally glowing. “I can think of no one better to keep fighting for the country and state [McCain] held so dear,” said his daughter.

The Resistance to this administration is very real. You can see it in the massive crowds that rebelled against Trump’s travel ban, the many thousands who have taken a chance by attending a counter-protests against white supremacists, the activists who confronted administration officials in restaurants and other public spaces, and you can even see it in popular movements like the teacher and prison strikes that bubbled up this year.

But though its exact contours may be hard to define, one thing’s for sure: whatever the Resistance is, this thing that the McCains, Jeff Flake, Jon Kyl, and the rest are part of is certainly not it.