The post-Kavanaugh political conversation has been dominated by Donald Trump's effort -- gleefully supported by Republicans -- to turn the recent confirmation process into a political rallying cry. As The Washington Post's Paul Waldman explained, the new Republican talking point is a version of what both Kavanaugh himself and Lindsey Graham shouted at the Judiciary Committee's Democrats: You're all power hungry, angry political animals!
The Republicans are now claiming that "mobs" of Democrats swarmed the Capitol and tried to "destroy" a completely honest and decent man. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford was, at best, mistaken in identifying her attempted rapist (if it happened at all), and George Soros is behind it all. It plays like a mash-up of the Republicans favorite slanders of Democrats and deepens Republicans' claims of victimhood.
There are many angles from which to analyze this new development, obviously including the Republicans' revival of the International Jewish Conspiracy (via Soros), as The Post's Catherine Rampell describes clearly and chillingly.
Here, I will focus on the paranoid aspects of the Republicans' increasingly deranged mindset. They have, I think, finally reached the point where they will say or do literally anything for political advantage, with no concern whatsoever about whether there is a basis in reality for anything that they say. They are convincing each other that they are the victims of a swirl of conspiracies, and they have all become true believers.
In The New York Times, Paul Krugman wrote earlier this week about "The Paranoid Style in G.O.P. Politics," an homage to Richard Hofstadter's famous 1964 essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." As it happens, I have written about that essay with surprising frequency over the last few years (see, e.g., these examples on Dorf on Law and on Verdict), because the echoes of Hofstadter are becoming deafening in Trump's Republican Party.
Before getting there, however, I should note -- for the zillionth time -- the reliably ridiculous attempts by non-Republican writers to prove their supposed neutrality by criticizing Democrats. Even in the context of condemning the Republicans' tactics in the Kavanaugh fight, for example, the editorial board of The Times felt it necessary to say that "Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee ... tainted the process by bringing forward damaging allegations against Judge Kavanaugh only at the last minute."
How many times will that argument be rolled out? "The last minute" was defined arbitrarily by the Republicans, who were in an unseemly rush to ram Kavanaugh through before the midterm elections for partisan advantage. Democrats' were under no obligation to respect that timeline. And surely the editors know why the allegations came out when they did: Democrats were respecting Dr. Blasey's wishes, and they only proceeded when she went public after her name came out in a leak.
Moreover, even if the editors believe the Republican conspiracy theory that Democrats as a group held the information and leaked it strategically, so what? How did that "taint the process"?
Similarly, one of The Post's top editorial page editors, Ruth Marcus, chided Democrats for even raising the issue of whether Kavanaugh committed perjury. Weirdly, especially because Marcus went to law school (Harvard, in fact), she says that it is "overwrought partisanship to talk about Kavanaugh’s statements in the language of perjury, a crime involving technical elements of materiality and mens rea, the intentional telling of an untruth."
Huh? Is she saying that "technical elements" of a crime are never provable in cases where there are, in her words, "disputed recollections" and "lawyerly evasions"? Is she saying that when Kavanaugh lied about his drinking or his work on judicial nominations during George W. Bush's misbegotten presidency, no trier of fact could be convinced that those lies were material or that he knew that what he was saying was false?
No, the real message is that Democrats are the ones who are at fault even when they are responding to Republican's hardball tactics. If Democrats dare to think about something that would make Marcus politically uncomfortable, then they must be shouted down with a few inapt legalistic phrases to make them sound extreme.
It is not, therefore, as though the Republicans do not have plenty of help from the supposedly liberal establishment. Liberals and Democrats have always been crippled by a sense that they dare not even consider pushing the edges of the envelope, much less doing something bold. Too many Democrats are willing to join Republicans in blaming Democrats.
But what is especially egregious here is the particular situation in which these purported voices of reason are calling the Democrats too extreme. It is one thing to argue that, say, the Democrats should not have eliminated the filibuster for non-Supreme Court confirmations when they were last in power in the Senate. I disagree with that critique, but it is at least a plausible criticism of how Democrats wielded power.
Now, however, Republicans and liberal pearl-clutchers alike are sneering at the Democrats when the Democrats have no power to stop the Republicans.
Back in the 1990's, Republicans in New Jersey won veto-proof majorities in both chambers of the state legislature as part of a backlash against Democratic Governor James Florio's progressive education reforms. The new Republican leader of the Senate then angrily said that Florio must "get out of the way" and let Republicans do the voters' bidding.
But of course Florio was no longer in the way. All Republicans had to do was pass their bills. And in 2018, we have national Republicans screaming at Democrats for stopping them from doing what they have in fact done.
For example, having been stonewalled by Republicans' implacable refusal to provide what used to be standard background material on Kavanaugh, Senator Corey Booker arguably took a real risk and released some relevant documents, knowing that he was violating the rules of the Senate. A bold move?
Not according to many supposed liberals, who decided to mischaracterize and mock Booker's reference to the film "Spartacus." This is quite distinct from, for example, the measured approach taken by Professor Dorf, who accurately described Booker's actions as more likely motivated by presidential ambitions (and not in fact all that risky). The difference is when people make the added move of saying that Democrats were abusing their power and point to Booker as proof.
It is that aspect of the Republicans' attack on Democrats' supposed perfidy that connects to Hofstadter's analysis of political paranoia. I remain fascinated by Hofstadter's description of how politically paranoid people describe their enemy: "a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving."
What makes this so bizarre now is, again, that the Democrats have no power. Senator Booker was admitting as much in clear terms, because the Republicans had taken total control and denied all requests by Democrats to run a fairer process. How is that Trump and the Republicans can walk around saying that they are the victims of the Democrats' abuse of imaginary powers?
I wrote my most recent rumination on Hofstadter's essay barely four months ago, and I began the column with this paragraph:
"Part of Donald Trump's strategy for survival, as even his own strategists now admit, is to ramp up the anger among his base by trying to make them think that everyone who is against Trump is dishonest and corrupt. That strategy in turn is based in large part on portraying the non-Trump world -- not just the media and academia but anyone who disagrees with Trump -- as part of an alien force that hates Trump's supporters."I also noted that "this right-wing sense of paranoid isolation had long since become obvious even when the 'normal' Republican Party was still intact." That is, this is not a Trumpian phenomenon. It is what Republicans have been doing for years. The two examples that I noted in that column included the five Supreme Court justices' paranoid description (in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case) of completely unexceptional comments as evidence of hostility to religion, along with a popular lie on the right that Democratic staffers insisted on being vaccinated before going to a NASCAR rally. I kid you not.
Paranoia, in short, has long infused movement conservatism. But that does not mean that Trump does not provide any value-added in the production of enhanced, designer paranoia. Now, according to Trump, the entire #MeToo movement has made it a "scary time" to be a man. Now, the Democrats' efforts to provide more due process for Kavanaugh and Blasey are taken as proof that liberals wanted to railroad this poor, defenseless man.
The best part of paranoia, of course, is that logic does not make a dent in it. Indeed, it cannot. Democrats might not seem to have power, you see, but that is because they are sinister and cruel geniuses. They are ubiquitous, meaning that they lurk even in places where they apparently are absent. That is what an amoral superman does. Hofstadter would be saddened to be proved right.
This is why Graham's angry rant against the Democrats at the second Kavanaugh hearing was ultimately off point. He snarled that he hoped that Democrats would never achieve power, because they would abuse it if they ever had a chance. Trump knows that the better way to excite the truly paranoid is to tell them that that is already happening. Who cares if it is all a fantasy?