The Bracing Clarity Provided By the Kavanaugh and Graham Meltdowns

by Neil H. Buchanan

Although it has been a depressing spectacle, the Brett Kavanaugh controversy has provided a few possible upsides.  This seems, for example, to have become a breakthrough moment in which many more people have come to understand why women (and men) who are the victims of sexual abuse do not immediately (or, in many cases, ever) report the crimes.  That alone is a major cultural shift.

On the more cynical side, it is a plus of sorts to watch Republicans shift from a stance that in the recent past would have seen them blatantly saying, "I don't believe her," to now saying essentially, "I believe her, but I don't care."  Just as it is a positive thing for racists to understand that it is bad to admit openly to racism, there is something positive about the social realities that have led to this newer version of Republican misogyny -- especially because their new approach is more obviously cruel, even though it is unspoken.

And of course, we are still facing the reality that either Kavanaugh or an ideological clone will soon be on the Supreme Court.  This means that it might be better for non-Republicans for Kavanaugh to win this battle, because he will be permanently tainted, and because a successful Republican effort to ram him through will be a net plus for the Democrats in the mid-terms.  (It is true that permanently undermining the legitimacy of the courts is bad for everyone but the most powerful, but this is arguably a "get it out in the open" moment in which we might as well admit that we have passed the point of no return.  I take no position on that debate here.)

The most unexpectedly positive (yet still cynical) aspect of this entire debacle, however, is that Kavanaugh provides definitive proof that the Republicans were not "taken over by Trump," which has become the conventional wisdom (and which I have believed to varying degrees at different times over the past two years).

Kavanaugh predates Trump, and thinking about Kavanaugh's very public self-unmasking highlights just how much the Republican party was already the party of Trump, long before 2016.  And when Senator Lindsey Graham decided to go all in on white male grievance and win-at-all-costs hypocrisy, the picture could not have been clearer.

As much as I have admired various aspects of the NeverTrump movement, I have always cringed at their insistence that theirs was a party that respected ideas and that the Republican Party was not a lost cause until Trump came along.  Their insistence on talking about how wonderful Ronald Reagan was, or how decent George H. W. Bush is, has always rested on ignoring the ugly racial and gender politics of the conservative movement.

Stoking the Southern Strategy, Reagan went to Philadelphia, Mississippi and Bitburg, Germany (egged on by Pat Buchanan), dog-whistling his way to flipping the Dixiecrats permanently into the Republicans' most passionate base voters.  Bush ran a blatantly racist campaign, turning an unexceptional state prison furlough program into a wedge issue to frighten white voters into thinking that Democrats wanted to unleash black men to murder their way through suburbia.

And given that the Kavanaugh hearings have caused us to revisit the ugly Clarence Thomas Supreme Court fight, let us not forget that it was the first Bush who nominated him and stuck with him to the bitter end.  Less consequentially, but still ominously, Bush caved to the proto-Trumpian forces in his party to put Dan Quayle in the Vice President's residence (and kept him on the ticket in 1992) -- a premonition of John McCain's decision to run with Sarah Palin in 2008.

Beyond presidential politics, the emergence of Newt Gingrich's viciously negative politics in the late 1980's did not lead to a backlash or a pendulum swing among Republicans.  His attacks on expertise, bipartisanship, and basic governing norms were at least as serious in context as what George W. Bush and Dick Cheney tried to do in the 2000's, yet there was no NeverGingrich or NeverBush crowd claiming that the Republicans were better than that.

At best, then, the NeverTrumpers are conveniently ignoring just how far gone their party had become, long before Trump came along.  When trying to defend their supposed conservative principles now, they resort to vague platitudes that in no way distinguish them from liberals.  For example, when Eliot Cohen recently lamented the Republicans' supposed abandonment of conservatism,  he claimed that "[t]he conservative is warier than her liberal counterpart about the darker impulses and desires that lurk in men and women."

What Cohen apparently intends is to invoke the old trope that liberals are naive do-gooders who think that we can just get people to be nice to each other, which was always a ridiculous distortion.  But even if that were accurate, the reality is that liberals are actually quite concerned about "darker impulses and desires."  We understand, for example, that concentrations of wealth are not benign and that counting on rich people to create a "kinder, gentler" world through their charitable generosity is a fool's game.

Moreover, liberals know that wealthy people will use their power to hold onto and increase their wealth, most importantly by corrupting the political system.  Yet I am not aware of a longstanding critique on the right about, say, Citizens United being a naive decision that ignores the darker impulses and desires of those who have backed AstroTurf groups and manipulated Tea Party populists.

Suspicion of people's failings is not a liberal or conservative matter.  When Cohen then says that "[w]ords like responsibility, stoicism, self-control, frugality, fidelity, decorum, honor, character, independence, and integrity ... come particularly easily to" conservatives, he is engaged in a self-satisfied rant that implies that his cohorts are somehow more pure than everyone else.  The reality is that each of those words has multiple meanings, and the difference between liberals and conservatives is not in how much they believe in those virtues but in how they define them and prioritize them.

The fact is that, although I do appreciate some NeverTrumpers' willingness to come out clearly and say that the Republicans must lose in 2020, they are rather late to this game.  And they truly are an isolated group.  George W. Bush -- a frequent target of Trump who would seem to have both the position and the inclination to say that things have gone too far -- is instead out raising funds for House and Senate Republicans this year.

Similarly, former Senator John Danforth, who used his reputation for piety to push through Clarence Thomas's nomination in 1991, has said that he feels "terribly sorry for Kavanaugh" and thinks that both Thomas and Kavanaugh are victims.

Like Bush, Danforth will never run for office again, and he thus has nothing to fear from the Republican base.  Still, both are defaulting to party loyalty, even though they are supposedly the people who should be the most unhappy about a hostile takeover of the sort that Trump is said to have pulled off.

All of which brings us back to Kavanaugh and Graham.  Their twin performances at last Thursday's hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee made it crystal clear that what is happening here is not a Trumpian thing.  This is what the Republicans have been building toward for decades.  And as an aside, although it is icky that Graham has invoked his late friend John McCain in recent days, I actually believe Graham when he says that McCain would have exploded even more violently than Graham did last week.  McCain was willing to play the tribalist game as much as anyone.

Kavanaugh, in his prepared remarks, threw away all pretense and revealed himself to be an unrepentant culture warrior.  A new article in Current Affairs exhaustively -- and, at over 11,000 words, exhaustingly -- documents "How We Know Kavanaugh Is Lying."  As cynical as I have become over the years, it is still possible to feel a loss of innocence when seeing someone lie as shamelessly as Kavanaugh did.  Trump, of course, loved it.

Beyond the lies large and small, it is depressing to observe the sheer arrogance of lying in ways that make it clear that Kavanaugh thinks people are gullible idiots.  He spewed gratuitous lies about drinking games and other jaw-droppers, to say nothing of his willingness to conflate a potential witness's "I'm not aware of that happening" with "It didn't happen."  (Presumably, he did not make that mistake when he was "working [his] butt off" to get into Yale Law School.)

The most revealing aspect of Kavanaugh's rant, however, was his call-back to the 1990's and the culture wars, somehow finding the hand of the Clintons in his troubles.  He knows that he was a party apparatchik, and he expects payback from others in exactly the same way that he and his brethren inflict payback on their opponents.  This is, again, pre-Trumpian and is firmly rooted in the toxic soil that Reagan, Bush, Gingrich, and Cheney/Bush left behind.

And Graham?  He has perfected the comedic stylings of outraged hypocrisy.  He, more loudly and bitterly than his colleagues, complained about the "timing" of the allegations against Kavanaugh.  I use scare quotes there because the Republicans' complaint is that the Democrats refused to respect a schedule that Republicans manipulated in the first place in order to gain advantage in the midterms.  "You can't change the schedule for partisan gain," Graham essentially says.  "Only we can change the schedule for partisan gain."

Most egregiously, however, Graham actually complained that the Democrats might be engaged in a delaying game in order to keep a Supreme Court seat open until after the 2020 election.  He might as well have said, "Hey, that's our move, and Neil Gorsuch thanks us for it every day.  You go find a move of your own."

All of this is happening in the Trump era, but both Kavanaugh and Graham are long-term players in the conservative movement and have been doing this kind of thing for their entire careers.  The Federalist Society is ecstatic about Kavanaugh's and Graham's performances last Thursday, and National Review is acting as if Kavanaugh's carefully shaped image as a neutral arbiter and objective judge have not been completely destroyed by his unforced decision to come out as a partisan who believes that "what goes around comes around."

None of this is good, of course.  I do, however, think that there is something positive in seeing the inner workings of the conservative movement laid bare.  Conservatives were always Trumpian, and now even their supposedly respectable jurists and senators are eagerly and proudly showing themselves to be willing to put their quest for power above all else.  It is now beyond all doubt.