Only one man in Washington, D.C., would be justified in claiming that Brett Kavanaugh’s elevation to the Supreme Court is a vindication of everything he’s stood for throughout his political life, and Brett Kavanaugh isn’t that man. For obvious reasons—like how recently and preposterously his political life began, for starters—neither is President Donald J. Trump, even though Trump is sure to hog all the available credit.
Mitch McConnell will be perfectly content to let POTUS monopolize the preening, because the Senate’s dour Majority Leader isn’t the type to waste his precious time on ego baths. His face isn’t exactly made for euphoria, anyhow. In public, he tends to alternate between coming across like a squid charmlessly trying to impersonate a mailbox and a mailbox soullessly trying to impersonate a squid.
Don’t let his demeanor fool you, though. Turning the Federal judiciary into a fully weaponized subsidiary of the Republican Party’s agenda has been McConnell’s passion since Emma Gonzalez was a zygote, and damned if he hasn’t just pulled it off. If he could, he’d be acting like a squid trying to impersonate a mailbox that’s dancing a jig.
He knows that this, after all, is what will last. Decades after people’s memories have faded of Christine Blasey Ford’s strained voice saying “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter” to the unmoved Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, “Bart O’Kavanaugh” will still be wearing funeral-black judicial robes on the highest court in the land.
Today’s GOP sees government as nothing more than a no-holds-barred contest for supremacy—a zero-sum brawl that’s bereft of any rules.
Even if the Democrats eventually reclaim the other two branches of government, SCOTUS is now the right wing’s semi-permanent firewall. You can say adios to any remaining pretense of nonpartisanship, impartiality, or centrist wisdom that transcends the hot-button political issues of the day. Unless John Roberts reinvents himself as a swing vote to salvage the court’s integrity, which some observers think he just might, it’s going to be like watching the Terminator’s exoskeleton melt off to expose the cyborg underneath.
If anyone was in any doubt after McConnell blandly scuttled precedent two years ago to keep Antonin Scalia’s seat open until Trump, rather than President Obama, could pick his successor, the Kavanaugh hearings also affirmed that today’s GOP sees government as nothing more than a no-holds-barred contest for supremacy—a zero-sum brawl that’s bereft of any rules, principles or traditions that America’s mislabeled “conservative” party still feels obliged to respect. The potential damage to our already reeling institutions’ long-term viability is incalculable, but McConnell plainly couldn’t care less. He’s never concerned himself with any goal higher than keeping right-wingers in power, whether or not their control of the machinery reflects the popular will.
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Even the current, razor-thin GOP Senate majority that put Kavanaugh on the bench doesn’t particularly reflect the popular will. That’s because our sparsely populated red states get to send just as many people to the U.S. Senate as the blue ones that millions more voters call home. The Constitution’s framers were trying to ensure that small states’ wishes wouldn’t always be overwhelmed by the big ones’ clout, but these days the reverse is true. The same imbalance warps the Electoral College, which is why your 2016 vote for president if you’re a MAGA fanatic in Wyoming counted for nearly four times as much as your libtard sister-in-law’s vote in the same election in California.
Nationally, even though Trump and his base don’t believe it, hardcore right-wingers are a distinct minority. But that doesn’t matter to McConnell so long as they’re a ruling minority. Nearly three-fourths of Americans, for instance, don’t want Roe v. Wade overturned, but so what? Unless you’re as easily conned as Susan Collins, whose self-love looked even more pointless than usual during that showboating speech declaring she’d fold up the toy spine she sometimes borrows from Lisa Murkowski and vote in Kavanaugh’s favor, it’s farcical to imagine that our newest Supreme Court justice won’t eagerly vote to do just that.
He’ll probably get the opportunity fairly soon, too, since one or another newly emboldened red-state legislature is sure to pass an anti-abortion law that will scoot right up the pipeline to SCOTUS once it’s challenged. Even if Roberts wanted to prevent that, he couldn’t. Only four justices’ assent is needed to bring a case before the Court, and guess who the fourth one will be.
It’s just as farcical to suppose that Kavanaugh will recuse himself from politically loaded cases that pit leftist groups against conservative ones, despite his now blatantly advertised partisanship—not to mention his likely thirst for revenge on his liberal tormentors. He’s sure to be a solid vote in Trump’s favor if any of Trump’s multiplying legal troubles end up on the Supreme Court’s docket. (His paper trail makes it clear that he believes Democratic presidents can be relentlessly hounded while in office, but Republican ones shouldn’t be.) The rest of the time, he’ll just keep busy doing his bit to shred the social safety net, champion corporate interests, trash worker protections, restrict voting rights, save gerrymandering and the rest of the GOP’s anti-majoritarian and pro-oligarchy dream menu.
A lot of this is equally true of Neil Gorsuch, whose confirmation was as uneventful as Kavanaugh’s was bloody. All but a handful of the Senate’s Democrats voted against Gorsuch, but nobody raised a ruckus about his unfitness for the job or questioned Trump’s right to nominate a judge who’s ideologically in line with him. In Kavanaugh’s case, Blasey Ford’s sexual-assault allegations triggered a display of a simultaneously vindictive and victimized temperament that killed any illusion as to his future judicial objectivity. On top of that, there was ample evidence that he’d lied multiple times to the Judiciary Committee about everything from his youthful drinking habits to trafficking in documents stolen from Democratic lawmakers during his stint in George W. Bush’s White House.
McConnell sees the world through no other lens except what’s good or what’s bad for the GOP, never the United States or the human beings who have to live in it.
Taken together, all of that should have been disqualifying. But it only made Trump, McConnell and the GOP more determined to ram Kavanaugh down the country’s throat—just to prove they could, it seemed. Since Blasey Ford’s story was unmistakably credible, Collins and others had to twist themselves into pretzels to explain that they believed everything she said—except that her assailant was Brett Kavanaugh. (Ask any woman who’s been sexually assaulted by an acquaintance how likely she is to get him mixed up with somebody else.) A lot of the Senate’s Republicans probably knew she was telling the truth about what happened in the summer of 1982, but they were able to put that “hiccup”—Nevada Senator Dean Heller’s word—out of their minds for the sake of getting the right wing’s crucial fifth ideologue on the court.
The nationwide anguish and wrath provoked among women by Kavanaugh’s confirmation didn’t faze McConnell either. He didn’t see why they should have any say in the matter—and indeed, when push came to shove, they didn’t, except for their enraged, despairing screams from the Senate gallery during the final vote. At least Jeff Flake pretended to be fretful about “tearing the country apart” before the FBI’s sham investigation of Blasey Ford’s charges gave him the cover he needed to vote yes. McConnell, on the other hand, openly gloated at the galvanizing effect that the “mob” of protesters flooding Capitol Hill would have on the Republican base come the November midterms. “We are pretty excited,” he told reporters. “They managed to deliver the only thing we hadn’t figured out how to do, which is get our side fired up.”
What kind of man talks that way about sexual-assault survivors, which many if not most of the protesters were? The same kind who reacted to then-CIA director John Brennan’s briefing on Russian interference in the upcoming 2016 election with a peremptory, astounding “You are trying to screw the Republican nominee” and later warned Obama that he’d condemn any attempt to alert the public to Russia’s skulduggery as a partisan ploy. McConnell sees the world through no other lens except what’s good or what’s bad for the GOP, never the United States or the human beings who have to live in it.
The reason that matters is that he’s just demonstrated he’s the second most powerful man in America. In some contexts, he may even be the first. Liberals are often tempted to blame Trump exclusively for the erosion of our democratic norms and the steady dismantling of our institutions. But let’s not forget that McConnell, part of whose job is supposed to be to protect the integrity of those institutions—the Senate itself, if not the Supreme Court—has been the Trump era’s MVP in revving up the wrecking ball. That’s why he may well deserve the title recently bestowed on him by historian Christopher Browning: “the gravedigger of American democracy.” While we don’t want to be alarmists, it probably goes without saying that Browning’s specialty is the history of Nazi Germany.