In a 40-plus-minute speech on the Senate floor, Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins did precisely what many had suspected she would do all along: She announced her support for Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, opening the way for Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) to cast a “safe” vote in support as well. What was surprising was the length, incoherence and self-delusion evident in Collins’s oration. She waxed lyrical about his devotion to the law, suggested he could be another Justice David Souter and proclaimed that he would de-politicize the court. She believed Christine Blasey Ford, but not as much as she believed Kavanaugh. (Huh?!) She insinuated that the appearance of questionable claims against Kavanaugh made Ford’s allegation less credible. It’s one thing to cast a safe vote; it’s another to embarrass oneself and sound gullible about a nominee who revealed his partisan stripes.
With the benefit of hindsight, I suspect we will come to view the confirmation process for Kavanaugh in much the same way we view Donald Trump’s election: One side understands the national id, while the other hopes, somehow, to tap into a sense of national indignation or righteousness that will pull us back and restrain our worst impulses. In the end, tribalism usually wins.
Republicans tried for a time to make reasoned arguments for Kavanaugh based on experience. They whined about late-breaking facts when Ford’s letter became public. Ultimately, Republicans knew they could not prevail that way. They’ve fed their base a steady diet of anger and resentment; they now cannot subsist without it. As in 2016, Republicans had to electrify their base and make supporting Kavanaugh not only acceptable but indeed necessary for Republicans’ political survival. That meant smearing the victim, raging at the media and appealing to white male resentment.
There was no norm Republicans would not shred, no insult or argument they would be ashamed to make. This is “a scary time” for men, President Trump said. On its face that’s absurd, but by now Republicans are practiced in pretending that absurd things are true and that criticism of inanities denotes their opponents’ lack of goodwill. Insult the victim? Check! Put a judicial nominee on Fox News? Sure! Write an op-ed to not-exactly-apologize? Of course! Throw a temper tantrum and then excuse it because he’s a father, a son and a husband? Yep! Make up a nonsense theory about mistaken identity? You bet!
Republicans defendingf Kavanaugh made one silly argument after another. Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) insisted that not confirming him would mean he was guilty. Thunk. Well, does elevating him mean Ford was a liar? Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) insisted on a reopened FBI background check because he owed it to the survivor community. Well, apparently he owed them a half-baked investigation that excluded sensitive topics and exempted witnesses, including the accused. (Imagine the FBI, in any other matter, having access to the accused and refusing to interview him or her.) The arguments did not matter. They don’t these days for the Republicans. That is why you saw Republican senators screaming so frequently over the last week or so. The last thing they wanted was a reasoned discussion. They whip up the base with monosyllabic words and empty catchphrases. Con! Scam! Hit job!
The tragic part is that in this case, a sitting federal judge agreed to take part in the histrionics. He didn’t have to go on Fox News. He didn’t have to rant about a Clintonian plot. He didn’t have to sneer at and rebuff senators. He did it because it was the only way to get what he wanted. Collins’s speech and vote, I fear, will one day be looked upon as the beginning of the end of the majesty and credibility of the Supreme Court. We will have to think long and hard about how to rescue it from the damage inflicted by Collins and her party.