As of this writing, a video of one of President Trump’s judicial nominees failing to answer basic legal questions from a Republican senator is viral. The clip has 4.7 million views and counting, just from one tweet:
— Sheldon Whitehouse (@SenWhitehouse) December 15, 2017
The clip itself is, well, unbelievable. During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.), asks Matthew Petersen, a nominee for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, several questions to gauge his knowledge of what happens in federal courtrooms.
Take a look at this sample (you can read a full, annotated transcript of the Kennedy-Petersen exchange here):
KENNEDY: Yes, I’ve read your résumé. Just for the record, do you know what a motion in limine is?
PETERSEN: I would probably not be able to give you a good definition right here at the table.
KENNEDY: Do you know what the Younger abstention doctrine is?
PETERSEN: I’ve heard of it, but I, again —
KENNEDY: How about the Pullman abstention doctrine?
PETERSEN: I — I —
KENNEDY: Y’all see that a lot in federal court. Okay, any one of you blog?
The clip works on its own as the closest CSPAN will ever get to an epic “fail” video. But behind this viral exchange is its context: the issue of the Trump administration’s judicial nominees. Earlier this week, two of the president’s most controversial nominees learned they would not be confirmed. One, Brett Talley, had never tried a case and was deemed “unqualified” for the federal bench by the American Bar Association. The other was Jeff Mateer, who said in 2015 that transgender children were evidence of “how Satan’s plan is working.”
What’s happening with judicial nominees for federal courts right now is important, regardless of your political beliefs: A large number of vacancies means that Republicans have a huge opportunity to influence the judiciary with conservative lifetime appointments. And yet, this topic is one that has struggled to capture national attention.
You’d think that a viral moment like the Petersen video might help finally draw that issue into the spotlight. For the #resistance crowd, it’s another “this is not normal” moment of the Trump presidency. For those who wanted Trump to drain the swamp, maybe this brings up questions about what the president is putting in its place.
“If this person becomes the avatar for all the people he’s trying to fill the courts with, then it undermines the confidence in the courts themselves and beyond,” said Michael Cohen, a professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. “I would imagine that by the end of the weekend most of us will have seen this.”
But don’t be so sure that it will stay in our minds.
“The real question is, if everything is viral, is anything viral?” Cohen added. “We’re sort of overwhelmed by viral videos and viral content every day that stuff is really getting lost.”
When working at its best, viral moments like the clip of Kennedy’s questioning can serve as interventions — placing an important topic in front of the eyeballs of those who, perhaps, live in online filter bubbles where judiciary nominations aren’t common fare. But the problem in 2017 is: There are so many of these moments that few really manage to stick. Viral doesn’t mean what it used to mean.
As the Kennedy-Petersen exchange vies for your attention on Friday, so does Trump’s comment about the FBI’s “disgraceful” behavior, the massive tax code overhaul in Congress, and a trolling tweet by Ann Coulter. And all of these moments of varying importance come at the end of a very long week, in a very long month, in a very long year.
By the time you finish reading this piece, the Kennedy video might still be viral. Or its spot could be taken up by something else, sending the clip down into 2017’s crowded purgatory of important moments we cared about for about eight hours.