The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Republican Supreme Court strategy: A phony tale of victimhood

President Trump applauds after announcing the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court in the Rose Garden of the White House on Saturday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Republicans are about to slide a Supreme Court nominee through confirmation just weeks before an election, giving them a 6-3 majority on the court despite the fact that they’ve lost the popular vote in six of the past seven presidential elections. That will give them the ability to impose their incredibly unpopular agenda on the country, but there’s something they want us all to know:

They’re the victims here.

Here’s the truth about the argument over Amy Coney Barrett: Democrats have decided to all but ignore Barrett herself. Prepared for this moment her entire career as she was pumped through the Federalist Society pipeline, her far-right views are as predictable as the lengths she will go to obfuscate them during her confirmation hearings. So Democrats are focusing on what a 6-3 conservative majority means, especially the possibility that it will strike down the Affordable Care Act, throwing our entire health care system into chaos.

The nomination of Amy Coney Barrett

But when Republicans begin strategizing for any political conflict, the first and most important question they ask is, “How can we get our base angry?” And experience has taught them that the shortest route to anger is through feelings of victimization.

So they are trying to manufacture a phony controversy, in which they claim Democrats are attacking Barrett for being Catholic. An assault on religious faith! Part of the secular conspiracy! Get mad about this! You don’t have to look far to find conservatives spinning tales of this imaginary onslaught of religious bigotry, from columnists to right-wing websites to the Trump campaign to one GOP senator after another.

Follow Paul Waldman's opinionsFollow

That’s despite the fact that Democrats are not actually attacking Barrett’s religion. The best Republicans can come up with as evidence of this fictitious campaign against Barrett’s faith is one remark Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) made at Barrett’s appeals court confirmation three years ago or a stray tweet from some random liberal citizen.

In the real world, Democrats know they are essentially powerless to stop Barrett’s ascension, so their strategy is built on making Republicans pay at the ballot box for the unpopular ways the court will shift American law to the right.

But that will not deter Republicans from running a very familiar playbook in which their court nominee is not only themselves a victim, but also becomes a vessel through which every conservative is supposed to experience their own victimhood, then turn that victimhood into anger.

We saw it with Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination: After Christine Blasey Ford’s affecting testimony (where she maintained her emotional control, as she knew she had to), then-White House Counsel Donald McGahn told Kavanaugh how to save his nomination: He had to get angry. McGahn was right: When Kavanaugh let loose with a positively unhinged display of emotion, Republicans embraced it with a kind of joyous rage, matching Kavanaugh’s fury with their own.

Just like Clarence Thomas, who 27 years before had cowed the Senate Judiciary Committee by telling them they were engaged in “a high-tech lynching,” Kavanaugh turned himself from accused victimizer into innocent victim, his elevation to a lifetime perch on the high court not for a moment reducing the magnitude of the injustice conservatives believe to this day that he suffered. During that confirmation fight, Republicans repeatedly invoked Thomas and Robert Bork, supposedly also victims.

The performative display of victimhood is one of the defining features of today’s GOP, and nobody embodies it more than the whiner in chief, constantly complaining about how everyone is so unfair to him — Democrats, the media, prosecutors, tax authorities, everyone.

Trump might hold the most powerful job on Earth, but that doesn’t mean he’ll stop complaining that his toilet isn’t powerful enough or that Canadian television cut his cameo out of “Home Alone 2” to make room for commercials. Or that when he was impeached for his corruption of American foreign policy, it was a “lynching,” a characterization not too offensive to be endorsed by Republicans such as Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), who said, “This is a lynching in every sense.” Yes, every sense.

This is not a strategy meant to persuade anyone who doesn’t have their minds made up; its purpose is to spur the Republican base to exercise its wrath. The politicians and pundits promoting it know that for years, conservatives have built for themselves a narrative in which not only are they held down and oppressed by a society bent on their destruction, but their victimhood is heroic.

Besieged on all sides, firm in their principles, they fight a righteous battle against the forces of evil, as though having a “Happy Holidays” sign pass before their eyes on a trip to the mall is the equivalent of spending a decade in the gulag. They’re not George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door; they’re George Washington standing up to King George.

What they won’t allow themselves to see, however, is that the politicians who get them riled up by telling them that “we are moving rapidly toward the criminalization of Christianity” see them as nothing more than gullible marks.

When Barrett is on the court, she’ll join in rulings that will give them emotional satisfaction — eviscerating abortion rights, allowing conservative Christians to discriminate against LGBTQ people and otherwise promoting the culture war. But the most important beneficiaries of the conservative majority will be the same as those who benefit from Republican control of the other two branches of government: corporations and the wealthy.

That’s where most of the real work of the court will be done. And if all goes according to plan, the Republican base will be so blinded by anger they won’t even see it.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Joe Biden for president

Jonathan Capehart: Let Biden go ballistic against Trump at the debate

Helaine Olen: Let’s hope Trump’s plans to steal the election are as effective as his legislative agenda

Colbert I. King: Clarence Thomas should recuse himself if the Supreme Court has to decide the election

Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s Supreme Court nominee

President Trump has nominated federal appellate judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Barrett testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. The committee has formally set a panel to vote on her nomination for Oct. 22.

Who is Amy Coney Barrett? A disciple of Justice Antonin Scalia is poised to push the Supreme Court further right

What happens next: Here’s how the confirmation process for Barrett will unfold

Whip count: Where GOP senators stand on quickly filling Ginsburg’s Supreme Court seat