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Opinion Republicans make Ketanji Brown Jackson’s hearing all about their own victimhood

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) makes a point during the second day of Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson's confirmation hearing. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Republicans know they can’t stop Ketanji Brown Jackson from being confirmed to the Supreme Court. Since they don’t hold a majority in the Senate, they cannot simply refuse to allow her nomination to be considered. Given her sterling record and lack of disqualifying misconduct, they won’t be able to turn any Democrats against her.

What they can do is use her confirmation hearings for other political purposes, as both parties always do in these situations. Some Republicans have chosen to do so with bad-faith attacks on Jackson; Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), in an apparent attempt to secure the QAnon vote when he runs for president, tore a few sentences in previous rulings and writings out of context to make the repulsive accusation that she is “soft” on child porn.

But so far, their clearest focus has been on their own victimization. You may be under the hot lights and being cross-examined, they are telling Jackson, but we are the real victims here.

You can see it in the multiple times senators have brought up prior judicial nominees who were either deprived of their supposedly deserved place on the high court or mistreated by cruel Democrats before taking their seats. The average voter may not recognize all the names in the GOP’s parade of decades-old judicial martyrs (Miguel Estrada, Janice Rogers Brown), but the activist base knows them, if only as victims of some long-ago Democratic treachery.

It all culminates with Brett Kavanaugh, the victim to beat all victims, his name invoked again and again. How can the poor Supreme Court justice even bear to get out of bed in the morning, knowing only that he’s a hero to his party and will be making the country’s laws for the next 30 years or so? What a nightmare it must be for him.

So GOP senators repeated again and again that they would never abuse Jackson the way Kavanaugh was treated. “You’re the beneficiary of Republican nominees having their lives turned upside down,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told her, adding that “Most of us couldn’t go back to our offices during Kavanaugh without getting spit on.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) agreed, telling Jackson that “No one is going to inquire into your teenage dating habits,” though “dating habits” is an interesting way to refer to what Kavanaugh was accused of. “We won’t get down in the gutter like Democrats did during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa).

To all this umbrage, one might respond, “Let us know when Jackson is credibly accused of sexual assault.” But this has nothing to do with her. The point is that Republicans know the sense of victimhood ties their entire movement together, and the more it is nurtured, the greater their chances of keeping that movement mobilized in November’s midterm elections, the 2024 presidential campaign, and everything that happens between and beyond.

So of course this has become yet another forum for Republicans to claim victim status, given the absolutely central place this occupies in their political project.

As conservatives have learned well in recent years, in the right circumstances, adopting the stance of victimhood can be thrilling, particularly if you don’t have to suffer any actual victimization along the way. You can take the normal unpleasantness that comes with politics — having people disagree with you, or watching as a figure you admire gets criticized in ways you consider unfair — and turn it into something noble, profound, even epic.

Are people calling me a jerk for something repugnant I said? I’m not a jerk, I’m a victim of cancel culture, persecuted for my devotion to free expression! Are people opposing my legislation to ban books and target the families of transgender kids? I’m a victim of the woke mob! Proclaim yourself a victim and not only do you become the hero of the story, you can claim moral absolution for your own grimy choices.

And of course, no one claims to be a victim more than the leader of the Republican Party, Donald Trump, who seems to whine endlessly about everyone who has done him wrong, whether it’s the media that doesn’t give him sufficient adulation, the dozens of women who have accused him of sexual misconduct, the prosecutors who investigate him for possible crimes, or the electorate that denied him a second term.

In his 2016 campaign, Trump taught all Republicans the power of the victimization narrative. He told voters they were the victims of a “rigged” system, of immigrants, of outsiders, of racial minorities, of “elites.” Your hate and resentment is not ugly and shameful, he said; you’ve earned it by the injustices visited upon you. Be proud of it, wield it like a weapon, and know that you’re in the right.

So Jackson will have to suffer through a few more sessions of Republicans beating their breasts about the terrible trials they have endured, with the gripping tale of Kavanaugh, that modern-day Job, told again and again.

Throughout, Republicans will congratulate themselves for how graciously they are conducting themselves. Even though the most gracious person in the room is the nominee sitting in front of them, patiently listening to all their nonsense.