Brett Kavanaugh is not the only conservative jurist in America with a Supreme Court-ready resume. Indeed, Kavanaugh was not even on the initial shortlist of potential Trump SCOTUS picks, added only later and ultimately selected against the advice of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for somewhat mysterious reasons.
But whether Kavanaugh was picked to tempt Justice Anthony Kennedy into retirement with the assurance that his replacement would be a former clerk or due to some private signal of idiosyncratic interest to President Donald Trump is, at this point, immaterial. The point is that from the standpoint of the broader conservative movement he is not irreplaceable.
Conservatives have a robust theory of the jurisprudence of plutocracy and a well-developed and well-financed infrastructure to help them reliably identify judges who will reliably rule in the ways that they want. If a Republican senator or three were to demand that the White House yank Kavanaugh and instead put forward the name of a judge who has not been credibly accused of any attempted rapes, it wouldn’t be hard to meet the demand.
The real problem — and a much more severe one — is that if credible accusations of sexual assault are disqualifying, then the fact that more than a dozen women have leveled credible accusations against Donald Trump disqualify him from the presidency.
Republicans have decided that Trump can’t be held accountable for anything — ranging from the alleged groping of Jill Hart, to creepy peeping at teenage beauty pageant contestants, to the numerous acts of grand and petty financial corruption that he continues to be involved with as president of the United States. And now the party is no longer in much of a position to hold anyone accountable for anything.
That cascading tide of low standards ends up tripping the GOP up, as when they saddled themselves in Alabama with Roy Moore as their candidate. And it’s tripped them up now, as they are best-case scenario going to have the contentious confirmation of a historically unpopular Supreme Court nominee as their main achievement of 2018.
But it also has toxic repercussions throughout society, as forms of bad behavior that earlier would have festered in secret now become justified and normalized in the eyes of rank-and-file conservatives.
Republicans gave up on holding Trump accountable
Back in October of 2016, Trump was famously caught on tape confiding to a casual acquaintance that “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”
The confession was swiftly backed up by more than a dozen specific allegations. Some of them, like the various dressing room incidents at beauty pageants, don’t necessarily involve breaking any laws. But Mindy McGillivray says Trump groped her behind after an event at Mar-a-Lago when she was 23, and former Miss Finland Ninni Laaksonen recalls a similar incident from 2006, telling the Ilta-Sanomat newspaper “he really grabbed my butt.”
Cassandra Searles, the 2003 Miss Washington, said Trump “grabbed my ass” and repeatedly invited her up to his hotel room. Jessica Leeds recalls getting an upgrade to first class on a business flight, being seated next to Trump who proceeded to grab her breasts and tried to reach up her skirt “like an octopus.” Trump has continued to deny these allegations.
At the time these accusations were swirling, a significant minority of Republicans took them very seriously. A dozen Senate Republicans — including some moderate ones, but also fussy family values types like Mike Lee (R-UT) and Ben Sasse (R-NE) — took the extraordinary step of saying they wouldn’t vote for their party’s nominee. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) even hatched a plan to fully disavow Trump after the election, denouncing not just his specific acts of misconduct but his entire politics of racial demagoguery, as part of a larger plan to rebuild the Republican Party.
But when Trump unexpectedly won the election, all these doubts vanished. None of Trump’s accusers was ever invited to testify before Congress to try to force the body to confront the meaning of the accusations against him. There is no Robert Mueller of the sexual assault allegations, and Summer Zervos’s ongoing lawsuit against Trump has played out quietly with little attention.
And rather than hold Trump once in office to an unusually high standard of conduct, as befitting a man whose fitness for office Republicans professed to question during the campaign, they’ve consistently lowered the bar for him.
No effort has been made by congressional Republicans to hold him to his campaign-era promises to separate his official conduct from his businesses, and every effort has been expended by them to prevent Democrats from forcing any meaningful financial disclosure.
Republicans have decided, essentially uniformly, that the future of the conservative movement hinges on the political success of Donald Trump, and that requires them all to participate in an ongoing multi-faceted coverup of his bad behavior both past and present. The consequences of that decision are both predictable and toxic.
The fish is rotting from the head
Politicians of both parties have a tendency to occasionally mess up and get in trouble with the law.
But Alayna Treene of Axios noted over the weekend that an important partisan divide is opening up in this regard. Because Trump has taken to wielding wild “deep state” conspiracy theories to excuse his own misconduct, and because Republican politicians and conservative media largely back him up on this, now other Republicans in legal or ethical hot water make the same claims of persecution.
Once upon a time, Republicans’ thought rumors of an ethically dubious affair made Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) unsuitable for leadership. These days, the charges against McCarthy seem almost comically mild and the controversy is entirely forgotten. The leading alternative to McCarthy for the top spot in House GOP leadership, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), is enmeshed in a giant Ohio state sexual abuse scandal that Jordan’s allies are dismissing as a conspiracy against him.
One short-term consequence of this is simply to consistently make Republicans look bad in the eyes of everyone who isn’t a dedicated Fox News viewer.
But the longer-term consequence is to actually encourage corrupt, unethical, and otherwise scandalize behavior on the part of Republican Party elected officials. The impunity that congressional Republicans directed upward at Trump has begun to spread upward, downward, and outward, turning conservative politics into a standards-free zone.
And while that will cost them some elections, it won’t change the fact that conservatism has an enduring social base in the United States. It’s simply going to encourage more bad behavior from both politicians and rank-and-file people.
Trump is corrupting America
In the immediate wake of the election, white students from Michigan to Texas began using chants of “build the wall” as racially motivated bullying tactics against students of color. It’s doubtful that Trump is exactly changing what’s in people’s hearts with regard to race. But by pushing the boundaries of overtly racist rhetoric — and getting away with it — Trump is successfully changing how people think it’s acceptable to behave.
And in the case of Kavanaugh we are seeing something similar develop with regard to sexual assault. The judge himself denies the charges against him, but many of his allies are ready to go aggressively with the stronger claim that to team up with a buddy and try to rape a 15-year-old is normal high school party fun and not worth getting too worked up about.
I do not understand why the loutish drunken behavior of a 17 year old high school boy has anything to tell us about the character of a 53 year old judge. By God’s grace (literally), I am not the same person I was at 17. This is a terrible standard to establish in public life.
— Rod Dreher (@roddreher) September 17, 2018
Others are saying that women should just be disbelieved en masse, since accusations are simply cheap talk that anyone might concoct.
Honestly, at this point, the GOP has to go to the wall for Kavanaugh or the Dems will have fully weaponized mere allegations as a method to destroy credible nominees. The precedent would be set and be too dangerous to future nominees. And we know the Dems would defend their own.
— Erick Erickson (@EWErickson) September 17, 2018
The jurisprudential difference between Kavanaugh and a non-Kavanaugh Trump appointee is likely to be minimal. But there are dire consequences for American society if we accept the line conservative pundits Rod Dreher and Erick Erickson argue — that assaults are no big deal and should be forgiven even without the accuser even showing contrition, and that victims should be dismissed as liars.
Sexual harassment is a real, large-scale problem in American society. And from what we know about it, one big slice of the problem is that victims who speak up more often than not face retaliation, which is both wrong on its own terms and is also obviously discouraging victims from reporting.
And while superficial harassment prevention training doesn’t work, bystander intervention training does appear to work. That’s good to know, and it’s great news that more companies around the country are starting to take bystander training seriously as a way of improving their workplaces.
The problem, however, is that training takes place in a larger cultural context. And the Trump-era Republican Party has become essentially an enormous bystander anti-intervention training, sending consistent messages that impunity — at least for the right kind of perpetrators — should be the order of the day.