The Supreme Court is serving as a stage for its highest ideals and deepest terrorsby Diane Roberts / October 10, 2018 / Leave a comment
The rage is palpable. For the American right, Brett Kavanaugh’s elevation to the United States Supreme Court is, among other things, overdue vengeance for one of their heroes, Robert Bork, the ultraconservative who failed to win a seat in 1987, and a cementing of “America First” nationalism, installing a Trumpist who’ll wield power long after Trump himself is gone. They hope the court that legalised same sex marriage and protected women’s right to choose will now be empowered to restrict gay rights and overturn the 45-year-old Roe v. Wade decision, as well as, while they’re at it, restrict citizenship, loosen environmental protections and lift prohibitions on religion in public schools. The US now has the most reactionary court since the 1930s.
Trump supporters could not be happier, though happiness for them is often expressed as howling ire. They’re fuming over what they see as Democrats’ defamation of an upstanding, beer-loving Christian, and promise payback come the midterm elections on 6th November. For their part, Democrats are incandescent with fury at Kavanaugh’s rushed confirmation—they still resent the way Republicans refused to allow a hearing for Merrick Garland, Barack Obama’s 2016 Supreme Court nominee. They’re disgusted by Republicans’ dismissive attitude toward Christine Blasey Ford, who says Kavanaugh assaulted her at a high school party, and appalled at Kavanaugh’s weeping, shouting, paranoid and partisan tantrum, accusing the left of “revenge on behalf of the Clintons.” Democrats point to the FBI’s rather thin investigation of the charges against Kavanaugh, a process dictated by the White House. It seems the Bureau was not allowed to question Ford, Kavanaugh, or other important witnesses. Democrats promise to “remember in November.”
There are occasional outbreaks of good behaviour in Supreme Court confirmations: Thurgood Marshall, the first black justice, achieved a favourable vote of 69-11 in 1967, despite race riots all over the country that summer; in 1981, the senate confirmed Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female justice, 99-0. Other justices have ascended to the top court without a lot of shouting. But not lately and probably not in the foreseeable future. The Supreme Court is the arena in which America’s explosive race, gender, class, and religious divisions play out, a stage for our highest ideals and deepest terrors, marked by much drama. In 1969, Richard Nixon named South Carolina segregationist Clement Haynsworth to fill the seat of liberal justice Abe Fortas. When Haynsworth failed in the senate, Nixon tried again, choosing George Harrold Carswell, also a segregationist. Civil rights groups objected and Carswell lost, too. Nixon’s third pick, a Minnesota judge named Harry Blackmun, went on to become the author of the Roe opinion and one of the most progressives justices on the court.
The vote on Kavanaugh was 50-48, the closest in history. It would have been 50-49, except Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who’d earlier announced her opposition to Kavanaugh voted “present” instead of “no,” thus saving the Republicans the embarrassment of confirming their Supreme Court choice by only one vote. Now there are two men on the nation’s highest court who have been credibly accused of sexual harassment or assault. In 1991, law professor Anita Hill described how Clarence Thomas, once her boss at the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission during the Reagan administration, propositioned her, tried to talk about porn with her and other women in the office, and made suggestive comments about her body. Senators, led at the time by Democrats, were courteous but largely dismissive, suggesting she might be a “woman scorned” or a “civil rights zealot.” Thomas called the whole thing “a high-tech lynching.”
In the 1992 elections, just 15 months after Thomas was confirmed 52-48, the number of female members of Congress increased from 33 to 55. Enraged by the treatment of Hill, women voted in record numbers. Perhaps 2018 will be another “Year of the Woman,” another moment in American politics when women gain more power—and credibility. Winning elections is probably easier than changing the culture, however. Republicans once seen as “moderates,” including senators Lindsey Graham and Susan Collins, suggested Ford must be “confused” over the identity of her attacker. Others on the right theorised it was a case of mistaken identity. Though he initially called Ford “a fine woman,” Donald Trump has now taken to piling on, mocking her at one of his snarling political rallies, repeating in a high “girly” voice “I had one beer! One beer!” and warning “it’s a very scary time for young men.”
The trouble for Trump and his Republican Party is, according to polls conducted both before and after the hearings, more people believe Ford than Kavanaugh. Trump tries to recast men as victims of nasty, lying women, but logic is on Ford’s side. No woman accuses a prominent man of attacking her because it’s easy or fun or without damaging consequences. Ask Hill. Ford and her family have received multiple death threats. Moreover, if she were lying, why take a polygraph test? Why say there was a witness? If she were making it all up, she surely would have done better to claim that Kavanaugh pounced on her somewhere in the dark with not a soul for miles.
America is again at war with its sense of self. Are we church-going, flag-saluting, foreigner-distrusting “folks” longing for a Neverland back when the world feared us, when farming, coal, and manufacturing gave us good jobs, when racial hierarchies went unchallenged, when men were men and women were ladies? Or will we accept that the country is becoming browner, more polyglot, less puritanical, comfortable with a future in which women will no longer be dismissed? Sitting before the Senate Judiciary Committee, a red-faced Kavanaugh quoted the Old Testament, warning those who opposed him that if you “sow the wind” you will “reap the whirlwind” and that “what goes around, comes around.” If women are as angry as they seem right now, the newest justice on the Supreme Court may live to see the truth of his words in the 2018 elections, just not in the way he hopes.