Confirming Brett Kavanaugh was the best outcome at the end of a hellish decision tree that left the country with no ideal option.
Reasonable people may differ on that. But what seems more obvious: It’s all going to get worse. Because everyone is taking the wrong lessons from the Kavanaugh debacle.
Let’s start with the president. In an interview Saturday night on Fox News Channel’s “Justice with Judge Jeanine,” President Trump said that he was the one who “evened the playing field” for Kavanaugh when he mocked Christine Blasey Ford at a Mississippi rally the previous week.
“Well, there were a lot of things happening that weren’t correct, they weren’t true, and there were a lot of things that were left unsaid,” Trump told host Jeanine Pirro. “It was very unfair to the judge. … So I evened the playing field. Once I did that, it started to sail through.”
This is mostly nonsense. Once Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona had forced the FBI’s reinvestigation of Ford’s sexual assault allegation, Kavanaugh’s confirmation hinged on the FBI findings and the votes of three Republican senators: Flake, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
The president’s comments mocking Ford, meanwhile, were singularly unhelpful. Collins called them “Just plain wrong.” Flake: “It was appalling.” Murkowski: “Wholly inappropriate.” Even Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he thought the president should “knock it off.”
Nor did Kavanaugh’s nomination “sail through” after that. Instead, the headwinds got stronger, the water choppier and the sharks hungrier.
As Trump chummed the water, his nominee was rescued by a team of RINOs. It was Flake’s FBI gambit, Collins’ sense of decency and decorum, and the steely determination of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that got Kavanaugh confirmed. (Remember when Steve Bannon was declaring McConnell public enemy No. 1 of MAGA Nation?)
Trump cheerleaders could use a reminder of why Kavanaugh was the nominee in the first place. Trump’s Supreme Court list — brimming with GOP legal establishment types, of whom Kavanaugh is the crown prince — was imposed upon him by skeptics who feared he might nominate someone like … Judge Jeanine Pirro.
But so much is forgotten, left behind in the locker room as Trump and team celebrate on the field. The president, who deserves conservative praise for picking Kavanaugh off the Federalist Society’s menu and for sticking by him, is claiming and getting undue credit for the win. The fact is, the president — himself repeatedly and credibly accused of sexual misconduct — was largely a hindrance in the fight. And he’s now doing further disservice to the new justice and to the Supreme Court by holding up Kavanaugh like a partisan trophy, as he did Monday at a White House swearing-in ceremony that verged on becoming a pep rally.
Such gloating and total war is the new statesmanship. Ryan Williams, the president of the Claremont Institute, argues that the Kavanaugh battle retroactively vindicates Michael Anton’s famous “Flight 93” argument of 2016: that the presidential election was a “charge the cockpit or you die” moment for American conservatives. Now, Williams says, the middle has collapsed, the parties are pulling farther apart, and it’s Flight 93 for as far as the eye can see.
The left largely sees the situation this way, too. In the wake of their failure to destroy Kavanaugh, Democrats and liberal activists insist they must “fight dirty,” as political scientist David Farris argues in his book, “It’s Time to Fight Dirty.” Liberals have convinced themselves Democrats lose because they are too nice. This, not ironically, was exactly the view conservatives such as Anton held about the GOP in 2016; many voters rallied to Trump on the grounds that “at least he fights.”
Stormy Daniels’ grandstanding lawyer, Michael Avenatti, is auditioning to be the left’s counterpuncher. In response to the GOP’s Kavanaugh win, he tweeted, “When they go low, we hit harder. There is far too much at stake for any other approach.” Never mind that it was Avenatti’s harder-hitting allegations that steeled the GOP’s resolve to keep Democrats from railroading Kavanaugh.
There are other echoes of 2016 on the Democratic side. Many now flock to the banner of “socialism” the way the Bannonites rallied for nationalism. And both sides are doubling down on identity politics — Trumpists rushing to the defense of men, and leftists calling out white women who don’t toe the line as “gender traitors.”
This is how we got here. It will get worse because there are no incentives to be better. It won’t end well either, but at least it will feel familiar.
Jonah Goldberg is an editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by email at JonahsColumn@aol.com.