The attempted political assassination of Brett Kavanaugh is bad for the country, but good for a Trumpian attitude toward American politics.
The last-minute ambush validates key assumptions of Donald Trump’s supporters that fueled his rise and buttress him in office, no matter how rocky the ride has been or will become. At least three premises have been underlined by the tawdry events of the past couple of weeks.
First, that good character is no defense. If you are John McCain, who genuinely tried to do the right thing and carefully cultivated a relationship with the media over decades, they will still call you a racist when you run against Barack Obama.
If you are Mitt Romney, an exceptionally earnest and decent man, they will make you into a heartless and despicable vulture capitalist, also for the offense of campaigning against Obama.
If you are Brett Kavanaugh, a respected member of the legal establishment who doesn’t have a flyspeck on his record across decades of public service in Washington, they will come up with dubious accusations of wrongdoing from decades ago when you were a teenager.
Second, that the media is an unremitting political and cultural adversary. In the Kavanaugh controversy, the press has been wholly on the other side, presuming his guilt and valorizing his accusers and their supporters, including Hawaii senator Mazie Hirono, whose most famous contribution to the debate was telling men to “shut up.” The advocacy isn’t limited to cable networks or the Twitter feeds of journalists. It reaches all the way up the food chain.
The New Yorker — which imagines itself an upholder of the finest standards of American journalism; which sports a refined monocle-wearing dandy as its mascot; which was once edited by that famous paragon of editorial care, William Shawn — happily published a new accusation against Kavanaugh even though the accuser herself had doubts about it (she only became convinced of it after days of consideration and talks with her lawyer).
The New York Times passed on the story when it couldn’t find any firsthand corroboration of it. The New Yorker didn’t allow that to become an obstacle.
Third, that politics isn’t just rough-and-tumble; it’s red in tooth and claw. Process and norms are nice, but they go out the window as soon as something important is at stake, like a potential fifth vote on the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Senate Democrats may delicately talk about the importance of norms and civility on Sunday shows, but watch how they act. They sat on an accusation throughout an extensive process of vetting and questioning a nominee, then declared it dispositive evidence against his confirmation when it leaked at the eleventh hour. They delayed a hearing with Christine Blasey Ford long enough to allow time for the second accuser to be persuaded to come forward.
All of this plays into Trump’s support. Surely, a reason that the president appealed to many Republicans in the first place, despite his extravagant personal failings, was that they had decided that virtuous men would get smeared and chewed up by the opposition’s meat grinder, so why be a stickler for standards?
If Trump’s attacks against the media are over-the-top and sometimes disgraceful, at least he understands the score.
He may not be a constitutionalist, but he will be faithful to his own side, and fiercely battle it out with his political opponents.
The logic of this dynamic is risky. It can be self-defeating, and lead down the road of supporting, say, a Roy Moore, a kooky candidate doomed even in red Alabama. It can be corrupting, if character and standards are no longer considered important. But the dark view of our politics that has driven the Trump phenomenon for three years now is impossible to gainsay. Who can watch the frenzied assault on Brett Kavanaugh and say that it’s wrong?