When I look at the smears already being aimed at potential Supreme Court Justice nominee Amy Coney Barrett, I’m left with one conclusion: This is how we got Donald Trump.
Long before Trump took that now-famous escalator ride, conservatives were regularly attacked in pretty unfair ways. The closer to an election or confirmation vote, the more vicious the attacks.
In recent years, decent, mainstream conservatives have been accused of owning a racist rock (Rick Perry), giving forced, homophobic haircuts, declaring a “war on women” and not paying taxes (Mitt Romney), and not knowing how many houses they own (John McCain). In 2012, Paul Ryan was accused of wanting to throw granny off a cliff, and that same year, then-Vice President Joe Biden told African-Amerians that a Romney presidency would “put you all back in chains.” From Robert Bork to Brett Kavanaugh (who, among other things, was accused of “gang rape” by Michael Avenatti) the same pattern has played out in Supreme Court nominations. It doesn’t matter how mainstream, decent, or earnest a conservative is. Once you become a threat, you’re a target.
Given that Democrats are closely aligned with Hollywood, the academy, the “mainstream media,” and most cultural institutions, there’s been a big debate on the right about how to respond to these attacks. On one side were people who argued we could overcome this by being qualified, disciplined, and competent. In 2016, they lost that argument to those who believed it was impossible for a Republican—no matter how qualified or irenic—to get a fair shake.
Rather than playing by the old rules, the new right invented new rules. Rather than climbing the ladder of the old scaffolding, they would create an alternate infrastructure. Rather than scraping to get a seat at the mainstream media’s table, they just flipped the table over. This confrontational approach prevailed because radio, Fox News, and Twitter had removed the old gatekeepers and lowered the barrier of entry. But it also required a sense of futility—a sense that conservatives could not win by running normal Republican campaigns.
The timing was ripe for Trump to emerge as the savior.
By never apologizing, and rarely backing down, Trump showed formerly timid conservatives that they had been too gun-shy and deferential in the past. By saying and doing tons of outrageous things, he expanded the Overton Window, making their sins look comparably small. And by serving as a lightning rod, he diverted attention (and arrows) away from normal conservatives.
Of course, Trump won’t be able to absorb all the arrows headed for Amy Coney Barrett, if she is his nominee. Barrett reminds me of the kind of nice, decent conservative who would (in a pre-Trump world) be destroyed by the liberals and the media who want to otherize her and cast her as some extremist weirdo. And it still might happen. Some of the most vicious attacks are reserved for conservatives who show that the Republican Party isn’t all old white men.
Here, I’m thinking of Clarence Thomas and Sarah Palin—but they’re not alone. A lesser known example is Miguel Estrada, a Honduran immigrant, who clerked for Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, before being nominated by George W. Bush to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. According to a leaked email, liberal interest groups specifically wanted to stop Estrada’s nomination because “he is Latino, and the White House seems to be grooming him for a Supreme Court appointment.” So Democrats filibustered his appointment, causing him to sit for years in limbo. During this stressful time, his wife had a miscarriage and then died of an accidental overdose of alcohol and sleeping pills. Finally, Estrada withdrew.
Enter Barrett. You don’t have to be some right-wing nut to notice the predictable onslaught—not to mention the media double standards she will face (consider the way that Barack Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s faith was positively portrayed, while Barrett’s is framed as weird, dangerous, and “cultish”—the stuff of theocrats and a real-life Handmaid’s Tale)
These attacks won’t just galvanize conservatives, they’ll remind us of the rationale that led so many to give Trump their sometimes grudging support. After watching decent conservatives like John McCain and Mitt Romney lose back-to-back, while the culture seemed to drift further leftward, many Republicans reasoned that their only recourse was to quit playing nice. To fight fire with fire. Trump was the perfect embodiment of this ethos.
As his first (and possibly only) term draws to an end, the attacks on Barrett remind me of why so many conservatives were willing to overlook Trump’s many sins, in the first place: He fights.