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The Kavanaugh Affair

Photo Source the White House | CC BY 2.0

Liberals!  Some perspective please!

Donald Trump is the least fit and most corrupt American president in modern times, if not — depending on how slavery factors in, and on what we make of Andrew Johnson and   the mid-nineteenth century presidents whose tenure led up to the Civil War — since the founding of the republic.

But if the metric is damage done, not just to the country but also to the world, he is small potatoes compared to George W. Bush.  Bush broke the Greater Middle East in ways that continue to reverberate.

Trump’s foreign policy initiatives are noxious, and potentially even more dangerous than Bush’s, but, so far at least, what we have gotten from him is mainly bluster; Bush caused far more devastation, murder and mayhem.

As for handing the federal court system over to the forces of reaction, Mitch McConnell is a more iniquitous culprit than Trump.  Trump takes credit, but the main villain is the toad from Kentucky.

The frenzy set in motion by Trump’s and McConnell’s efforts to seat Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court should be looked at with these considerations in mind.

***

As of Thursday afternoon, the fate of the Kavanaugh nomination was still unclear.  What is clear is that Trump and McConnell are pushing ahead, and that it may not be possible to stop them.

It therefore now seems likely that for the next while, a while that could last a long time, the Supreme Court will be comprised of four “liberal” and five “conservative” Justices.

The liberals are actually centrists – not just according to longstanding and widely shared understandings of what centrism involves, but even gauged by the less demanding standards in place in this country in the sixties and seventies.  The liberal justices’ hearts are in the right place, however, and their heads are screwed on right.

The conservatives would be better described as troglodytes whose hearts are with “the one percent,” as they were known in Zuccotti Park seven years ago.  Their heads are stuck far up inside a certain dark place.

As long as Donald Trump or Mike Pence, the Vice President on a mission from God, are the ones nominating candidates, the best we can hope for is that none of their nominees get through. Better a perpetual standoff than a clear troglodyte majority.

But a standoff is bad too. Therefore, insofar as what matters is the ideological composition of the court, the sound and fury the Kavanaugh nomination has generated is much ado not about nothing, not by any means, but about a good deal less than is widely supposed.

It may turn out, even so, to have unleashed a sea change – not so much in ways that bear on the Supreme Court, but on a different terrain altogether.

Thanks, ironically, to the boost Trump has inadvertently given to misogynists everywhere,  #MeToo movement thinking has gone mainstream.  Had this not happened, Kavanaugh’s accusers might never have come forward; and they would surely be paid even less heed than they are now.

But thanks to Trump’s blatant appeals to patriarchal privilege, patriarchal institutions, practices, and attitudes have been put in question to a degree not seen before.

Like religion, patriarchy has been a fact of human life from time immemorial.  It would be difficult to overstate its social and political importance, or to exaggerate its psychological and cultural consequences.

The causes and effects of theistic and non-theistic religions have been subjected to intense scrutiny at least since the eighteenth century.  But notwithstanding some important work of early nineteenth century anthropologists, classical Marxists (Friedrich Engels especially) and a few Marxist-influenced second wave feminists in the sixties and seventies, patriarchy generally, and patriarchal attitudes in particular, are much less well understood.

There still is nothing in the literature like, say, William James’ turn of the (twentieth) century masterpiece, TheVarieties of Religious Experience.  If there were, cases like Kavanaugh’s would be easier to categorize and comprehend.

The subject is complicated, however, because patriarchy comes in many forms – each peculiar to particular times, places, and longstanding traditions. The attitudes of well-off teenage boys in high-end Catholic prep schools thirty years ago are not quite of a piece with those, say, of long in the tooth attendees of Trump campaign rallies. There are even more salient differences among patriarchal practices and attitudes in other times and places.

And there are also many factors that they all hold in common.  Some are well understood, others not so much.

***

Who would have thought that the reality TV show that mainstream politics in Trump’s America has become would take the turn it has with the Kavanaugh nomination?

He was supposed to be a conservative choirboy — reactionary as they come, with reliably odious politics, eager to undo or water down abortion rights, defend torture, make gun laws more insane than they already are, and make presidents more like kings than leaders of republics.  But he was, the story went, a nice guy who therefore ought to be confirmed.

Indeed, niceness was supposed to be the most salient difference between him and, say, Ted Cruz, another retrograde character with a respectable IQ and an Ivy League education.

But then came Kavanaugh’s tirade after Christine Blasey Ford’s Senate testimony last Thursday; now everyone, outside the Fox News ambit, knows better.  Everyone knows that all you have to do to get the angelic jurist to morph into the very model of a mean drunk is to rattle his cage.

Something more remarkable than that revelation emerged as well.  We now know more surely than we did before something of the extent to which Trump has Republican politicians in his pocket.

They are not there because they want to be.

Two years ago, there was no love lost between the Donald and the clowns who ran against him for the GOP nomination.  Nearly every Republican at the national level was of a similar mind.   On the surface, there is none of that now; deep down, however, nothing has changed.

The feeling was mutual. Trump could not insult or otherwise denigrate Republicans enough.

It would be fair to say that Trump wasn’t a Republican at all back then, that he just played one on TV – because it suited his purpose.

Just two years on, all that has disappeared down the memory hole.  Today, the GOP, always by far the more odious duopoly party, has taken a turn for the even worse.  It now belongs to Trump — lock, stock, and barrel.  The abjectness and servility of leading Republicans is wondrous to behold.

The GOP has long been home to miscreants of all types, but in those halcyon pre-Trump days, quasi-fascist, “alt-right” malefactors were at most a marginal concern.

Trump changed that – not from conviction, he has no convictions, but because he is good at sniffing out what is opportune and because “white nationalism” (racism, nativism) and authoritarian ways of thinking suit his personality.

And so, with the help of a few nefarious advisors – like the clever and comparatively well read, but not as smart as he thinks, Steve Bannon, and the risibly pathetic Stephen Miller — he brought the alt-right into the Republican fold.

Somehow, this made mainstream Republicans even worse than before.  Could anyone with a functioning mind watch the Republican Senators on the Judiciary Committee and not despair for the human race.

Witness Chuck Grassley, so far past his sell by date, or the Louisiana Bible thumper John Kennedy or the consummately awful Orin Hatch.

Worse still, watch Lindsey Graham, former sidekick of the late, unrepentant, morally obtuse bomber of Vietnamese men, women, and children, John McCain.   No sooner did that villainous “maverick” give up the ghost than Graham, a Trump adversary from Day One, as any McCain sidekick would have had to be, turned into a Trump flatterer and attack dog.

Graham’s mission now is to hold back that vast leftwing conspiracy that lives rent free in the minds of Trump and Kavanaugh and other likeminded beneficiaries of patriarchal privilege.

Graham’s case is an extreme version of a pathological disposition that afflicts House and Senate Republicans.  They despise Trump, but they fear energized rightwing Republican voters in primary elections more.  This causes them to become despicable in the ways that Trump is.

What William Blake wrote some two hundred years ago therefore applies to them just as much as it does to Trump himself — that “as the air is to birds and the sea to fish, so is contempt for the contemptible.”

***

Much has been written about the Trump base, but, even so, the ludicrousness of their passions boggles the mind.

Their beliefs are preposterous too – for example, the idea that Trump cares about them and is on their side.

In truth, it is plain as can be that Trump is as implausible a tribune of FDR’s “forgotten man” as there is on the political scene today.

And yet forgotten men and women have built what amounts to a cult around that pathetic excuse of a human being.

Some Trump supporters are just unusually unenlightened and venal capitalists.  They will stand be their man as long as he is good for their bottom lines.

On the other hand, most hardcore Trump supporters are poorly off, older white men.  That demographic is Trump’s lifeblood.   But for them, there would be ample “bipartisan” support for running the conman and his accomplices out of town on a rail.

To account for their way of thinking, it is surely relevant to note that Trump emits Archie Bunker vibes. The comparison is unfair, however, inasmuch as the Archie Bunker character was neither mean-spirited nor gratuitously hurtful.  Archie was a Mensch; Trump is a caricature.

It is also relevant that he is filthy rich.  Americans worship success.  No matter how “populist” their attitudes towards Muslims and Hispanics and other black and brown peoples may be, they are prone to thinking that billionaires know best.

The odd thing, though, is that Trump doesn’t quite fit the template.

For one thing, his riches are hardly self-made.  This is not news to anyone who has followed his and his siblings’ machinations closely, but, until now, Trump has managed to get a lot of people who were not in the know to think that he was able, through grit, hard work, and determination to turn a “measly” million dollar loan from his father into more billions than Lindsey Graham can shake a stick at.

It is now clear, though, that Trump got nearly half a billion dollars from his father – indeed, that his father’s generosity turned him into a millionaire by the time he was eight years old.  We know this thanks to The New York Times; perhaps, in the near future, the New York State District Attorney’s office will tell us even more.

It has always been clear too that the Trump family’s riches stem in part from Trump’s father’s political juice.  Not just money but also political influence have always been a large part of the Trump patrimony.

On his own, Trump stiffed lenders and workers prodigiously, and utilized ever trick in the book (and some not in the book) to benefit from tax avoidance (or evasion) and from bankruptcies.  He may claim to be a later-day Horatio Alger, and may even believe his own hype, but, as with most of what he says, the truth is quite the opposite.

Neither does he fit the other part of the template.  Trump did not go into “public service” to give anything back; he did it to take even more.  The noblesse obligeof the Roosevelts, Rockefellers, Harrimans, Kennedys and even the Bushes, and of a few high tech entrepreneurs nowadays, is foreign to his worldview.

Indeed, there is not a trace of noblesseof any sort in his character; there is only vanity, cupidity, and insecurity.

The same goes for his idiot sons, and for fashion-conscious Ivanka and her airhead husband, Jared Kushner. Tiffany and Barron are fruit of the poison tree too, but they must be presumed harmless until proven vile.

And yet his base loves him.

Will the bubble ever burst? One has to think so; con jobs don’t usually go on forever, especially not when they stand exposed.

But does the Trump base care?  The jury is out on that.

A sizeable sector of the power structure of the country opposes Trump, and they have ways and means of seeing to it that their will be done.  In recent years, however, it has become plain that obduracy and willful blindness are written into the Republican Party’s DNA.

It is remarkable that, despite the structural cupidity that comes with the territory, America’s highest-flying capitalists, its media moguls, and at least half of its national political class – don’t just oppose Trump; they hate his guts.  So too, no doubt, do many old school Republicans, another large segment of the national political class.

Why would the rich be so hostile to someone so friendly to their interests?  This too boggles the mind.

Could it just be because Trump is a tasteless vulgarian and an embarrassment on the world stage?  Or is it because he is not quite wedded to their goals and projects and is not shy about proclaiming this to the world?

The greater mystery, though, is how someone so hostile to working class interests could become an almost cult-like figure for segments of the working class.  If ever there was “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” this is it.

Like Trump, Hillary Clinton sometimes does get a few things right.  And even though her “basket of deplorables” remark did her no good, the obvious explanation, implicit in what she said, is still the best: that those people are morons.

Conventional wisdom these days is that it is all right to think that, but not to say it.  What the hell, though!  If recent polls are right in concluding that the Kavanaugh affair has fired up the GOP base, there is no point in being tactful or discreet.  Not only are they morons; they don’t even try to hide it.

***

But for the cult they have concocted around Trump, Kavanaugh would never have become the major figure that he is.

Had he stuck with his choirboy persona, hard-core Trump supporters would not have cared much about him, just as they didn’t care much about the other retrograde Supreme Court Justice Trump nominated, Neil Gorsuch.

Face it: apart from committed gun rights and anti-abortion fanatics, there are hardly any Trump supporters who care about “conservative” (troglodyte) jurisprudence.  Do they even know what it is?

Moreover, there are no Archie Bunker vibes emanating out of preppie Kavanaugh’s persona.

This is why the target audience for him last Thursday was Trump himself.  Kavanaugh was afraid that if Trump didn’t take kindly to his emoting, or if he detected what he would consider weakness (or what others might think of as basic human decency), that the Donald would tweet his displeasure, instantly turning poor Brett Kavanaugh into yesterday’s lunch.

He was right to worry.  Trump would turn on his own mother if there was something in it for him.

If they do well enough in the midterm elections next month, maybe Democrats will find a way to invite experts on narcissistic personality disorders to one or another hearing they will hold, and perhaps those experts will be able to explain what is going on in what Trump calls his “very big brain” as clearly and instructively as Ford explained how traumatic experiences, like the one she endured (literally) under Kavanaugh, are remembered decades later.

Trump’s brain is the reason why Kavanaugh found it useful to drop his nice guy persona.  The peerless Donald has no time for nice guys; aggrieved bullies are more his speed.  Since Kavanaugh didn’t get to where he now is by being less than shrewd, he saw to it that that part of him would shine through.

And so, all of a sudden, the choirboy became a poster child for the misfortunes suffered by straight white males at the hands of everyone else, including straight white women who, Trump insists, are doing just fine.

Thus Kavanaugh made himself a Trump avatar.  Throughout Trumpland, that is how his persona is received.

But, in the real world, could there be anyone less suited for that role than a well spoken, well turned out, patrician Yalie?   Could there be anyone less likely to articulate brute male rage?

Evidently not in the nothing-makes-any-sense-anymore world that Donald Trump has midwifed into being.

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ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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