The conservative movement in America produces two principal products: doctrinaire lawyers and magazines nobody reads. As a result, President Donald Trump has no shortage of potential Supreme Court nominees he could tap to reliably overturn Roe v. Wade, abolish the minimum wage and declare golf the national pastime. Academia and the federal courts are already littered with professional conservatives pre-approved by The Federalist Society and the GOP donor class. During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump even released a list of 25 potential candidates for the sole purpose of proving to a skeptical Republican leadership that he was, in fact, one of their own.
Of all the names on that list, Brett Kavanaugh is currently the most unreliable vehicle for securing Republican policy victories. Aside from Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in high school ― an account that at least one of her classmates recalls hearing during their time together at elite Washington prep schools ― he appears to have lied to Congress during prior confirmation hearings to the federal appeals court. If Senate Republicans ram through Kavanaugh’s nomination, they will sustain heavy political damage ― six weeks before an election ― for a Supreme Court justice who could well find himself the legitimate subject of impeachment proceedings after entering office.
This is the sort of gamble a political strategist suggests only under extreme duress, when there are no better options available. But, of course, there are at least 24 other good options waiting in the wings. With a little procedural ruthlessness, any one of them could be confirmed before Congress returns in January with, as seems likely, more Democratic members.
And yet the conservative movement and even self-styled moderate Senate Republicans remain united behind Kavanaugh in the aftermath of Blasey’s allegations. They not only want him confirmed, they want him confirmed now. They cannot part with their man for a simple reason: Brett Kavanaugh has become a poster child for the American aristocracy. His confirmation ― every bit as much as the cases he might one day decide ― has become a test-case for the bounds of elite domination.
Conservative intellectuals offer all sorts of theoretical rationales for their policy agenda: Free markets do not leave us vulnerable to financial collapse; they unleash human potential. Opposition to same-sex marriage is not about crass bigotry but the preservation of precious religious liberty. The smash-and-grab nature of the Trump presidency has strained all of these justifications. After losing the popular vote, Trump ― elected with the support of a hostile foreign power with which he remains very cozy ― has proceeded to cut trillions of dollars in taxes for the super-rich, deregulate the banking industry, launch a campaign of terror against immigrant children and nominate arch-conservatives to the Supreme Court.
For a time, political commentators in Washington talked about the Goldman Sachs wing of the Trump White House at war with the populist wing, wondering if the responsible, well-heeled members of the administration would keep the rednecks in line. But the reality of Republican rule has been a unified project exacerbating all existing social inequalities ― race, class and gender alike. Conservatism appears to be what its prominent left-wing critics have long maintained: a system of elite domination, imposed at any cost.
Kavanaugh attended all the right schools, from Georgetown Prep to Yale Law. His neighbors in Chevy Chase, Maryland, one of the richest neighborhoods in the capital area, eagerly celebrated his nomination when it was announced in July, as a Yale Law professor and the school itself trumpeted his glory. His nomination is now a referendum on that aristocracy ― one whose very existence and protection is the primary goal of conservative government.
To participate in this aristocracy is to enjoy the comforts of fine living ― calm neighborhoods, well-engineered automobiles, intellectually engaging art. But its highest pleasure is the knowledge shared among its members that they live above democratic accountability, that their words and deeds are not constrained by the broader political community the way the words and deeds of mere citizens can be. As Jamelle Bouie observes for Slate, recent crises have extended the scope of this elite immunity ― from the invasion of Iraq to the CIA’s secret torture program to the financial crash of 2008.
If Kavanaugh’s path to the Supreme Court cannot even be slowed by a credible sexual assault allegation, it will demonstrate one more dimension in which the American aristocracy is indeed beyond the reach of the rabble.