We hear a lot about norms these days. We live in a time when alleged pre-existing norms of decency, civility, and respect are being cast aside for the sake of “winning.” The ends justify the means, and a dignified loser is just that: a loser. There is a real sense that we’re losing something irreplaceable, a shared respect that once allowed partisans to battle over ideas while remaining bound together as citizens of the world’s greatest constitutional republic.
John McCain’s funeral this weekend was supposed to have reminded us of these national values, to have pricked our consciences. It was an occasion for the Washington establishment to unite in the face of an angry, temperamental president and say, “Enough! There is dignity in public service and advocacy. There is a better way.”
Unfortunately, it appears that all too much of the talk about norms and civility and decency is just another weapon of convenience, to be dropped the moment it is perceived to pave the path of defeat. Just look at the disgusting spectacle that was day one (and the opening of day two) of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing.
Before I continue, let me remind you that Kavanaugh is the opposite of a norm-violating, civility-straining, Trumpist jurist. He is the very definition of a GOP-establishment lawyer. He would be a front-runner for a SCOTUS nomination in any Republican administration. He is not only solidly within the mainstream of originalist legal thought, he’s so respected across the aisle that Elena Kagan hired him to teach at Harvard Law School.
In other words, throughout his career, Kavanaugh has helped maintain norms rather than violating them. He’s the living embodiment of the kind of person — and the kind of politics — that Democrats now claim they miss in the age of Trump.
Yet yesterday, from the top down, from senators to protesters to online trolls, the Democrats offered a preview of how they’d react to any Republican nominee, and it was a shining example of how and why conservatives don’t believe for one moment that Donald Trump is the sole source of American dysfunction.
Consider first the utterly frivolous behavior of multiple Democratic senators. Within seconds of the hearing’s start they interrupted Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Charles Grassley with demands that he adjourn the hearing. The pretext was one of those eye-glazing Washington debates over document production, in which senators who’d already vowed weeks ago to vote against Kavanaugh claimed they couldn’t possibly evaluate him properly based on the hundreds of thousands of pages they already had (including more than a decade of judicial opinions). They instead absolutely needed every scrap of paper he ever touched, so . . . what? They could cast a more emphatic no vote?
Make no mistake, this was purely a sop to the Democratic base. You see, there’s this #StopKavanaugh hashtag out there, and it’s sparked speaking tours and panel discussions and such, and if the senators just rolled over and debated plain, old, boring legal doctrines, then they wouldn’t look very good to the #Resistance, now would they? They had to do something dramatic, no matter how ineffectual. So for two hours, petty interruptions were substituted for serious debate.
The senators were outdone, of course, by the angry activists in the room. One of the first ways you can discern whether to dismiss a protester, pundit, or politician as a serious person is whether they pay any attention at all to The Handmaid’s Tale as some sort of allegory for our times. The president is a libertine philanderer who pays off porn stars and playmates, but somehow we’re about two steps from Gilead. Yet sure as the night follows day, the Handmaids showed up to Kavanaugh’s hearing, and along with them the Mos Eisley cantina of shrieking protesters.
Let’s be clear, had angry Tea Party protesters caused the same scale of disruption at a Democratic hearing, news outlets would be shaking their heads at the dangerous lack of respect for a dignified nominee. Instead, all too many folks think this is what democracy looks like: serial attempts to exercise an incoherent, screaming heckler’s veto.
But if you thought the sad display in the hearing room was the day’s nadir, you’ve never heard of Twitter. Online, conspiracy theories exploded, beginning with this one:
Kavanaugh’s former law clerk Zina Bash is flashing a white power sign behind him during his Senate confirmation hearing. They literally want to bring white supremacy to the Supreme Court. What a national outrage and a disgrace to the rule of law. pic.twitter.com/uQGOpNa6xg
— Eugene Gu, MD (@eugenegu) September 4, 2018
For those wondering, Zina Bash is one of the more respected and talented young conservative lawyers in Washington. As her husband — John Bash, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas — explained on Twitter, she’s Mexican on her mother’s side and Jewish on her father’s side. Her paternal grandparents are Holocaust survivors, and she was born in Mexico. So, no, it’s not remotely credible to believe she was flashing a white-power symbol.
Those facts didn’t deter the online left, though. The claims kept spreading until they turned into an instant left-wing version of the legendary Pizzagate conspiracy —unsupported by any meaningful facts yet fervently believed by thousands.
Then there was Snubgate, the claim that Kavanaugh deliberately refused to shake the hand of a father of a slain Parkland teen. The man, Fred Guttenberg, approached Kavanaugh in the scrum during a break in the hearing, he stuck out his hand, security approached, and Kavanaugh turned away. That’s it. You can watch the whole thing here, broken down in slow motion like the Zapruder film:
Fred Guttenberg, father of Parkland victim, Jaime, tries to shakes hands with Brett Kavanaugh: "My daughter was murdered at Parkland."
White House says an "unidentified individual approached" Kavanaugh, but "before the judge was able to shake his hand, security had intervened." pic.twitter.com/IerpDMOW0h
— NBC News (@NBCNews) September 4, 2018
Almost instantly, this momentary encounter was transformed into an intentional, crass snub of a grieving father by an evil, uncaring judge. Guttenberg went on CNN and made an unsubstantiated claim that Kavanaugh not only intentionally snubbed him, but personally asked that he be removed:
Father of Slain Parkland Teen (Fred Guttenberg) Says Not Only Did Kavanaugh Turn Away As Soon As He Mentioned His Murdered Daughter. But Kavanaugh Himself Asked Security to Remove Guttenberg and ID'd Him to Security By the Bracelets He Wears for His Daughter. pic.twitter.com/7MD66IBLk3
— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) September 5, 2018
A complete stranger walked up to the judge in a hearing disrupted by multiple protesters, security moved in immediately, and Kavanaugh was supposed to do . . . what, exactly? Push aside security to engage with the man, despite not knowing who he is?
It’s hard to believe that I’m wasting my time talking about any of this, but the claims against Kavanaugh and Bash raced around the web. They were taken as proof of Kavanaugh’s depravity and Bash’s racism. Millions of people viewed the videos. Tweets and retweets skyrocketed into the hundreds of thousands.
And what did all this sound and fury mean? Not much for Brett Kavanaugh, who started the day almost certain to be confirmed and ended it — if anything — even more of a lock for confirmation. But for our body politic, it was one more piece of evidence than the battle over civility long ago reached the Iran–Iraq phase — a grim war of attrition between two sides that commit atrocities for sport. The “norms” of American political life aren’t in fact the respect and civility extolled at John McCain’s funeral. Increasingly, they are the frivolity, ridiculousness, and gross behavior you saw yesterday.
So, the next time you hear grave words about civility, respond with a request: Show, don’t tell. When the chips are down, will you practice what you preach? Yesterday’s performance provides a clear answer, and it should worry all of us who genuinely care about health of American political discourse.