The Corner

Law & the Courts

Kavanaugh as Tribalist Automaton

My friend Robert Wright writes:

For the first few minutes of Brett Kavanaugh’s senate testimony, I didn’t understand what he was up to. In punctuating a long, angry diatribe with spasms of weepiness, he seemed to be alternating between one kind of person you wouldn’t want on the Supreme Court and another kind of person you wouldn’t want on the Supreme Court. But then I sensed an underlying strategy: He was going full-on tribal, depicting the Democrats as cruel and unfair oppressors, and doing so with such emotion as to rally the Republican base. He seemed to understand that, the more intense the base’s support for him, the higher the political price paid by any Republican senators who vote against him.

Bob may be right that this political calculation played a role in Kavanaugh’s thinking, but I think this framing — much like the charges that Lindsey Graham’s diatribe was pure political posturing — misses an obvious and important point. The idea that Brett Kavanaugh was simply putting on an act last Thursday when he got choked up about his daughter praying for Dr. Ford or that it was merely a tactical display of rage when he at times got too hot under the collar strikes me as not merely bad analysis but grotesquely unfair.

Again, we don’t have to discard all critical thinking or cynicism here. Kavanaugh may indeed have concluded that the best way to fight for his reputation and his Supreme Court nomination was to let it rip, to hold none of his emotions back. But that doesn’t mean he was insincere when he did so. Likewise with Senator Graham. If Graham had concluded that it would be utterly counterproductive to hold forth the way he did, he probably would have been more restrained. But that doesn’t mean he was pretending. It more likely means that he felt he had nothing to lose by venting his sincere anger.

I really don’t understand how Bob can ascribe entirely cynical and calculating motivations to Kavanaugh, and at the same time decrying Kavanaugh’s “tribalism,” while also dismissing the possibility that the Democrats have behaved with consummate tribalism themselves. Indeed, the fact that the “Republican base” feels very much the way Kavanaugh himself does should suggest to Bob and others that these emotions are real for all concerned.

It seems to me the obvious non-tribal — i.e., objective and humane — analysis would allow for the possibility that Kavanaugh’s tears were real and his anger genuine. The Democrats have been cruel and partisan. Cory Booker insisted that Kavanaugh’s nomination was “evil.” Various Democrats and allied groups insisted that millions would die and America would be unalterably wounded if he were allowed on the Court. And this was before all of the allegations of gang rape and the like.

To not believe that these things would arouse a human response in Kavanaugh is itself a form of tribalist thinking, on Bob’s part.

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