Republicans Don’t Know What They Believe Anymore. Thanks To Kavanaugh, It May Not Matter.
The installation of a conservative majority on the high court staves off the GOP’s reckoning with its core problems for a while longer.
Back in 2017, author Robert P. Jones described Donald Trump’s stunning victory in the 2016 presidential election as the “death rattle of White Christian America”. Seeing demographic and cultural changes rapidly shift against them, Jones argues that evangelical voters entered into a pact with Trump, tossing aside his lack of conservative bona fides with the expectation that he would appoint judges who would turn the judiciary’s rightward march into a decades-long conservative majority.
Last Saturday’s confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court felt like the president honoring his side of the pact in full — not only to his evangelical base but to the Republican Party as a whole. In addition to the presidency and both houses of Congress, as well as numerous down-ballot seats, a conservative majority on the high court all but ensures a GOP firewall against the Democrats’ agenda even if the party is displaced by a blue wave come November.
In fact, one could argue the current Republican majority in Congress has functioned as little more than a check on the policy ambitions of Democrats and liberal activists. The 2010 midterms put Republicans in a position to enact extreme partisan gerrymandering and voter suppression tactics at the state level, ultimately helping the party to hold the House and take back the Senate in 2016 despite getting only 42 percent of the total Senate vote that year. And Republicans have governed like a minority ruling party, stonewalling programs that enjoy broad support from the American public, including the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion.
The current Republican Party is what a ruling party looks like when it has abandoned the job of persuading voters to its side. Mitch McConnell knows that gutting Medicare to pay for corporate tax cuts will not win his party any legislative majorities in the foreseeable future, so he has sought to install Republican power permanently — either by exploiting senate rules to deny the Democrats’ agenda or shove through his own.
And yet, even with entrenched power at all levels of government, Republicans maintain that they are the real victims of an angry, anti-male, anti-free speech leftist mob. The disconnect between the party’s concrete institutional power and its self-constructed victimization is not an oversight on the part of President Trump or Mitch McConnell— it is how Republicans justify their party’s march toward authoritarian nationalism.
After all, the core message behind evangelicals’ pact with Donald Trump was that a Trump presidency would be the right’s “last chance” to save America from the swaths of nonwhite voters Democrats wanted to bring into the electorate. With the stakes this high, Republicans figure they can’t afford to be preoccupied with the rules and norms of popular democracy.
But Republicans’ antipathy towards their own power is also an admission of their unwillingness to govern beyond the cues they take from Fox News and other right-wing media. They have long given up making serious appeals to voters outside of their core base, hanging their hopes instead on a permanent white racial backlash to an increasingly browning America.
This might also explain why Republicans don’t feel pressured to make much sense of their own policy goals while in power — policy isn’t what's getting them elected anyway. Last Friday I was struck by the way Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation vote began with assurances from Maine Senator Susan Collins that Kavanaugh would not vote to undermine Roe v. Wade, and concluded with anti-abortion activists celebrating the bleak future of Roe thanks to Kavanaugh. The blatant inconsistency and indifference to the truth felt a lot like watching the Obamacare repeal effort play out again, as well as the fight over the Trump administration’s family separation policy.
Republicans don’t know what they believe anymore, except that they are on the losing end of a cultural shift among the public that has yet to cost them big electorally. With Kavanaugh on the bench, they may be able to stave off such a loss for a while longer.