When Brett Kavanaugh was ceremonially sworn in as the newest justice on the Supreme Court on Monday night after an extraordinary confirmation battle that included charges of sexual assault, he struck a conciliatory note in his speech. Justice Kavanaugh avowed that he had “no bitterness” and pledged to be nonpartisan and to “seek to be a force for stability and unity” on the court. But no matter what kind of justice he proves to be, the bitter fallout from this war for the Supreme Court will be with us for a long time.
The Kavanaugh drama has sharpened political divisions — not always in predictable ways. It has severely weakened, and perhaps finished off, the “never Trump” Republicans who remained implacably opposed to President Donald Trump and Trumpism as corrupt and pseudo-conservative. For some people in the “never Trump” camp, such as author and U.S. Naval War College Professor Tom Nichols, it was the last straw that broke their allegiance to the Republican Party. For many more, such as blogger and radio host Erick Erickson, it was an impetus to return to the fold and consider voting for Trump in 2020. Even the implacably anti-Trump conservative New York Times opinion columnist Brett Stephens wrote that he was “grateful” to Trump for standing his ground.
For most Republicans, the decades-old accusations against Kavanaugh were a smear campaign waged by political opponents with no scruples. In their view, Democrats were so hellbent on averting a conservative majority on the Supreme Court and preserving a judicial regime that thwarts the will of the people by inventing new “rights” that they were willing to use dubious allegations and destroy a good man’s character to achieve that goal.
In this environment, even many conservatives who conclude that only a person as deplorable as Trump — pugnacious, crass, and willing to get down and dirty — can mount a defense against Democratic depravity. Such tactics, they conclude, translate into winning. In The Weekly Standard, writer Chris Caldwell argues that Kavanaugh prevailed because he fought back by framing the allegations against him as a partisan attack, forcing a situation in which it would be disloyal for Republicans to vote against him.
In fact, Caldwell’s analysis is incomplete at best. Kavanaugh’s confirmation was secured partly thanks to Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, who broke with fellow Republicans to demand a committee-vote delay and an FBI investigation. This enabled at least some senators, probably including Maine Republican Susan Collins, to feel that the allegations had been given their due — and allowed new information to emerge that seemed to discredit or weaken some of the charges. Nonpartisanship helped win the day, but that’s a lesson nobody wants right now.
For most Democrats, the Kavanaugh fiasco means that Republicans are willing to put a man credibly accused of sexual assault on the Supreme Court as long as they get a chance to push through their conservative social and political agenda. Especially for many Democratic women, the conclusion is that Republicans are not just amoral but also indifferent to women’s suffering. The left has long branded the GOP as the party of greed and racism; the newest label is the party of rape. Even the centrist Hillary Clinton calls for abandoning civility until Democrats retake the congressional majority.
Whatever happens in the midterms, there will be no respite from increasingly toxic political warfare. It is no accident that Kavanaugh’s peace overture on Monday was preceded by blistering comments from Trump, who denounced the “lies and deception” against Kavanaugh — and who earlier that day referred to the accusations as falsehoods by “evil” people.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.