In his Senate testimony last week, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh repeatedly lied under oath to defend himself against a credible allegation of sexual assault. He lied about the extent of his drinking. He lied about “boofing” and threesomes. He lied about using his high school yearbook profile to sexually humiliate another classmate.
These would be unseemly but irrelevant facts about the distant past were Kavanaugh not accused of committing a drunken sexual assault in high school. The question now facing senators is whether this pattern of dishonesty should disqualify him from a lifetime appointment to one of the most powerful seats in American government. For the conservative movement and the Republican Party, the answer to that question is no.
Republicans do not need Kavanaugh to advance conservative priorities at the high court. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is not a man who loses sleep over procedural norms, and no matter what happens in the November midterms, he would still have time to ram through a different nominee during the lame-duck session. The Trump administration already has a list of 24 other potential justices pre-approved by the conservative movement. If the Kavanaugh fight were about Roe v. Wade, campaign finance or affirmative action, conservatives would be demanding a new nominee.
Instead, the Kavanaugh cause is a referendum on elite accountability. The judge’s response to a question from Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) at last week’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing summed this up nicely: Asked if he had been truthful about the intensity of his drinking in college, Kavanaugh responded, “I got into Yale Law School. That’s the No. 1 law school in the country.”
Recognizing the signal, the conservative movement rallied behind their man with angry, impassioned defenses that, conveniently, sidestep problems with the veracity of his testimony. “The left is willing to tear away the veneer of civilization in order to achieve Brett Kavanaugh’s defeat,” proclaimed Ben Shapiro on Fox News. Writing in the National Review, George Weigel declared the fight an insult to the legacy of both Cicero and the empire of Christian Rome. NRO’s John Fund concluded the Kavanaugh opposition was a big conspiracy from ACORN and George Soros. David French has been reduced to insisting that Kavanaugh’s dishonesty was “vague enough that it will never support a perjury claim” in court.
The performance has been so comprehensively embarrassing for professional conservatism that the country has almost forgotten the movement’s last attempt at a united Kavanaugh defense: Ed Whelan’s defamatory tweet-storm claiming Christine Blasey Ford had mistaken Kavanaugh for another classmate. It made Whelan a laughingstock, but continues to underlie every Senate Republican defense of Kavanaugh that purports to “believe” Ford’s claim she was sexually assaulted.
In the conservative mind, what matters is not what Kavanaugh says under oath but who he is: a lifelong member of the conservative elite. This is why pro-Kavanaugh conservative Ross Douthat has penned a tortured defense of his own prep school and Harvard years, and why self-proclaimed Never Trump conservatives are now openly broadcasting that the Kavanaugh cause has at last bound them to the president. The final straw for Never Trumper Bret Stephens? “Being quizzed in recent days about my teenage years at a New England boarding school.”
All Trump has to do is side with the elite, and the elite will side with him, however many brown children the president puts in cages along the way.
This is an extraordinary development in American politics. If Democrats in 1998, 2007 or 2013 had insisted that Republicans harbored secret authoritarian impulses and would unite with far-right ethno-state nationalists to avoid making liberal political concessions, responsible members of the Beltway commentariat would have decried the idea as an outrageous smear. Today, elite conservatives casually announce these facts about themselves on Twitter.
This is both ominous and, for Democrats, an opportunity. In a democracy, aristocratic political parties face a math problem. No aristocracy worth its salt can wield a majority on its own. There would be no fun in joining the elite, after all, if everyone was invited to the party. So the aristocracy must make concessions to other factions in order to share power.
But a coalition between prep school alumni and fever-swamp authoritarians is not a majority coalition, even in red states. Roy Moore lost. Neo-Confederate Corey Stewart may have won the Republican nomination for Senate in Virginia by rallying wealthy conservatives from the D.C. suburbs to his cause, but he is now trailing incumbent Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) by a wide margin in the polls. Kavanaugh does nothing to help Republicans improve their numbers: Polling consistently reveals him to be the most unpopular Supreme Court nominee in at least a generation.
Republicans, in short, are setting themselves up for a period of historic marginalization among the American electorate. All Democrats have to do is learn the most obvious political lesson of the last decade. Stand up for working people of all colors and persuasions, and working people ― the largest demographic faction in the country ― will support you.