Donald Trump is a terrible president in all kinds of ways, but his shameless cynicism is sometimes more illuminating than the high-minded posturing that so often dominates our politics.
Asked on Monday about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's vow to bring Trump's nominee to succeed Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to a floor vote despite taking the opposite tack four years ago with Barack Obama's choice to succeed the recently deceased Justice Antonin Scalia, the president didn't respond by trying to parse or adjust the "rule" McConnell enunciated to justify his actions in 2016 so that it could apply to the current situation. He merely stated a blunt fact: "When you have the votes, you can sort of do what you want."
Indeed you can. And Republicans are about to prove it.
I have to say there's something refreshing about Trump's candor. The president will lie a hundred times a day, but he's happy to express the ugly truth that justifies his own and his party's ruthlessness: They had the power to get what they wanted in 2016, and they have to power to get what they want now, and there's no need to say anything more. No higher motive, justification, or principle is required. No appealing to anything nobler than self-interest. Which means Trump also can't be accused of being a hypocrite. Remember the old line about hypocrisy being the tribute that vice pays to virtue? Trump is immune from the charge of hypocrisy because he has no concept of virtue to depart from — at least beyond his skill at advancing his own good (and good of the party to which his political fate is now inextricably attached).
The same cannot be said of just about anyone else on the political scene. What would our politics be like if everyone was equally cynical and transparently self-interested? It's worth going through the thought experiment.
McConnell — the arch-Machiavellian, master tactician with ice water in his veins who so expertly guided Trump through impeachment last winter — probably comes closest to achieving the Trumpian standard of political amorality. Yet it was McConnell himself who chose to justify his actions in 2016 — refusing to permit a vote or even hearings on Obama's nominee for the high court — in terms of a general principle: In an election year, the voters should get a say in who gets appointed to the court. Republicans have tried mightily in recent days to defend McConnell against the charge of hypocrisy by claiming that this principle only applied because the Senate and presidency were held by different parties four years ago. But McConnell barely mentioned that fact at the time and instead placed all of his emphasis on the need to gauge public sentiment on Election Day.
That was an error. McConnell should simply have said, "Sorry, Mr. President, Republicans control the Senate and we don't want to see you replace Scalia with a liberal, even a moderate one like Merrick Garland. Maybe we'd take a different stance if we weren't less than a year out from an election, but we'll have to see next time around." McConnell's current position — "we have the votes" — comes closer to demonstrating the requisite ruthlessness.
Democrats, meanwhile, have been apoplectic at the prospect of Trump and McConnell replacing legendary liberal Ruth Bader Ginsburg with a staunch conservative so soon after Republicans deprived Obama of placing a liberal on the court. It certainly is galling, as any serious political loss always is. But is it a moral outrage? A fundamental injustice? A moral affront worthy of the highest dudgeon?
Many Democrats appear to think so. To justify the claim, they appeal to the ideal of democratic majoritarianism. The president lost the popular vote. The Senate is an institution that greatly amplifies the power of sparsely populated rural states at the expense of more densely populated urban states. Put both together, and we're left with a full-frontal assault on the principle of democracy.
The only problem is that progressives only believe in the principle of democracy when it helps them to advance their preferred policy goals. When it threatens to stand in the way of what they want, they oppose it — which is precisely why they are so angry that they are facing the possibility of being even more decisively denied the power to control the Supreme Court, our system's most formidable counter-majoritarian institution.
Do you doubt it? If so, consider: Most Americans say they don't want to see Roe v. Wade overturned. But it's also true that after the first trimester, public opinion turns quite solidly against the pro-choice position. And by the third trimester, it has become overwhelmingly pro-life. But the progressive position on abortion rights is not that early-term abortions should be legal and protected while late-term abortions should be banned, with second-trimester abortions strictly regulated and sometimes restricted. That would be the position supported by the greatest number of Americans. But on this issue — as on economic regulation, voting rights, anti-discrimination law, and other social issues — progressives don't particularly care what majority sentiment is. They want to protect fundamental rights even if, and perhaps especially if, the majority takes a different view.
What would an honest statement of the Democratic position on the court sound like? "Damn it — we lost again! We need to start winning, and winning big — including winning the Senate with as wide a margin as possible. We held it with a 60-vote majority just a decade ago. We need to do it again and then use that power to ram through as many judicial appointments as we can, as quickly as we can. Sure, it'll be hard, but the Constitution precludes messing with how the Senate is elected, so we need to train our sights elsewhere, like reforming the Electoral College and defending voting rights. But we won't be able to do any of that if we don't win the presidency and big victories in both houses of Congress. We need to do whatever it takes to make that happen, even if that includes adjusting some of our priorities."
Now, what about those Never Trump Republicans who still consider themselves conservatives but think the decision on replacing Ginsburg should be made by the winner of the upcoming election? Surely these dissenters, at least, are taking a stand on principle. Right?
Maybe. But I wouldn't be so sure. Yes, they probably would have strongly favored the nomination of any of the jurists Trump might pick had they been chosen by any other Republican president. But this doesn't necessarily imply that the decision to switch positions under current circumstances is motivated by principle. That's because these dissenting conservatives above all want to see Trump go down to a disgraceful defeat that, among other things, manages to discredit him in the eyes of Republican voters. That is the only hope for these Never Trump Republicans to take their party back by regaining influence over its character and direction.
It's therefore in the interest of Never Trump Republicans to deny the president any boost to his re-election hopes — and also to deny him any opportunity to portray himself as a martyr-hero who did everything he could to advance the longstanding goals of the conservative movement right up to the moment he went down to defeat. That's more than enough motivation to explain the urge to stand against Trump's pending nominee to the high court.
People are complicated, and so are their motives. Trump undoubtedly takes things too far in implying that absolutely everything in politics (and perhaps life itself) is about advancing interests and maximizing power. But that doesn't mean those who appeal so often and so quickly to high moral principle are always justified in doing so.
Our politics just might benefit from a little less unearned moralism.
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