It is not hard to imagine a President Jeb Bush nominating Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. It is difficult, however, to imagine Bush sticking with Kavanaugh through the fire his confirmation process became. That difference is why Republican enthusiasm for the midterm elections, which had been lagging, now is on steroids and might stay that way.
Until the Kavanaugh proceedings, Trump’s style of leadership via chaos thrilled a slice of the GOP coalition and exasperated another. Even as his approval ratings remained high with Republican voters at large, his angst rating among Republican donors, elected officials, and conservative thought leaders remained equally high. With Kavanaugh confirmed, the case for that angst has waned.
Trumpism is now the unregretted tattoo that altered the Republican coalition, making it edgier, more rugged, and more relentless in pursuing its policy objectives.
Confronted with a liberal self-styled “resistance” movement—whose very name reeks of the virtue-signaling that galls the right—Trump responded in kind. Left-wingers march in the streets and chase prominent conservatives out of restaurants; he bows his back and marches Kavanaugh onto the bench for a lifetime. Liberals feel better for a weekend; pragmatic conservatives get to feel vindicated for decades. Good trade.
Trump not only refused to rescind Kavanaugh’s nomination when the confirmation process got rocky—as both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush had done with flagging nominees—he barnstormed the country and held campaign rallies in jam-packed basketball arenas rallying his coalition behind Kavanaugh. After playing nice for a handful of surprisingly diplomatic days, enabling a judiciary committee hearing to fairly hear the allegations against Kavanaugh, Trump retrieved his megaphone from its holster and unleashed on the judge’s liberal Senate and media antagonists.
Conservatives who may have been privately uncertain on how to proceed in the face of the allegations found the light in the flames of Trump’s heat. The consensus on the right became clear: this was not a competition of memories between two middle-aged professionals who grew up privileged at boozy teen parties in suburban Maryland. By last Saturday’s confirmation vote, this episode was not even predominantly about Kavanaugh or Christine Blasey Ford; it was a tectonic struggle between the voters’ chosen Republican government and the ruthless Democratic minority seeking to topple it by any means necessary.
Trump, aided by a perfectly timed “Braveheart” speech from Sen. Lindsey Graham and a bold stand in the gap by Sen. Susan Collins, united the right. Few would have predicted any of the three of them capable of achieving that unification. Graham and Collins had long been collaborators with Democrats on judicial appointments, even voting to confirm Barack Obama’s first two Supreme Court nominees, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
Trump is not a native of the ideological right, and some conservatives have long questioned whether he adheres to any ideology. His speech announcing his candidacy for president in 2015 used 6,000 words, and not one of them was “conservative.” For pragmatic deal-makers of his ilk, ideology is for chumps.
President Trump has become more conservative than even Candidate Trump, much less Businessman Trump, ever was. It is plausible that the thermo-nuclear Democratic opposition to his presidency has radicalized the president himself as much as his ascendance enflamed his antagonists. But whenever the transformation or whatever the reason, the American right is now not only winning, but may even get tired of winning, as he famously predicted.
Evangelicals who pragmatically embraced the thrice-married playmate-chaser got not just a similarly conservative replacement for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, they got in Neil Gorsuch the judge who had already ruled on the circuit level in the Hobby Lobby case—the modern gold standard case on religious liberty.
Gun rights advocates like the National Rifle Association, which had backed Trump’s campaign to the tune of $30 million, did not just get in Kavanaugh a justice who is likely to uphold the Second Amendment status quo, but one who as an appellate judge already crafted the legal template for the future expansion of current gun rights precedent.
Foreign policy conservatives who backed Trump similarly must cheer the most pro-Israel and anti-Iran policy the United States has had in its history. The administration’s three most prominent foreign policy faces—Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, departing United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, and National Security Advisor John Bolton—could not be more in sync with the hawk-ocracy if they had been picked by Trump’s incessant hawk critic Bill Kristol.
Supply-side economic conservatives are ebullient about the tax relief Trump jammed through Congress in 2017, giving America its lowest corporate tax rate in the history of corporate tax rates.
Populists, whom Trump brought into the Republican Party, have gotten their dividend in the form of a renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement that will re-set the norms of future trade negotiations with other partners.
Conservatives who stuck with Trump were often derided by those who didn’t for making a “deal with devil,” but in his first two years, whatever deal was struck has undeniably been paid. Our modern binary political system is ill-suited to incrementalism and compromise. It’s a lesson that Trump’s give-no-quarter style is slowly teaching the rest of his reluctant Republican team.
A policy assessment of Trumpism’s first two years is inarguable, but its politics were complicated from the start and remain so. The president’s willingness to gin a non-stop soap opera in Washington drives the golfing suburban men in his coalition crazy. His insensitive rhetoric and zeal for senseless confrontation cause suburban Republican women social misery at the yoga studio.
The polarization Trump engenders, pitting rural and industrial America against its bourgeois bubbles, has consequential math and may cost the GOP a string of governorships and its majority in the House, while sparking a perpendicular net gain in the Senate.
The price for Republicans of enduring Trump’s cringe-worthy moments can be high, but the product that has to date come with that price—a more muscular GOP every bit as willing to match the gladiator tactics of Democrats like Sen. Kamala Harris and Sen. Bernie Sanders—is one many conservatives are increasingly content to pay.
The completion of Kavanaugh’s confirmation on the eve of the midterm elections is a gift to Republicans even bigger than one justice, even a justice the cements a 5-4 conservative majority on the court. It’s the gift of common purpose.
If you were a Never Trumper Republican who longed for the predictable and polite days of Bush-ism, you now must confront the reality that Trump and only Trump was tough enough to beat back the loony left on this occasion. And if you were an Only Trumper who loved him because you disdained the fecklessness of cocktail party pachyderms, you now must admire the fortitude shown by Mitch McConnell’s patrician Senate majority.
Trump’s insensitivity will continue to consternate his allies. But after Kavanaugh, both wings of Trump’s coalition now must admit they are in this together, that their Democratic opponents’ ferocity can be met only with even greater vigor. The collective Republican walk through the smelter of this Supreme Court confirmation has finally made Trumpism about something bigger, and more important, than Trump.