All hail the Trump court
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold — “The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats
It matters less, now, if President Donald J. Trump serves only one term. It matters less if he is impeached. It matters less if Robert Mueller indicts him for colluding with a foreign power.
With the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy from the U.S. Supreme Court, Trump is a hair’s-breadth away from sealing his legacy as one of the most influential (if petty, crude, divisive, corrupt and anti-democratic) presidents in American history.
It is hard to underestimate the magnitude of this development. Trump has promised to appoint another hardcore conservative, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his minions will roll right over Senate Democrats to confirm him (or her). That jurist will likely be in his or her 40s or 50s and serve for decades.
That strongly suggests that for the rest of my life — and through a considerable part of my child’s adult life — the nation’s highest court will be a bastion of ultra-right doctrine, hostile to progressive causes of all sorts. That court will likely kill off reproductive rights, starve unions, look askance at affirmative action, eviscerate voting rights and abuse criminal defendants. It will coddle violent police officers, kowtow to corporations and re-write the First Amendment, bulldozing Thomas Jefferson’s famed “wall of separation between church and state.”
This is a huge victory for the forces of retrenchment. Conservatives are much better than liberals at playing the long game, and rich political players on the right have been plotting to remake the court in their own image for decades now. Even before Kennedy’s announcement (and with Kennedy’s assistance), the high court had shifted rightward. Just this summer, the court has weakened reproductive rights, upheld Trump’s hateful, anti-Muslim travel ban and hammered public sector unions. It aided and abetted homophobes with a ruling that sided with a baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple.
McConnell had gambled on that shift — and won — when he stymied President Barack Obama’s appointment of Merrick Garland. Spitting on the U.S. Constitution, McConnell defied precedent, mocked tradition and trammeled bi-partisanship, insisting that no high court nominee should be confirmed in an election year. Senate Republicans later embraced Trump’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch, who has become a reliable ultra-conservative vote.
Of course, McConnell quickly reversed himself after Kennedy’s announcement, revealing that the Senate will vote on a nominee in the fall. Never mind that it’s an election year. Conservatives see their long-held goal of a far-right court just a step or two away, and hypocrisy is their handmaiden.
For much of my life, the Supreme Court served as a defense for oppressed minorities — a bulwark that pushed political and civic institutions to fully respect our rights as citizens. Through several decades, the highest court issued rulings that desegregated public schools, upheld voting rights, sanctioned desegregation of public accommodations and respected affirmative action. It broadened protections for criminal defendants. As feminism took center stage, the court upheld reproductive rights.
And even as the court turned rightward after the appointment of Justice Clarence Thomas, it still found occasion to grant succor to the oppressed. Kennedy’s libertarian streak helped to sustain that impulse. He upheld Roe vs. Wade. He championed gay rights. He voted against the death penalty for juvenile offenders. But Trump’s list of potential nominees likely includes no Kennedys.
While the Trump-McConnell machine is taking all the credit for their victory, they had help from the left — from the Never-Hillary crowd. Progressive activists such as Susan Sarandon insisted that the Democratic nominee would be no better than Trump. Green Party nominee Jill Stein drained votes away from Clinton. Young progressive voters stayed away from the polls in the 2016 presidential election because they weren’t “energized” by Clinton’s campaign.
They helped put Trump in office, and they will reap what they have sown. So, unfortunately, will the rest of us.