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Francis Wilkinson: Collins, Kavanaugh and the post-truth Republican Party

October 9, 2018

Francis Wilkinson | Bloomberg View

The shouting phase of the Brett Kavanaugh saga is over. The Senate voted Saturday to elevate Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

It’s worth noting, however, that in a battle over whether a woman’s claims against a powerful man were to be believed, the decisive event was a speech by a woman who had no expectation, or even intention, of being believed herself.

Sen. Susan Collins alone occupied the defining hour of the drama. And her speech Friday – far more than anything said by Kavanaugh or by his accuser Christine Blasey Ford – will be the document that represents this chapter of history. Its implications are harrowing.

Collins’s speech offered a series of ostensible rationales for her vote in favor of Kavanaugh. But her rationales were reminiscent of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell feigning outrage over the perfidious delaying tactics of Democrats – not so long after he completely blocked the nomination of Merrick Garland.

McConnell didn’t expect his protests to be taken seriously. He was showing the Republican base, which has been conditioned by Donald Trump to savor such displays, that he could spin out an absurd falsehood in service to the cause. Remember the Russian claim that assassins dispatched with deadly toxin were actually tourists just visiting Britain to see a lovely cathedral? The open contempt for truth – a comic level of gas-lighting – is the whole point.

Collins offered some traditional partisan fare: She unwound a lengthy complaint about the involvement of liberal interest groups in a nomination process that was organized and dominated by conservative interest groups. But she anchored her speech in the vapors of Trump and McConnell’s post-truth, confirming it as the lingua franca of the entire party.

Collins’s gassiest passage cited the long history of GOP betrayal of anti-abortion activists, who have seen Republican presidents repeatedly appoint pro-choice justices to the court. Then, amazingly, she assured her audience that the GOP’s most loyal voters were about to get the shiv yet again.

Opponents frequently cite then-candidate Donald Trump’s campaign pledge to nominate only judges who would overturn Roe.

The Republican platform for all presidential campaigns has included this pledge since at least 1980. During this time, Republican presidents have appointed Justices O’Connor, Souter, and Kennedy to the Supreme Court. These are the very three justices Republican president appointed justices — who authored the Casey decision, which reaffirmed Roe.

In essence, Collins said that the GOP platform, like pledges from GOP presidents, is a recurring fraud perpetrated on one of the party’s most devoted voting blocs. Collins then said that anyone who believed that “Judge Kavanaugh was selected to do the bidding of conservative ideologues” was mistaken, just as the pro-choice opponents of Kennedy, O’Connor and Souter had been.

If Collins had expected her portrayal of Kavanaugh to be believed, she would have gone into hiding immediately after her speech to avoid a riot by anti-abortion activists. Many consider Kennedy, O’Connor and Souter traitors for upholding Roe v Wade. Their sense of betrayal is acute.

Yet no riot ensued. Anti-abortion activists are part of the base. They perceived Collins’s claims about Kavanaugh and Roe as the kind of utilitarian lie that’s increasingly standard in GOP discourse.

On Saturday, before the final vote, the homepage of the National Right to Life organization displayed no fear of Kavanaugh. Instead it featured the directive: “Tell the U.S. Senate: Confirm Brett Kavanaugh.”

Collins argued that not only is Kavanaugh “more of a centrist than some of his critics maintain,” but also he’s practically the second coming of his appeals court colleague Merrick Garland.

Garland and Kavanaugh voted “the same way in 93 percent of the cases that they heard together,” Collins said. Indeed, the two men are so nearly interchangeable that McConnell decided it was worth brutally damaging the U.S. Senate to deny Garland a seat, and that it was subsequently worth despoiling the Supreme Court to elevate Kavanaugh.

For McConnell, who votes with Collins 9 of every 10 times in the current Congress, the two judges are not exactly twins.

On the central issue of the relative credibility of Ford and Kavanaugh, Collins echoed the GOP refrain. “I found her testimony to be sincere, painful and compelling,” she said. “I believe that she is a survivor of a sexual assault and that this trauma has upended her life.”

Indeed, Collins believed Ford completely but for the one detail about which Ford said she was “100 percent” certain: that Kavanaugh had assaulted her.

In reality, like her Republican colleagues, Collins either didn’t believe Ford was telling the truth or didn’t particularly care what the truth might be. And Collins expected her own speech to be similarly dismissed by its intended audiences.

With truth a steadily devaluing currency, Collins cashed out.

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