A Supreme Court confirmation and the imaginary enemies of the GOP

What do the lines of attack used against Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson reveal about the current state of the Republican Party?

Ted Cruz is seen during the confirmation hearing of Judge Jackson
Senator Ted Cruz, a Reopublican, questioned Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson on books on racism used in schools [AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster]

As the Senate Judiciary Committee considered the nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson for the Supreme Court over the last several weeks, the proceedings descended into farce whenever Republicans had their turn to speak.

Words like “shameful” and “embarrassing” have aptly been used to describe the GOP’s conduct during the hearings.

Senators like Missouri’s Josh Hawley repeatedly harangued Judge Jackson for allegedly giving overly lenient sentences to paedophiles. Ted Cruz attempted to tie Jackson to Critical Race Theory (CRT), seemingly for no other reason than her being a Black judge. Lindsey Graham unleashed increasingly unhinged diatribes on everything from religion to the remaining detainees at Guantanamo Bay, even storming out of the committee chamber at one point.

Jackson managed to calmly and consistently stick to discussing her record. She wisely opted not to opine on lines of questioning about things that were outside of her control, such as the fairness of the confirmation process for previous nominee Brett Kavanaugh (who faced accusations of past sexual assault) or whether President Joe Biden should expand the court in an effort to appoint more liberal justices. And she did not dignify accusations against her that had no basis in reality.

From the moment that she was nominated for the Supreme Court, Jackson’s chances of being confirmed were quite good. The razor-thin Democratic majority in the US Senate allows them to advance the nomination out of the deadlocked committee, and a handful of Republican senators have declared they will vote “yes” for Jackson when her nomination hits the full Senate, virtually guaranteeing her confirmation.

While Republicans may have been hoping to either catch Jackson in a major gaffe or make their “soft on crime” charges against her stick, neither of these scenarios were particularly likely. And the GOP senators who spent several days attacking Jackson knew this as well. Yet, these lines of attack against Jackson were deployed frequently and with coordination, demonstrating a clear strategy from the Republican senators. What possible purpose did such an unwarranted grilling serve?

While it is tempting to write these hearings off as simply a sign of the dysfunction within the Trump-dominated, conspiracy-theory laden Republican Party, in reality, Republicans and their actions at the Jackson hearings are quite functional. They are simply no longer working towards goals that bear any resemblance to democratic governance.

In many ways, Republicans used the Jackson hearings as an opportunity to create a new set of enemies that the Republicans can run against in November of this year and in 2024. The fact that these enemies do not actually exist was of little consequence to the conservative senators on the panel.

If they had bothered to look up the records of other judges, they would have seen that Jackson’s “soft” sentences were fully in line with others given for similar crimes. If Senator Hawley had simply reviewed his own record as Missouri attorney general, he would have been forced to acknowledge that he was likewise criticised for being too lenient against sex offenders. But Republicans showed no interest in acknowledging this kind of basic context, even when Jackson herself and others raised these points during the hearings.

I’ll amend my assertion that it is of little consequence that Republicans’ “enemies” do not actually exist. It is actually of great consequence that the GOP insists on fighting mirages. To understand why this is the case, it is important to understand the history of Republican strategy over the past several decades and the social evolution of the country in recent years.

The Republican Party long ago adopted the tactic of portraying itself as the protector of “real” America against some exaggerated or caricatured threat: drug dealers (and users); abortion providers; “welfare queens”; feminists; “the gay agenda”; “terrorists”; “activist judges;” Black Lives Matter protesters; advocates for “wokeness” and so on. Along the way, however, the GOP has suffered setbacks in its culture wars as the targets of their attacks have become more accepted within society.

As the opioid crisis hit white America, those with drug addictions became increasingly viewed as needing medical attention, not incarceration. Same-sex marriage and open LBGTQ military service did not destroy these institutions for straight people, as many Republican naysayers had warned. In the 20 years since 9/11, mass shooters and white supremacists have been more deadly threats to Americans than Islamist “extremists”. The murder of George Floyd and others jarred much of the country into facing the real injustice of racist and institutionalised violence against Black bodies.

Faced with a dwindling list of acceptable adversaries to demonise, the Republicans have resorted to making them up. Rather than say that they oppose LGBTQ rights and educating students about racism – stances that would put them out of the mainstream of American public opinion – they claim to be against rogue teachers and activists “indoctrinating” young children with ideas about sexuality and the evilness of white people.

Republicans claim to be the only ones who stand between innocent, “real” Americans and the reverse-racists and sexual predators who would destroy the country. The alternative to creating these imagined enemies would be to have a genuine debate over the true goals of the Republican Party – a debate that it is not confident it can win.

Senator Roy Blunt, who will have the chance to cast his vote when Jackson’s nomination arrives on the Senate floor, illustrated his party’s approach when he discussed Jackson’s nomination on ABC News this past weekend. Blunt conceded that Judge Jackson was “certainly qualified” to sit on the Supreme Court and acknowledged that her selection as the first Black woman justice would “be a high point for the country”. With this setup, Blunt then defied logic by, nearly in the same breath, declaring: “I won’t be supporting her.”

Blunt gave a vague rationale about Jackson’s judicial philosophy – alluding to the well-worn “activist judge” label without actually making the argument since it does not really fit Jackson’s record. Instead, Blunt can merely imply that Jackson wants to rewrite the constitution and allow his Republican base to believe such a charge. Explicitly stating the accusation would open it up to scrutiny and invite a debate on the merits of the judge’s record, which Blunt and other Republicans know is quite strong, and demonstrate that their opposition to Jackson is rooted in ideology at best and bias at worst.

This Republican strategy of hiding their true intentions is not motivated by shame, but by expediency. The Republicans realise that they still operate within a democracy, and thus the path to power – for now – runs through gaining more votes. When Republicans can work around popular opinion, they do so – such as by stacking the federal bench, and particularly the Supreme Court, with enough judges and justices to shoot down abortion rights and affirmative action. When the GOP can manipulate popular opinion, they do that as well – both by perpetuating lies like the “stolen” 2020 election and by limiting honest discourse on basic topics such as race or LGBTQ identity through laws regulating schools and even businesses. And when the Republicans can restrict the translation of popular opinion into electoral and policy outcomes – in other words, when they can undermine democracy – they have been gleeful to do so through voter suppression bills, gerrymandering, and attempts at political violence.

That gets us to the other motivation for last month’s show: riling up the worst elements of the Republican base. The focus on sexual predators was a barely veiled appeal to the QAnon conspiracy theory that has convinced perhaps millions of right-leaning Americans that the country is literally being run by a secret cabal of Satan-worshipping paedophiles against which Donald Trump and his devotees are our only hope.

The anti-CRT screeds are not only justification for the slate of state laws that essentially forbid teachers from discussing how racism exists, but also thereby provide cover for actual racist individuals and policies to operate freely.

Thus, while Republicans attempt to obscure their true goals from the majority of moderate Americans who would be appalled by them, the GOP is also sending signals to its far-right base that their extreme agenda and views are being steadily promoted by the party.

In the end, none of this matters for Jackson’s nomination. But these political strategies are disappointing, repugnant and dangerous. They represent the desperate, yet often effective, manipulations of a Republican Party that has abandoned its commitments to public service, truth and even the spirit of democracy in order to gain political power.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.