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The Kavanaugh Debate Is Dividing Never Trump Conservatives

Some see a partisan judge who's unfit for the Supreme Court. Others see a victim of liberal overreach.


It has become clear over the past week that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s angry and partisan testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee helped rally Republicans to his side, including Never Trump Republicans who have never fully reconciled themselves to the president. This is a striking development given the fact that Kavanaugh’s performance replicated many of the elements of Trumpism critics have objected to: tribalist animosity, a willingness to play fast and loose with the facts, and a contempt for institutional norms.

“President Trump’s fight for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is breaking up the ‘Never Trump’ coalition of GOP leaders and pundits, many who are now uniting behind the president in advance of Saturday’s Senate confirmation vote,” the Washington Examiner’s Paul Bedard reported. “Rocked by the wall of Democratic opposition no matter what evidence supporting Kavanaugh is presented and impressed with Trump’s solid backing amid a brutal media attack, Never Trumpers are abandoning their opposition in a show of support for the man they once mocked.”

Those ranks include blogger and radio host Erick Erickson, who told Bedard, “For the first time I see myself voting for Trump in 2020. And it has a lot to do with Kavanaugh. He’s not the only reason, but he’s definitely the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

To be sure, some Never Trump conservatives have turned against Kavanaugh’s nomination. “Kavanaugh could have presented his case with dignity and controlled anger. Instead he chose to be aggrieved and petulant, more Sean Hannity than Felix Frankfurter,” Charles J. Sykes wrote in The Weekly Standard. Lawfare editor-in-chief Benjamin Wittes, who knows Kavanaugh personally and had supported his nomination, made a similar point in The Atlantic, decrying Kavanaugh’s “outburst of emotion” and “raw, undisguised, naked, and conspiratorial” partisanship. “His performance, was wholly inconsistent with the conduct we should expect from a member of the judiciary,” he wrote.

Jennifer Rubin, whom some conservatives want to expel from their movement, warned that “in producing a worthless investigation and declaring open season on sex-crimes victims, Republicans push women out of the party and onto political war-footing.” And David Frum on Twitter echoed the complaint of liberals about the hamstringing of the FBI probe into sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh:

But voices like Sykes, Rubin and Frum were few and far between. The opinion from conservative pundits was overwhelmingly pro-Kavanaugh, frequently echoing the jurist’s claims of a partisan conspiracy to destroy his Supreme Court bid.

“In the eyes of those who would destroy his nomination, Kavanaugh and his family are no longer human beings, if they ever were,” Sohrab Ahmari wrote at Commentary. “Instead, they stand in for every social evil, every unearned privilege, every ‘structure of oppression,’ every historical injustice. The Kavanaughs are political demons.”

Bret Stephens, once among the foremost Never Trump conservatives, penned a column that was especially useful for explaining how the Kavanaugh debate has moved former critics of the president into his camp.

“For the first time since Donald Trump entered the political fray, I find myself grateful that he’s in it,” Stephens wrote in The New York Times. “I’m grateful because Trump has not backed down in the face of the slipperiness, hypocrisy and dangerous standard-setting deployed by opponents of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. I’m grateful because ferocious and even crass obstinacy has its uses in life, and never more so than in the face of sly moral bullying. I’m grateful because he’s a big fat hammer fending off a razor-sharp dagger.”

The Wall Street Journal editorial board similarly waved away the president’s behavior and implied that liberals’ behavior was even worse. “Donald Trump didn’t help Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation with his crude mockery of Christine Blasey Ford on Tuesday night in Mississippi, but then this Supreme Court moshpit isn’t about this President,” the editors wrote. “The left’s all-out assault on the judge is clarifying because it shows that the ‘resistance’ is really about anything and everything conservative in America. Mr. Trump is its foil to regain power.”

One of the core insights of the Trump era is that the president can maintain control of the Republican Party by presenting all politics as a binary choice of friend versus enemies: Once Republicans realize that they have to choose between Trump or the dastardly Democrats, they will rally to the GOP standard bearer no matter how much they dislike him. With the binary choice of yes or no to Kavanaugh, Trump seems to be winning over some of his remaining foes on the right.