Give the Republican establishment credit for strategic vision. While President Trump may use populist rhetoric on the campaign trail, when it comes to his actual decision-making, it’s still the longtime GOP poohbahs running the show in Washington.
The tax bill signed by the president last year was Republican tax policy 101, loaded up with gifts to big corporations and the wealthy, while average Americans had to settle for scraps. But the big win for the GOP establishment comes with Trump’s selection this week of Brett Kavanaugh to replace the retiring Anthony Kennedy as an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Republicans have faced a growing and existential problem in recent years as their party, comprised almost exclusively of white people who hold views that large majorities of Americans say they don’t support, seeks to retain power.
The GOP plan to rule as a minority has many facets, including gerrymandering House seats, greater voting restrictions, and voter list purges. But perhaps the most strategic has been a relatively little-known effort by the Washington D.C.-based Federalist Society to reshape the federal judiciary, particularly at the very top.
The Federalist Society has worked for decades to identify promising individuals who share their increasingly unpopular beliefs, which include a rejection of Americans’ right to privacy, while advancing the power and influence of corporations in both the economy and in our electoral process. Their legal landscape includes opposition to unions, opposition to environmental and health and safety regulations, and opposition to the Affordable Care Act, the minimum wage, immigrant rights, same-sex marriage, and a woman’s right to choose.
While President Trump claimed this week that his selection of Kavanaugh was the result of an exhaustive search of only the most qualified candidates, the truth is that Kavanaugh was part of a short list first developed during the 2016 campaign by White House legal counsel Don McGahn, a longtime Republican operative, and Leo Leonard, who leads the ultra-conservative Federalist Society. President Donald Trump had almost nothing to do with it.
It mattered little who on the list Trump picked, since all of the individuals were hand-selected by the Federalist Society for their ideological purity and their willingness to serve as judicial activists in defense of GOP priorities.
If Kavanaugh is confirmed, as seems likely, it will cement those priorities into American jurisprudence for at least a generation. Republicans recognize that they represent a political minority, and one that is fated to shrink with each succeeding election cycle for the foreseeable future. President Trump’s race-baiting and false populism may have allowed the GOP to retake the White House for four years, but the president’s policies remain deeply unpopular with all but the GOP base, and they are alienating virtually every minority constituency in the country— constituencies that will soon represent a majority of Americans. And Trump, already, is a minority president, who lost the popular vote by almost three million votes.
But when it comes to actual power under the American system, that ultimately doesn’t matter. While America has always maintained some of the trappings of democratic rule, the system was wisely designed to place checks on the power of the majority. What is unusual today is that the GOP has engineered the means to effectively dominate the federal government as a minority— and with the selection of Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, they can extend that dominance regardless of the outcome of elections for decades to come.
Senate Democrats, under intense pressure from their own constituents, are promising to fight to oppose such an outcome, but there’s little reason to believe that their efforts will be effective. They represent a largely impotent political majority in the U.S., led by politicians who have been outplayed at every turn by a Republican establishment that has been systematic and strategic, as well as far more aggressive in advancing their interests, including taking no action on President Obama’s nomination of the well-qualified and eminently moderate Merrick Garland to the high court.
The GOP establishment has been laying the foundation for minority rule for decades. With the lifetime appointment of Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump is laying the capstone on that effort. And the majority of Americans, who do not agree with the policies Kavanaugh and his conservative brethen on the high court will likely advance, will be forced to live with the consequences for years to come.