“For the first time since Donald Trump entered the political fray,” Bret Stephens wrote yesterday in his New York Times column, “I find myself grateful that he’s in it.”
Reading Stephens’ column, I also found myself feeling grateful for Donald Trump. The only good thing to be said for the president is that he is an outright accelerationist, making the American conservative movement’s coded or latent commitment to bigotry, corruption, and destruction into the open agenda of the Republican Party. There is no pretense of principle, just smash-and-grab governance, children in cages, cruelty and stupidity as an end in themselves, to own the libs.
Until yesterday, Bret Stephens approached his job as if that were not the case, as if there were still angles left to play. That’s how he got to the Times from the crank-haunted opinion section of the Wall Street Journal: he was a principled, reasonable, conservative—an anti-Trump conservative, above blind loyalty to movement or party. He was glib and fraudulent, to be sure, but he understood the importance of plausible deniability, of maintaining a respectable tone and distance.
Now—after a brief, final throat-clearing about how he’s “reluctant to admit it and astonished to say it”—that’s all over. Bret Stephens is enraged by the opposition to Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, and his rage needs a champion, and that champion is Donald Trump: “a big fat hammer fending off a razor-sharp dagger….having the simple nerve to point out the naked hypocrisy….one big bully [who] was willing to stand up to others.”
Reasonableness is gone. There are reasons, yes, a list of eight moments that forced Stephens to this point, but they are pure resentment and feeling. He and a friend imagined themselves accused of sexual assault, and were horrified. A columnist somewhere was cavalier about the possibility of false accusations (Stephens, as usual, misrepresents the statistics). One of Kavanaugh’s accusers struck him as dishonest, whipping him into a frenzy against all of them:
Uncorroborated plus uncorroborated plus largely uncorroborated is not the accumulation of questions, much less of evidence. It is the duplication of hearsay.
Christine Blasey Ford’s firsthand testimony, under oath, is the opposite of hearsay evidence, but Stephens has abandoned even his tenuous commitment to words and facts having meanings. He is furious—a fury shared by other high-minded conservatives—that the media reported on a bar brawl that Kavanaugh started in college by drunkenly throwing ice at a stranger. The incident “resulted in no charges against him, and should never have been reported,” Stephen writes, as if the first part proves the second. The principle he’s appealing to does not exist; if it did, the recording of Harvey Weinstein admitting he groped a woman and trying to badger her into his room again would be off limits.
But there are no real rules here, beyond elite male solidarity and the will to get a right-wing justice on the Supreme Court. Donald Trump has worked alchemy on the conservative movement. He offered them the prize they wanted: a committed Federalist Society nominee, a credentialed product of their judge-making process—and then they watched as that sterling candidate transmogrified into a raving, seething avatar of Trump himself.
The way forward for Bret Stephens is the president’s way. The columnist regrets the “ugly and gratuitous way” Trump attacked Ford, as if that’s separable from the hammer-strength he so admires, but he’s proud to be on Team Bully. He is Brett Kavanaugh in the bar, attacking a stranger in the knowledge that his six-foot-eleven basketball buddy Chris Dudley will jump in behind him. Nobody’s going to disrespect him, or the people he stands for, anymore.
This is Donald Trump’s one gift to America, that the mask is torn away. The Trumpers and the Never Trumpers, Brett-two-T’s Kavanaugh and Bret-one-T Stephens, are all one thing, a united front of pure hostility, angry white men wrathful that anyone would oppose them or stake a competing claim.
Will that be enough? Brett-two-T’s would publish an op-ed of his own, at day’s end, in the Journal, trying to pull the tatters of the mask back over his own face. “I Am an Independent, Impartial Judge,” the headline read—an assertion in lieu of apology.
There was nothing to the Kavanaugh piece but a restringing of the same cliches he’d given in his hearings, about balls and strikes and the sunrise side of the mountain, the things he’d never meant and had disproven with his final conspiratorial meltdown in front of the Judiciary Committee. The judge blamed that outburst (dishonestly) on his having been carried away by the emotion of the moment, and he conceded only that “my tone was sharp, and I said a few things I should not have said”—which bears the same relation to his performance as “Sometimes I had too many beers” did to his high school and college peers’ accounts of the staggering, vomiting, belligerent habitual drunk they knew.
It was absurd, as absurd as Stephens’ eight-point tantrum had been, as absurd as the White House denying the president’s mockery of Christine Blasey Ford had been mockery. It was as absurd as Donald Trump being the President of the United States.