Republicans Are Standing by Kavanaugh Just to Own the Libs

The simple philosophy that governs everything the GOP does.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty

Welcome to Evesplaining, politics writer Eve Peyser's column about why everyone else is wrong and she's right.

No matter what you make of the veracity of the sexual assault claims that multiple women have leveled against Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee, you have to wonder—why are conservatives defending such a controversial candidate for the highest court in the land?

As Vox's Matt Yglesias has argued, "Republicans simply do not care whether it’s true that Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted women in his youth," noting that Bill Shine has ascended to a top communications post in the White House after he was ousted from Fox News "because he’d been named in too many lawsuits as an abettor of the multiple, large-scale sexual harassment allegations at the company." And of course, Trump himself has been accused of sexual misconduct by many women, one of whom is suing him for defamation.


But just as a political matter, you would think that Republicans would not be eager for another public debate about sexual assault less than a year after Roy Moore lost a Senate race in Alabama. Trump could've ditched Kavanaugh when it was clear his confirmation was in peril weeks ago and picked one of several other judges just as conservative as the former George W. Bush attorney (Neil Gorsuch, after all, was confirmed routinely despite his very conservative views). Kavanaugh wouldn't even have to admit to any wrongdoing, just issue a statement saying that the confirmation process was bad for his family and the country as a whole, etc., and go back to being an extremely powerful DC circuit judge. His replacement would almost certainly be easier to confirm—but pulling him would be a sign of weakness, a tacit surrender to the criticism that maybe a guy who's been accused of sexual assault isn't the best candidate for the job.

Conservatives are standing behind Kavanaugh based on a simple principle: They want to own the libs. In the Trump era, "owning the libs" has become the GOP's primary doctrine—whether it be the president undoing Barack Obama's environmental regulations or his insistence that we must build the wall. These policies came about because, more than anything, it really pisses off the left.

"Owning the libs" as a political philosophy predated Trump, but his ascension to the presidency is the logical conclusion of the eight years Republicans spent doing their darnedest to foil Obama's every move. Trump's presidential campaign was hinged on scoring cheap points in the culture wars, rather than espousing any coherent political ideology. While the politicians of yore might have championed political unity and compromise, the pervasive own-the-libs style of politics makes compromise impossible by adopting principles to intentionally inflame your opponent. As I wrote recently for Rolling Stone, owning the libs "isn’t about furthering an ideological goal, only churlishness—it seeks to make the world a nastier and dumber place. The emptiness of it all is haunting."


Much of the conservative response to the Kavanaugh allegations is based on the premise that Democrats are playing the same cynical game. “It’s amazing these allegations come out of nowhere at the last minute…it’s not untypical for our friends on the other side to pull that kind of crap," Republican Senator Orrin Hatch said in response to a New Yorker story detailing a second sexual misconduct allegation against Kavanaugh. Staking out that kind of position traps you—if more women accuse Kavanaugh of wrongdoing, they're part of the same conspiracy. There is no room for doubt or nuance, just more anger and pain.

One of the many problems "owning the libs" is that you get so wrapped up in tribalism that you end up owning yourself. Republicans are desperate to ensure they have a majority conservative Supreme Court before the midterm elections, which is why they're trying to push Kavanaugh's confirmation through without an FBI investigation of the allegations against him. It's unclear whether the GOP would have enough time to confirm another nominee before the elections at this point, but if they win the midterms they'd have all the time in the world to confirm someone else—instead, Republicans standing by an increasingly unpopular nominee and likely hurting their political prospects in the process.

An easier path to creating a Supreme Court that could potentially overturn Roe v. Wade would've been dropping Kavanaugh at the first sign this was going to turn into a meat grinder and find someone else. Instead, Republicans prioritized giving the middle finger to the left. If this ends in total failure—Kavanaugh's defeat, a Senate takeover by Democrats, and no Supreme Court confirmation period—the GOP will have nothing but itself to blame.

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