Kavanaugh Has Exposed the Savage Amorality of America's Ruling Class
How the DC establishment has responded to his confirmation controversy tells us an awful lot.
Brett Kavanaugh in 2009. Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty
For decades, Brett Kavanaugh has traveled through the ranks of the conservative movement as smoothly as food slides down the gullet of a force-fed foie gras duck. An elite private high school, Yale, Yale Law School, a series of clerkships for conservative judges, a spot on Ken Starr's team during his investigation of Bill Clinton, a gig as a lawyer in George W. Bush's White House, and, thanks to Bush, a federal judgeship. When Donald Trump—or really, the right-wing Federalist Society—nominated Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court this summer, a fleet of shiny legal establishment types gushed over the pick, declaring him a fine legal mind and an upstanding citizen. One of Kavanaugh's old professors, a self-described Hillary Clinton supporter named Akhil Reed Amar, called him a "superb nominee" in a New York Times op-ed.
Those people all look pretty bad right now. The accusation from Christine Blasey Ford that Kavanaugh tried to rape her when they were both teenagers in the early 80s may not derail his ascension to the highest court in the country, pending a Senate hearing that may or may not include her testimony. But in the days since news of that accusation broke, reporting on the milieu from which Kavanaugh emerged has painted an ugly portrait of elite American society as both bacchanalian and banal, a nepotacracy where connections matter far more than any semblance or strain of morality.
A contemporary of Kavanaugh's at Georgetown Prep told HuffPost the scene there included "14-, 15-, 16-year-olds, 17-year-old kids doing whatever the fuck they wanted to do, with no repercussions. Drugs everywhere. Partying everywhere. Drinking—just whatever we wanted to do. It was unbelievable, off the rails." At Yale, Kavanaugh belonged to a "secret society" that was basically a bunch of guys getting drunk together. To some extent, that's normal college nonsense, but after law school, Kavanaugh clerked for Alex Kozinski a federal judge later pushed out in disgrace after being accused of sexually harassing women he supervised, and showing pornography to his subordinates. (Kavanaugh has said he was unaware of this behavior, though Kozinski's nature doesn't seem to have been much of a secret; the judge ran an email list where he shared dirty jokes and stories.) When Kavanaugh was a judge himself, Amy Chua, the Yale professor most famous for writing Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, reportedly told her students it was "no accident" his female clerks "looked like models." (According to the Guardian, a student "reacted with surprise, and quickly pointed out that Chua’s own daughter was due to clerk for Kavanaugh. A source said that Chua quickly responded, saying that her own daughter would not put up with any inappropriate behavior.")
None of this necessarily indicts Kavanaugh as an individual. Lots of people drink too much as teenagers and party hard in college; Chua's alleged comments may have reflected an inaccurate perception of his hiring practices. Still, it gives us an impression of what the world of political and legal elites is like: Bad behavior is quickly forgotten or forgiven, young women are pressured to look attractive, and powerful men can harass their subordinates for years without consequences.
The professional side of Kavanaugh's world doesn't look much more virtuous. By all indications, he was a right-wing hack who worked with Starr's team and other conservatives to take down Clinton's presidency in the 90s, then he was a right-wing hack who worked on the 2000 presidential recount in Florida, then he was a right-wing hack in the Bush administration. Democratic Senator Dick Durbin called him "the Zelig or Forrest Gump of Republican politics" during Kavanaugh's extremely contentious confirmation hearings for a federal judgeship in 2004. He was eventually confirmed in 2006, after Republicans and Democrats made a broader deal about judicial appointments. Since then, "He’s been what I thought he would be,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told the Washington Post in July. “I bet you that he’s been what they thought he would be.”
Predictably, as a judge Kavanaugh has been reliably anti-abortion, anti-regulation, anti-union, and pro-gun—in other words, he has been working the same right-wing causes, only now wearing robes instead of a suit. He's spent his entire career promoting and working for the conservative movement, and he has been rewarded for his continued loyalty with a position of extreme power.
But if Kavanaugh is just an ideological tool, why were so many centrist and liberal figures in the legal world voicing their support when he was nominated? I put that question to Jeff Hauser, a lawyer and the executive director of the Revolving Door Project, a left-leaning anti-corruption organization, who strongly opposes Kavanaugh's nomination. He chalked up some of Kavanaugh's support to “an awful tendency in elite circles to put congeniality and collegiality over ethics,” but also noted that some lawyers might have pragmatic reasons to back Kavanaugh. He pointed to Lisa Blatt, who publicly backed Kavanaugh despite being a "liberal feminist lawyer" and who works at an elite law firm that naturally wants the Supreme Court to take up as many of its cases as possible.
Hauser emphasized that he wasn't saying there was any sort of quid pro quo arrangement between any judge and any lawyer, but told me, “If I were an in-house lawyer at a corporation and I was deciding between the dozen important appellate litigation shops in DC," he might take Blatt's link to Kavanaugh into account. (I reached out to Blatt for comment and will update the story if and when she responds.)
The small-world chuminess of the US legal establishment has been on display in the wake of Ford's accusation, too. On Thursday, Ed Whelan, a prominent member of the conservative legal movement, spewed out a conspiratorial Twitter thread in which he alleged that Ford may have confused Kavanaugh for a lookalike classmate, then named that classmate, stopping just short of accusing that man of sexual assault. Ford denied that she would have ever mixed the two up, Whelan later apologized profusely, and said he didn't communicate with Kavanaugh or the White House about his thread. (He did reportedly get the help of a Virginia PR firm.) But the Washington Post reported Friday that "Kavanaugh and his allies have been privately discussing a defense that would not question whether an incident involving Ford happened, but instead would raise doubts that the attacker was Kavanaugh." And conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat bizarrely lent some of his credibility to Whelan's ravings:
Clearly, the fact that these people know each other doesn't make any of them right about anything. The back-scratching op-eds written in Kavanaugh's favor by his friends didn't prove anything other than his friends' connections at prominent publications. And the defenses of Kavanaugh, whether wild-eyed like Whelan's or more measured, just show us how ready conservatives are to close ranks. “There’s a greater sense of solidarity and kinship between elite law school conservatives than elite law school centrists and liberals,” Hauser told me. “An attack on Kavanaugh really is an attack on all of them.”
Kavanaugh may still be confirmed in the coming days, as many Republican senators care more about creating a conservative majority on the Supreme Court than the accusations against him. At this point, the GOP is well practiced in ignoring or discounting allegations of sexual assault. But let's not forget that the path Kavanaugh has walked to power is designed for people like him—privileged, white, connected, conservative. The system exists to promote his type and to excuse any blemish, past or present. We used to ask how the US got Donald Trump, but the answer seems obvious: We got him the same way we got all these other guys.
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