Jim Sleeper asks: Did Democrats Do Enough to Stop Kavanaugh?

Image courtesy of the White House.


Did Democrats do enough to stop Kavanaugh? Not even close, and don’t expect more from a “blue wave”

Yes, Democrats are preferable. But they're still spineless, and melted before Kavanaugh's white rage


By Jim Sleeper


Although I’ll vote for any Democrat in November to keep Donald Trump’s Republicans from finishing off the American republic at his bidding, what I saw in the performance of most Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee last week reminded me that any victory by that terminally pusillanimous, corrupt, suppurating party -- a zombie, if not a corpse, of our democratic hopes -- isn’t likely to stop what’s coming at us any more than a speed bump will stop a tank.


Again, I’ll vote for any Democrat in November, just as I voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 even after writing here that "New Democrats" have done as much as Republicans to seed and provoke Trump's rise. What’s different now is that the danger of Trumpism and the hollowness of Democrats have been more fully exposed. While we can hope that the latter will grow spines in some upcoming congressional elections, it’ll take a lot more to stop the creeping coup d’etat against the republic by Trump and his backers.


Too many Democrats are already carriers and casualties of that coup from above. When Kavanaugh interrupted Sen. Amy Klobuchar to ask if she drinks too much, why didn’t she find it in herself to say, “Mr. Kavanaugh, would you please stop putting your verbal hand over my mouth while I’m asking you a question?”


Why didn’t Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse look up from his scripted questions about a high school beach party and year book to ask Kavanaugh if he truly thought that the committee’s inquiry was staged by the Clintons in revenge for Trump’s victory and, if so, would Kavanaugh mind telling the American people more about that conspiracy?


Why didn’t “Ranking Member” of the minority, Senator Diane Feinstein, observe that Kavanaugh’s tirade had given the committee and the American people ample evidence of his judicial temperament?


Instead, these and most other Democrats cowered before Kavanaugh’s rain-dancing. He said what he’d scripted himself to say the night before, but some of his anger and partisan hatred also came roaring out of his bowels in ways that should have roused tribunes of the people to commanding, eloquent, show-stopping push-backs.


The truth is that they’ve been hollowed out by their own compromises since at least the mid-1970s, when the follies of neoliberal – yes, Clintonite – Democrats did quite as much to widen the civic and political vacuum into which Trump has swept as did the follies of conservatives.  It's an argument I've been making since 2014, long before any of us thought that Trump would run for president, much less win.


It’s also certainly true that conservatives have dined out on liberals’ mistakes for so long that they’ve forgotten how to cook for themselves and have abandoned their kitchen to Trump. But Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senator from Wall Street, and Barney Frank, the Representative from Fanny Mae, and the “welfare-reform” president Bill Clinton, and Wal-Mart board member Hillary Clinton, and even the civic magician named Barack Obama, did far too much to seed the field from which Trump’s dispossessed, insulted, enraged mobs have sprouted.


The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik denies views like mine, which he calls “the orthodoxy of this moment that Trump is not the ‘cause’ of all his catastrophes.” Gopnik urges instead that only “Trump is the cause of Trumpism….  This is Trump, and Trump alone, degrading American politics, and we should not get lost in side debates and sideshows.” He likens Trump to a magician who keeps so many tricks going at once that they divert us from noticing the big, dark, authoritarian, plutocratic advances behind the trickery.

Begging your pardon, Adam, and with all due respect for your marvelous writing: Your facility with metaphors may be tricking you and your readers. Blaming so much on Trump the magician reminds me sadly of the critic Robert Warshow’s observation in 1947 that "The New Yorker has always dealt with experience not by trying to understand it but by prescribing the attitude to be adopted toward it. This makes it possible to feel intelligent without thinking, and it is a way of making everything tolerable, for the assumption of a suitable attitude toward experience can give one the illusion of having dealt with it adequately. The gracelessness of capitalism becomes an entirely external phenomenon, a spectacle that one can observe without being touched - above all, without feeling really threatened."


Trump is indeed an unprecedentedly dangerous president. But, as I argued in The Washington Monthly last week, Democrats’ obsession with youthful sexual assaults and bar fights, serious though they may have been in Kavanaugh’s case, is no more constructive than their obsession with breaking the glass ceilings of structures whose foundations and walls they fail to change. That leaves neoliberal Democrats with little to say against glass-ceiling breakers such as Carly Fiorina, Sheryl Sandberg, or Margaret Thatcher.


Until and unless Democrats are forced by well-organized movements to challenge the regime of casino-like financing, predatory lending, and consumer-bamboozling that they’ve done so much to sustain under the falsely compensatory drapery of United Colors of Benetton “diversity,” the true and urgent claims of #MeToo and Black Lives Matter will always lose to the belligerence of the Brett Kavanaughs and the bitter resentments of the less “entitled” politically incorrect.




The following two columns, written 14 years apart -- one in 2004 about George W. Bush, the other last week about Brett Kavanaugh -- argue that we should assess their youthful misdeeds not for what they were at the time but for what they anticipated about how each man's character would affect his consequential public actions later in life.


Although the traumas that young men inflict as undergrads must not be minimized, more damaging is their disciplined, apparently decorous behavior as adults whose character flaws have "evolved" into horrendous policies and practices -- by Bush as president, by Kavanaugh as an investigator for the special counsel and as White House counsel for Bush.


That both were members of Yale's DKE fraternity may indeed have been fore-telling, but the connections between past and present need to be drawn more clearly than by tracking down bar fights or cheating in rubgy.



1. (About George W. Bush)



Los Angeles Times   Aug. 09, 2004



He's Got the Bad-Boy Vote Sewed Up


Jim Sleeper


I am looking at a photo of the George W. Bush that you've probably never seen before. It's a sports-action close-up of him at Yale, over a caption written prophetically by a fellow undergraduate more than 30 years ago: "George Bush delivers illegal, but gratifying right hook to opposing ball carrier."

Never mind that this is a rugby game, alien to most Americans, and that the caption writer's assessment wasn't political. I think it explains one reason why Bush hasn't slid in the polls since John Kerry reported for duty: He owes more than a little something to the "bad boy" vote that no pollster captures as well as this photo and caption do.

What I have in mind here isn't the bad guy in a detective story or the stand-up guy in "The Sopranos," or even some rock-band poseur. He may actually be a good guy most of the time, like millions of this country's mischievous frat boys who like getting away with things but who aren't that bad as long as they don't get into anything too far over their heads.

As president of his chapter of the DKE fraternity, Bush sounded a classic bad-boy note when he said he "didn't learn a damned thing" at Yale. "The reason was that he didn't try," Jacob Weisberg reported this spring in Yale Alumni Magazine. "One year, the star of the football team spotted him in the back row during [course-] shopping period. 'Hey, George Bush is in this class!' Calvin Hill, '69, shouted to his teammates. 'This is the one for us!' "

I was in that room that day. Bush gave them a grinning thumbs up and, I have to admit, everyone laughed. He had a certain charm about getting away with things, like DKE's custom of "branding" new members' on the butt, a less-than-noble tradition he managed to protect when it came under fire.

Being that kind of bad boy may be OK if you're cutting a history class or smirking behind your hand at some radical grad student leading your discussion section -- but not when you're staging a commander in chief's flight-deck landing or a Thanksgiving Day pop-up in Baghdad.

Bad boys don't get that far very often, of course, and Bush would tell you that he's changed a lot since college. But I don't think the difference matters much to the bad boys he's left behind, including some classmates I know who are raising money for him, not to mention the up-and-comers I taught at Yale last year. Whether they cheered Bush's flight-deck landing or are reliving the joys of intramural rugby, they think he has shown them how to mess up yet still swagger off the field with an impish grin.

I am not being partisan here. This really is an apolitical, "guy" thing, like the thunderous welcome Bill Clinton got from a huge crowd of college boys, with their baseball caps on backward, at the University of Illinois' Urbana-Champaign campus on Jan. 28, 1998, only days after rumors of his Monica Lewinsky affair surfaced. Just the day before, 120 million Americans had been riveted, watching him pull off a triumphal, almost defiant, State of the Union address.

"Yeah, Bi-i-i-i-lll!" the college boys roared lustily, and not because Al Gore had just warmed them up with news of Clinton's tuition loans, Hope scholarships and his plans to add slots for more AmeriCorps volunteers. Bad Boy Bill entered the hall to a booming rendition of the rock band Kansas' "Carry On My Wayward Son." He was greeted like a rock star, with no boos or catcalls.

Whoever wrote that caption under George's rugby photo would understand. What we shouldn't understand is how anyone could act as if Iraq were just rugby or a dalliance. A history lesson ignored might be more like it.

Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, is the author of "Liberal Racism" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003).


2. (About Brett Kavanaugh)



Kavanaugh’s Youth Was Bad Enough. His Career Has Been Worse.

Trump’s Supreme Court pick follows a familiar pattern of bad boys who grow up to do bad things.

by Jim Sleeper


SEPTEMBER 28, 2018


Ninian Reid/Flickr


The worst consequence of the allegations against Judge Brett Kavanaugh may not be the partisan attempts in Thursday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to obfuscate the search for truth.


Even more worrisome has been the media’s apparent indifference to what Kavanaugh and millions of former “frat boys” have done since they “grew up.” Some have reformed their youthful ways and became “responsible” men of the world. But for others, like Kavanaugh, the early indiscretions signaled in his own high school yearbook were a prelude to even more destructive behavior.


The arrogance, debauchery, braggadocio and sexual exploitation of Yale students has been around since the 1740s, when many of them brutally hazed one another, undertook off-campus exploits with women, and were regarded by the college’s president, Thomas Clapp, as born sinful, redeemable only by strict religious instruction, introspection, and the grace of the Holy Spirit.


The repercussions of such a regimen for some students were so predictable that, more than a century later, Herman Melville characterized his own unmoored, youthful life at sea by writing in Moby Dick that,  “A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.” The schools of aggressive young whales he was following resembled “a mob of young collegians … full of fight, fun, and wickedness, tumbling around the world at such a reckless, rollicking rate, that no prudent underwriter would insure them any more than he would a riotous lad at Yale or Harvard,” Melville wrote. “They soon relinquish this turbulence though, and when about three-fourths grown, break up and separately go about in quest of settlements.”


That last sentence suggests a truth that we’ve been missing: What young hellions do after they “settle down” is sometimes just as destructive as what they did before—all the more so if they become as sanctimonious and self-righteous as Kavanaugh was at Thursday’s hearing.


Long after Yale abandoned President Clapp efforts to reconcile religious and classical truth-seeking with capitalist wealth-making, the university, and others like it, kept on producing what the Yale alumnus and former Harper’s Magazine editor Lewis Lapham calls, “a ministerial elite, still pious and orthodox, but secular in spirit and corporate by inclination.” Lapham noted that “the  social order founded first on the Protestant church and then on the pillars of commerce had given way to a managerial elite loyal to nothing other than its own ambition” and “the arts and sciences of career management,” which include artful management of “the exchange rate between the awkward truth and the user-friendly lie.”


He might as well have been writing not only about Brett Kavanaugh, but also George W. Bush, who lived four entryways down from me when we were undergraduates at Yale in the late 1960s. In 2004, when Bush was running for re-election against John Kerry, another Yale undergrad from our time, I found a sports-action photo in my Yale yearbook with a caption that said, “George Bush delivers illegal, but gratifying right hook to opposing ball carrier.”


The game being depicted was only intramural rugby, and the caption writer’s assessment wasn’t political, but in 2004, it helped me to understand why Bush wasn’t sliding in the polls, even though his recently-nominated opponent had served bravely in Vietnam, as Bush hadn’t. Bush owed a lot to the “bad boy” vote of millions of Americans. His ascendancy told them that you can mess up, but still stagger off the field with an impish grin.


Bush’s reckless youth—and eventual reformation—is well-known. But even if having been a bad boy at age 18 is excusable—or, depending on what actually happened, forgivable—what’s not forgivable is dishonestly leading the United States into one of its worst foreign-policy blunders.


Equally unforgivable is working indefatigably to impeach a wayward president, as Kavanaugh did when he worked for Ken Starr. That experience prepares him well for now sparing another, even-more wayward president, who has nominated him for the Supreme Court.


Kavanaugh’s dishonesty was evident when he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2006, during his nomination by President Bush to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. He claimed, erroneously, that as Bush’s associate White House counsel from 2001 to 2003, and then as his staff secretary, that had didn’t know about, or participated in discussions of, the administration torturing inmates at Guantanamo Bay.


In fact, as Amy Davidson Sorkin reported in The New Yorker, he had taken part in a contentious White House meeting in 2002 about the administration’s detention policies because, as a former clerk to Justice Anthony Kennedy, he knew a lot about Kennedy’s preferences regarding detainees’ legal hearings and representation.


Both Bush and Kavanaugh insist that they’ve changed since their rollicking college days — Kavanaugh insisting that he wasn’t even really bad— but I doubt that the difference matters much to the bad boys they’ve left behind, including classmates who’ve supported them. (In Kavanaugh’s case, they’ve actually refusedto tell the truth about his behavior in high school and college.) If Bush showed his admirers how to mess up but smirk your way out of it, Kavanaugh seems determined to show us how to bull your way out of it defiantly, even righteously, with only a “prayer-breakfast” simulacrum of contrition.

I’m not being partisan here. This truly is a “guy” thing. Recall the thunderous welcome Bill Clinton got from a huge crowd of college boys at the University of Illinois’ Urbana-Champaign campus on Jan. 28, 1998, only days after rumors of his Monica Lewinsky affair surfaced. Just 24 hours earlier, 120 million Americans had watched Clinton pull off a triumphal, almost defiant,State of the Union address. “Yeah, B-i-i-i-i-lll!” the boys roared lustily as Bad Boy Bill entered the hall to a booming rendition of “Carry On My Wayward Son” by the rock band Kansas.


Whoever wrote that caption under Bush’s rugby photo must have understood. What none of us should understand is how anyone can act as if perpetuating the Iraq War in deceit and delusion, or withholding documentation of and lying about one’s service in George W. Bush’s administration, and Starr’s special counsel’s office, is no worse than an “illegal right hook” in rugby or a “100 keg” bender.


The larger, even-harder lesson here is that we should stop letting latter-day revelations about youthful sexual abuses—outrageous, destructive, and criminal though some of them may be—obscure more recent abuses by the same people who have corrupted democratic deliberation, destroyed hundreds of lives, and set precedents for demagogic governance that cannot be defended except by more demagoguery and increasingly brutal coercion.


Too many former frat boys have prepared such precedents by turning awkward truths into user-friendly lies, sometimes deceiving even themselves in their self-righteous piety. The rest of us shouldn’t be so unknowing.

Jim Sleeper

Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale. He is the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York and Liberal Racism.

Editor's note: Jim Sleeper gave Tikkun permission to post and send . out this important and instructive  piece which originallyappeard in Salon.com. Let me know your reaction to it:  rabbilerner.tikkun@gmail.com

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