The confirmation process for President Donald J. Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Brett Kavanaugh, continues to be a significant test of the U.S. form of government, and a display of high drama.
Washington, D.C., was only on its third cup of coffee when the presidential tweet hit: “The very rude elevator screamers are paid professionals only looking to make Senators look bad,” wrote Trump. “Don’t fall for it! Also, look at all of the professionally made identical signs. Paid for by Soros and others. These are not signs made in the basement from love! #Troublemakers.”
He was speaking, of course, of the sexual assault survivors—mostly women—who have been following the example set by Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher when they famously confronted Republican Senator Jeff Flake by holding his elevator door open and imploring him to consider the experiences of those who have been targets of sexual assault when deciding whether to vote for moving the nomination to the Senate floor.
Before long, speaking from the Senate floor, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—who had recently promised the religious right that he and his caucus planned to “plow right through” the confirmation—complained of the “harm” he said was done to Kavanaugh and his family because of allegations of sexual assault made against him by Christine Blasey Ford, a psychology professor from California. Then McConnell cast the thousands of protesters who have come to the U.S. Capitol buildings in opposition to the nomination as “the mob.”
In both instances, these national leaders branded people exercising their First Amendment rights as dangerous. McConnell complained of security threats to senators. And Trump trotted out the right’s favorite code word for its ideology of anti-Semitism. That word is “Soros.”
In both the fever swamps of the American right, and the forests of Europe’s right-wing nationalist movements, the hedge fund billionaire George Soros—a Jewish Holocaust survivor born in Hungary—has become a favorite bogeyman because of his support of liberal and civil-society groups. In Europe, he is cast as a destroyer of Europe’s Christian values. (His Open Society Foundation was pushed out of Hungary, which also recently passed anti-immigration legislation dubbed the “Stop Soros” law.) He’s also a favorite target of the U.S. right, where invocation of his name carries the same sort of anti-Semitic code. Here, he’s reviled for donating to progressive and liberal groups, and has consequently become fodder for the conspiracy theorists of the right.
Characterizations of Soros by right-wing figures follow the outline of old anti-Semitic tropes such as the fabricated “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” and conspiracies supposedly involving the Rothschild family.
This is the strategy of authoritarians. Create fear that chaos created by backlash to the authoritarian’s exercise of raw power is really taking place at the direction of one very powerful enemy. Discourage people from public protest by painting the opposition as “evil,” as Trump did in the Mississippi rally he led this week, where he mocked Ford for her inability to remember every single little detail of the 1982 evening on which she says she was assaulted by Kavanaugh.
“These are really evil people,” Trump said of Ford and the Democrats who insisted on her right to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose job it is to vet nominees to the federal bench. Note that among the right-wing evangelicals who comprise much of Trump’s base, “evil” is regarded as an existential spiritual threat, the stuff of Satan.
As I write this, the outcome of the final vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination to sit on the highest court in the land is not certain. But the clampdown is coming—a clampdown on dissent, a clampdown on access to the levers of congressional process by the president’s opponents. As McConnell promised, he really has “plow[ed] right through” this nomination process, complete with a final FBI report on the sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh that, through circumscription of inquiry imposed by the White House, amounted to a whitewash.
The exercise of authoritarian power is not anything that Trump, McConnell, and their allies even attempt to conceal at this point. It’s happening in front of your face. Pay attention. Take note of the signs. But don’t let it keep you from the streets, or from the voting booth.
The republic as we have known it could cease to exist if we allow it. And that time is growing closer. They’re playing for all the marbles. They mustn’t be allowed to win.