Without permission from the New Yorker.

–     –     –     –     –     –     –     –     –     –     –     –     –     –     –     –

What Most Disqualifies Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court?

By Adam Gopnik October 4, 2018

A book that every young man and woman starting out in life these days ought to have handy is Dariel Fitzkee’s “Magic by Misdirection,” a classic in the magical arts written decades ago by a once famous American performer. It basically tries to lay out all the varieties of misdirection—the ways that you can be asked to pay attention to one thing while the performer is doing another. A staggering catalogue not of gaffes or gimmicks but of behaviors, it’s a study in all the ways of drawing your attention away from this thing I’m doing here to that thing I’m doing there. The repeated moral is that everything I’m doing may be something other than it seems, and it doesn’t matter how brazenly I do it; you’ll still buy it. Intricate to the point of rococo, Fitzkee’s book makes a distinction between, for instance, simulation and dissimulation: “Simulation is a positive act. It shows a false picture. Dissimulation is a negative act. It hides a true picture. One reveals and the other conceals.” A good magician can be simulating with one hand and dissimulating with the other, and you don’t know which is which.

Donald Trump’s genius for misdirection is to pile so many obvious ruses upon so many ham-handed sleights that the easily fooled parts of his audience are impressed by the audacity, while the more sophisticated parts of his audience, on left and right both, become so fatigued by the constant motion that they stop paying sufficient attention to the core point of the deception. One is put in mind of Houdini’s most famous illusion, the “Vanishing Elephant,” in which an elephant was led into a large box that, at least according to legend, was then spun around by a large crew of stagehands. The huge animal “disappeared,” but you could see that it took a crowd to do it. Houdini’s name remains famous, but he was not a great illusionist by illusionists’ standards; the persistence of the elephant was obvious, but if you had bought a ticket you stayed for the next bit. The story shows that, very often, the most brazen kinds of misdirection are the most successful, especially in the hands of a brazen performer.

All of which is to put us in mind of the truth that the Brett Kavanaugh drama—with all the debates over the layout of suburban Maryland houses and the parsing of the repeated use of the letter “F”—is a distraction. Kavanaugh is not unqualified for the Supreme Court just because of something that he may have done when he was seventeen, or because of how he may have lied to the Senate about this or that specificity of his youthful behavior or about how he may have accepted illicitly obtained Democratic e-mails when he worked in the George W. Bush White House, or about his possible involvement in the effort to make torture seem acceptable. (Kavanaugh maintains innocence on all fronts.) He became disqualified for the Supreme Court the moment that he accepted the offer from Donald Trump. At this stage in his Presidency, Trump, already described in reports from his own aides as unfit for the office, implicated by his former lawyer as an unindicted co-conspirator in a felony, and now alleged, according to the Times, to have benefitted from tax schemes that in some instances amounted to “outright fraud”—not to mention being a liar and a con artist—should not be allowed to appoint Justices for lifetime appointments.

Whatever the effect of this truth on vote-counting congressional Realpolitik, it is the moral ground upon which all subsequent argument has to begin. Trump’s purpose in appointing Kavanaugh to the Court was clearly to provide himself with a protective vote for whenever one issue or another arising from his misbehavior makes its way there. Kavanaugh’s convenient late-arriving conviction that Presidents should be protected from investigation—late arriving since he evidently felt very differently when he was pursuing Bill Clinton—is catnip to Trump. And anyone who had illusions about Kavanaugh not being an acolyte of Trumpism should have been disabused by his partisan performance last week, in which he made it quite apparent. That’s the deal. That’s the trick. Everything else is simulation and dissimulation. Everything else is misdirection. However it happened, the elephant is supposed to have vanished. And yet there is still an obvious elephant in the obvious box.

The maddening part of this misdirection is the unwillingness on the part of people who imagine themselves to be full of good will to say who Trump is and what he remains. It has become an element of the orthodoxy of this moment that Trump is not the “cause” of all his catastrophes. Of course, he’s not the cause in some ultimate and singular sense, but Trump is the cause of Trumpism. No, he is not uniquely responsible for the existence of a revanchist core of white men who so fear the assertion of minority power that they will go to almost any lengths, and make any deal with any devil, to prevent it. That core has been a consistent feature of American life since the post-Civil War period. President Ulysses S. Grant basically faced the same two parties: a party that accommodated what is now called identity politics, reaching out to a coalition of people—those African-American, Jewish, Native American, and Irish petitioners whom Grant tried to favor—who thought that the world was getting better and who supported some kind of benevolent government protection, and a party rooted in a base of revanchist whites who believed that the world was getting worse, who wanted to keep other groups from exercising too much political power, and who hated the federal government for helping them.

But Trump is the direct cause of turning this enduring American fact into an active threat to democracy itself. There is no thread of double-sidedness to this process. Barack Obama may have had many faults, from his timidity on Syria to his timidity in pursuing the Russia investigation, but no sane person can accuse him of having been an immoderate or a non-conciliatory voice for his base. Indeed, his mistake was to vastly overestimate the reservoir of conciliation on the other side. That’s why he tried to appoint Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court—a judge who had been cited by Republicans as an acceptable candidate—in the innocent belief that they actually meant it. Two-sidedness is, in itself, a classic piece of misdirection, designed to draw your attention as much to the hand that isn’t doing anything as to the hand that is. Trump’s assault on the premises of democracy is not only unique in modern American history but unique in the annals of modern liberal democracy. No duly elected leader of any mature democratic state has gone on repeated public rants against his enemies, fed cries of “lock her up” directed at a political opponent, or routinely threatened and abused a free press. No such democratically elected leader has openly sneered at women. George H. W. Bush was doubtless angered by Anita Hill’s testimony, but he would no more have come to a rally of his followers and slandered her name and libelled her testimony than he would have mocked a journalist for his disabilities. He had some saving sense of the Washingtonian residue in the American Presidency.

This is Trump, and Trump alone, degrading American politics, and we should not get lost in side debates and sideshows. Some may be wringing their hands about the unending and presumably two-sided intolerance of red for blue and blue for red. But there is no figure in the Democratic Party who in any respect shares Trump’s rhetoric or mirrors Trump’s threats or repeats Trump’s hatreds. Such figures exist only on the fringes of the left, whereas Trumpism has now become the central and defining faith of the Republican Party.

The issues that Kavanaugh’s past behavior raises are crucial ones, and there is time and the need for a deep dive into the persistence of sexual assault and the necessity of hearing out victims and recognizing pathological cultural patterns. But do not let the simulations and dissimulations distract you. Kavanaugh is an instrument of Trumpism, an insurance policy that the con man is writing for himself. The rest is misdirection.