The Trump era of American politics is defined to some degree by controversies that are both unsurprising and, in their unprecedented context, unusually revealing.
For instance: Last week in Texas, the Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton fired an opening salvo on behalf of eleven states, suing the federal government over its decision to prohibit school districts from discriminating against transgender students. In so doing, Paxton traveled far afield from the state’s capital city of Austin to a federal district court 300 miles north, ostensibly because the one judge in that division, Reed Charles O’Connor, is well known for his hostility to the cause of LGBT equality.
That several states would challenge the Education Department’s guidance will surprise no one who’s familiar with the rampant litigiousness of the conservative movement during the Obama era. Neither will the fact that a state attorney general quite transparently forum-shopped the case in order to draw a judge whose biases are widely known—a judge who offers the states their best hope of prevailing eventually before the Supreme Court. (Texas used the same ploy to lay a challenge to Obama immigration policy before an avowedly restrictionist federal judge hundreds of miles south of Austin.)
But against the backdrop of Donald Trump’s candidacy, these predictable developments take on fresh significance. They suddenly represent not just aspects of a strategy to constrain the Obama administration, but something far broader: a hunger for judicial power that’s strong enough to overwhelm conservative skepticism of Trump’s race-driven authoritarianism.
As lawyers were preparing the anti-transgender lawsuit, Trump was engaging in a campaign of harassment against Gonzalo Curiel—a different federal judge in California presiding over a pair of cases alleging fraud against Trump and his defunct, eponymous “university.” Trump’s provocation against Curiel, repeatedly and publicly questioning his judicial impartiality in the case because he is of “Mexican” heritage, is another development that’s both predictable and fraught with new meaning. It’s the first racist imbroglio of the general election—a controlled test of the theory that Trump might run a very different kind of campaign for the presidency than he did for the Republican nomination.
Republican notables seem generally aghast and slightly indignant, united for the most part behind the view that Trump’s repeated outbursts about Curiel’s ethnicity and parentage are wrong, but also, that they shouldn’t have to talk about it much.
“Look, I don’t condone the comments,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on Sunday. “And we can press on to another topic.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was unable to defend Trump from the suggestion that his statements about Curiel are unacceptably racist, but argued that Trump was sufficiently conservative to merit Republican support. “Hillary Clinton is certainly not something that I think would be good for the country,” McConnell said. “To continue, basically, the Obama administration for another four years.”
“Mexican judge-gate” and the Trump University revelations are the first in what promises to be an endless series of mortifying recriminations from the GOP’s inability to stop Trump, and their subsequent decision to embrace him.
I’m unaware of another episode of mass political harm quite like the one Republicans have inflicted upon themselves by coalescing behind Donald Trump, attaching themselves to him in a nearly irreversible way, and in the process freeing him to resume a campaign of racist incitement in their name.
In hindsight, the sequence of events seems formulaically stupid—not unlike the process by which a gullible mark ultimately hands over his life savings to a get-rich-quick scam artist. By securing the nomination, Trump consolidated the support of the Republican electorate. That pushed his poll numbers upward, enticing the entire party leadership to fall in line behind him. In the absence of any conforming pressure to win over skeptics, Trump reverted to form. Only now he’s race baiting as the GOP’s undisputed standard-bearer.
But there is a method to what these Republicans are doing, and the dependability of judges like O’Connor is a big part of that story. As McConnell suggested, most Republicans think Trump’s presidency would be preferable to Hillary Clinton’s. It is thus the Republican Party’s plainly stated intention to preserve a Supreme Court vacancy so that Trump might fill it. The notion that Trump, through network effects, political pressure, and use of the Senate confirmation power, would nominate movement conservatives to positions of power is the connective tissue binding Republican leaders to a candidate they nearly all understand to be a political and moral wrecking ball.
Trump’s power as president to fill Supreme Court vacancies (which arise relatively infrequently) would accompany the power to fill scores and scores of other vacancies across the federal bench. That means more Judge Reed O’Connors, the GOP hopes and assumes, and more opportunities for a conservative Supreme Court to overturn liberal policy, whether on the basis of conservative theories of jurisprudence, rank opportunism, or thinly veiled bigotry.
As horrified as Corker, McConnell, and other Republicans might be at Trump’s racial theory of judicial bias, they will tolerate it. Trump is a uniquely divisive major-party nominee, and his bid for the presidency is very likely to fail, but supporting him maximizes the GOP’s hope of reasserting dominance over the judiciary for another generation.
The Republican Party is now reluctantly in thrall to a man who decries the imagined biases of minority judges, in the hope that he will nominate different judges, whose genuine biases can be counted on.