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Marsha Blackburn Never Leaves a Culture-War Hot Button Unpressed

The Tennessee Republican bullied Ketanji Brown Jackson at least as much as the committee’s more famous men did. It’s not hard to guess why.

Marsha Blackburn at Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearing
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Senator Marsha Blackburn at Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearing on March 22

The confirmation hearings for Ketanji Brown Jackson introduced to the American public someone who embodies the hopes and dreams of many Americans. Jimmy Kimmel delivered its verdict: “You are a horrible woman.”

Calm down. Kimmel wasn’t talking about Jackson. The nominee’s intelligence, poise, and almost superhuman forbearance shone through as one Republican culture warrior after another insulted and abused her. Kimmel was talking about a relatively fresh face among the bullies, Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn, who entered the Senate in 2019 after representing for 16 years a spectacularly misshapen, gerrymandered House district connecting eastern Memphis to southwest Nashville.

Blackburn really is a horrible person, a vicious character assassin with the sweeter-than-honeysuckle demeanor of the beauty-pageant contestant she was half a century ago (Oil Festival Queen in her native Laurel, Mississippi; Junior Miss; first runner-up for Miss U.S. Teen). You just never know what awful bile will spew out of that innocent-looking mouth. A YouTube star is born.

Here’s Blackburn asking Jackson to provide a definition of the word “woman.” Jackson answered: “I can’t.… I’m not a biologist.”

“The fact that you can’t give me a straight answer,” Blackburn replied, “about something as fundamental as what a woman is underscores the dangers of the kind of progressive education that we are hearing about.” Never mind that Jackson is not an educator, progressive or otherwise. She’s an appellate judge.

Here’s Blackburn telling Jackson of her constituents, by which she appears to mean her white constituents: “Their kids, and their grandkids, are not going to have the opportunities that you have had unless we keep this nation free.” The opportunities that you have had? That’s an extraordinary thing for a white woman to say to a Black woman.

Here’s Blackburn asking Jackson why she used “incendiary rhetoric” in a brief she co-authored 20-odd years ago at a private law firm arguing for a buffer zone around an abortion clinic in Massachusetts. The buffer zone was intended to keep women entering the clinic at a safe distance from what the brief called—are you ready for some “incendiary rhetoric”?—a “hostile, noisy crowd of in-your-face protesters.”

“Let me ask you this,” Blackburn asked. “When you go to church and, knowing there are pro-life women there, do you look at them thinking of them in that way—that they’re noisy, hostile, in your face? Do you think of them—do you think of pro-life women like me—that way?”

The correct answer was: “If they are hostile, noisy, and in my face, then yes, I do. I wouldn’t advise that you try it, sister.”

Instead, Jackson kept her cool and said this was a brief for a client and “it’s not the way I think of or characterize people.”

Blackburn didn’t leave a single culture-war hot button unpressed. She excoriated Jackson for being a board member of Georgetown Day School, which “pushes an anti-racist education program for white families,” in the process altering a quote from Jackson in a GDS publication. She said it was “only a matter of time” before the next pandemic, when “unelected bureaucrats” will once again require schoolchildren to wear masks. (Uh, Senator? It isn’t clear this one’s over yet.) And, of course, Blackburn called Jackson soft on child pornography, because the QAnon beast must be fed. (An October 2020 YouGov poll found that half of then-President Donald Trump’s supporters believed top Democrats were involved in sex trafficking.)

During her eight terms in the House, Blackburn was a Tea Party supporter who sought various abortion restrictions, opposed same-sex marriage, disputed the science on climate change, and called net neutrality “socialistic.” She also sponsored a bill requiring presidential candidates to produce their birth certificates. The latter pandered to hard-right conspiracists, led by then–private citizen Trump, who alleged that President Barack Obama was not a natural-born citizen. Still, Blackburn insisted through a spokesperson that she had no doubt that Obama was born in the United States.

Such restraints vanished when Blackburn decided to leave the House to run for the Senate in 2018; Blackburn went full MAGA. In her come-from-behind victory against Democrat and former Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen, Blackburn said the state needed “a senator who is going to stand with President Donald Trump.” In a campaign video, she said, “Too many Senate Republicans act like Democrats or worse,” a not-very-subtle dig at Tennessee’s retiring Republican senator, Bob Corker. “I know the left calls me a wingnut or a knuckle-dragging conservative,” Blackburn said, “and you know what? I say that’s all right, bring it on.” A fictitious reference in the video to “the sale of baby body parts” got it bounced from Twitter as a campaign advertisement, but Twitter let it stay in “organic” (nonadvertising) tweets.

During the campaign, Blackburn joined 17 other House Republicans in nominating Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize. Trump endorsed Blackburn before the primary.

Like Ted Cruz, Blackburn is using the Jackson confirmation hearings as a springboard for a possible presidential run. Fox News has been tracking very excitedly her movements this year in New Hampshire and Iowa, and she’s raised a reported $200,000 for other Republican candidates. Like Norma Desmond, Marsha Blackburn is ready for her close-up. During the Jackson hearings, she never lost sight of the cameras and those wonderful people in the dark. It just may pay off.