Barack Obama graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School. He was the first African American editor of the Harvard Law Review. He worked as a lawyer in one of Chicago’s best law firms and taught Constitutional Law at the prestigious University of Chicago. His background and expertise were apparent this week when he presented Merrick Garland as his candidate for the Supreme Court. As he was speaking, it was hard not to conjure how a President Donald Trump would introduce his own nominees.
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“Listen, folks, he’s a great guy, a wonderful guy, the best. I don’t know him but I’ve heard he’s excellent. He’s got an amazing vocabulary and he knows this legal stuff better than the wise guys sitting there today. He’ll give us a fabulous Supreme Court, fantastic. And the Senate should approve him quick, if they know what’s good for them.”
Obama knows that the thought of Trump nominating Supreme Court justices terrifies Republican Senators as well as Democrats: as a wily political tactician, he decided to leverage this shared fear to push the GOP into a tight corner. Rather than acceding to demands by liberals to appoint a non-white, radical progressive, preferably female, Obama chose a moderate, centrist white male who has been praised by Republicans in the past. Now they have to deal not only with widespread public criticism of their decision not to consider Garland’s appointment but also with the possibility that he is preferable to any candidate that might be appointed by Obama’s successor, whoever that may be. GOP proposals that Garland be approved by a lame-duck Senate after the November elections don’t seem to restrict that scenario to a Hillary Clinton victory in the polls.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, however, isn’t budging. Garland’s candidacy may dilute conservative claims that a dangerous radical majority would be created by his appointment, but McConnell is well aware that zealous Republicans won’t forgive him or his colleagues if they suddenly abandon the rejectionism that has guided them since they took over the House of Representatives in 2010 and the Senate in 2014. Even when Obama’s right, he’s wrong, the GOP maintains: the President is beyond the pale. Cooperation is nothing less than collaboration with the enemy.
It’s too late to retreat now anyway. In the seven years since Obama came to the White House, the Republicans have elevated their refusal to cooperate into a dogmatic religion that does not tolerate sacrilegious exceptions. Obama’s polices are absolutely evil, with no redeeming features. Republican lawmakers also turned a blind eye, at best, to the delusional conspiracy theories that swept the party, including the fundamentally racist assertion that Obama had forged his birth certificate and thus taken the presidency through fraud. Now they are amazed that the golem they created has risen up to anoint Trump, one of the main purveyors of the Kenya hallucination A political alien with no ideological pretensions, Trump is distilling the resentment and rage and hatred that Republicans fostered for so many years in order to sweep them all aside.
This is one of the rationales presented in an extraordinary mea culpa published in Politico on Thursday by Michael Grunwald, whose February 2013 cover story for Time Magazine on Marco Rubio entitled “The Republican Savior” has become a source of amusement and a symbol of misplaced punditry after his crushing defeat in Florida on Tuesday. “Ultimately,” Grunwald wrote, “Republican voters didn’t want a conservative version of Obama, another fresh-faced nonwhite first-term senator who gave a great speech. They wanted an anti-Obama, a bombastic billionaire who wasn’t a politician, wasn’t no-drama, wasn’t interested in public policy, wasn’t going to improve Republican outreach to minorities, and definitely wasn’t a law professor or a community organizer. They didn’t want a new rock star with broad appeal. They wanted a rock thrower who reflected their anger.”
Rubio, of course, actively fed the frenzy that eventually consumed him. He was the one who claimed that Obama the “socialist” was intentionally depleting the military in order to make America less exceptional. He repeatedly threw out juvenile pledges such as “tearing up the Iran nuclear deal in my first day in office” in order to please his pro-Israel backers. He looked the other way when Republicans said Obama was a Muslim, or a terrorist-sympathizer, or the architect of Obamacare death panels, or a confiscator of America’s guns.
The Republicans who are so dismayed now by Trump’s success have apparently repressed their memories of the GOP’s enthusiastic support in 2008 for Sarah Palin being a heartbeat away from a John McCain presidency. They forget how they embraced the governor/hunter who concocted new words, never read a newspaper, didn’t know exactly where she lived, couldn’t cite any ruling by the Supreme Court she viciously attacked, fought political correctness just as fiercely as Trump and brimmed with a self-confidence that was inversely proportional to her understanding of the issues. And since then, her popularity has only grown. She endorsed Trump before the Iowa primaries, showing that birds of a feather flock together, and the fawning media described it as a coup.
Though their personal backgrounds are as different as Alaskan tundra from Manhattan towers, Trump, in many ways, is an improved version of Palin, Palin on steroids. He is wilier, cleverer, more calculated and definitely wealthier that her, but no less narcissistic, inciting, ignorant, vocabulary-challenged and intellectually lazy. In the months since he’s skyrocketed to national stardom, Trump hasn’t taken the trouble to master any aspect of foreign policy: his speech at the upcoming AIPAC Conference is intriguing precisely because he has yet to deliver the kind of disciplined policy address that is the norm in the pro-Israel lobby’s meetings. Up until now, he has aimed for his listeners’ guts, not their minds.
Most critically, Trump is immeasurably more lethal than Palin. Her diatribes are amusing but mostly harmless. He, on the other hand, has an uncanny ability to home in on his rivals’ Achilles Heel, to hit them with poison tipped arrows tailor made for their vulnerabilities and to then wait as they slowly ebb away in front of his eyes. He polished off Rick “The Idiot” Perry, liquidated Jeb “Low Energy” Bush, wasted Carly “That Face” Fiorina, rubbed out Ben “child molester” Carson, and knocked out Marco “The Little” Rubio. Now he’s only got John “Loser” Kasich and Ted “Liar” Cruz to deal with, before moving on to Hillary “Criminal” Clinton in the final round.
Many establishment Republicans are scheming to block Trump’s path to the 1237 delegates he needs for a first round confirmation at the GOP convention so they can anoint a candidate more to their liking in the second. Trump, in a Goodfellas kind of way, warned that riots would ensue, though it wasn’t clear if he was predicting or threatening.
Others are already toying with the idea of a breakaway third party run that would siphon off enough conservative votes to block Trump’s road to the White House. Exit polls taken in Tuesday’s primaries indicate that about a third of the electorate would consider such an option if Trump and Clinton emerge as the final candidates, as now seems all but certain.
Many Republicans, of course, will reluctantly come round to support Trump. Sheldon Adelson, for one, seems to have bitten the bullet, as his ‘Why not” attitude first reported by Israeli blogger Tal Schneider would seem to indicate; the pages of his Yisrael Hayom Israeli newspaper certainly turned pro-Trump in the following days. But Adelson won’t be alone: many Republicans are bound to comfort themselves with the thought that it’s all one big show and that Trump is bound to moderate once he’s in the Oval Office. With both Obama and Clinton cast as devils incarnate, it’s easy to rationalize support for their rivals, no matter how distasteful.
Other Republicans will opt out, keeping a safe distance from Trump, assuming that the GOP will rise like a Phoenix from his certain crash and burn in November. If they are mistaken, however, as most predictions of Trump’s imminent collapse have turned out to be, they will wind up with a president they view as a clear and present danger to American stability, democracy and place in the world. Which is a good reason to recall Martin Luther King’s adaptation of Edmund Burke’s famous adage: “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”