I was watching the president of the United States suggest to a mostly maskless crowd that a Democratic congresswoman had married her brother when the news broke that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died. The shock of her death sledgehammered a country teetering on an ugly and desperate edge. It came in waves. It wasn’t merely the loss to the country, or the sadness that a champion of equal rights had died. Nor was it the fact that an increasingly corrupt Republican Party is very close to forcing through the judicial supermajority it needs in order to lock in minority rule and overturn American women’s right to reproductive choice. (You will no doubt hear often in the coming weeks that, of the five conservative Supreme Court justices, four were nominated by presidents who had lost the popular vote.) There was a flashback to the contempt and grief Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing aroused in so many appalled onlookers. And then there was the dread of realizing that a citizenry breaking—financially, politically, even cognitively—under five different kinds of instability was going to have to endure more. We have been in a bad way for a long time, but this is the hurricane on top of the wildfire that follows the earthquake.
What’s enraging is that we shouldn’t be here. We have institutions and norms and precedents, so what should happen next is almost absurdly plain. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made his thinking on the subject quite clear back in 2016, when Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died in February, nine months before the election. “The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice,” he said. “Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.” There shouldn’t have been any mystery about what Mitch McConnell—of all people—would do when a Supreme Court vacancy opened up six weeks (rather than nine months) before Election Day of 2020.
And there wasn’t. Shortly after Ginsburg’s death was announced, McConnell declared his intentions: Trump’s nominee would receive a vote in the Senate, and though he left the timing slightly unclear, he has no intention of letting the will of the American people (who have already started voting) determine what should happen. He made quick work of the optimists on Twitter suggesting that he surely wouldn’t be so hellbent on total power that he’d risk destroying the country by breaking the precedent he himself had articulated. Wrong. He would. And anyone who took him at his word when he rejected Merrick Garland’s nomination was made a fool when he reversed himself on the question of whether (to quote the man himself) “the American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice.”
I want to pause here to note, humbly, that it is wounding to watch a public servant reduce those who take him at his word to fools. I mention that not because it “matters” in any sense McConnell would recognize but because it is simply true that this nation’s decline accelerates when the conventional wisdom becomes that believing what the Senate Majority Leader says is self-evidently foolish. The chestnut that politicians always lie is overstated—a society depends on some degree of mutual trust. One party has embraced nihilism, pilloried trust, and turned good faith into a sucker’s failing in a sucker’s game.
Many of us are coping with that lacerating redefinition by knowingly rolling our eyes. Ginsburg’s death hurts, but more than one strain of political grief is operative. This is why so many political reactions at present seem to orbit around the question of whether an unwanted outcome was unexpected. “And you’re surprised?” is a frequent response to some new instance of Trumpian corruption. This brand of cynicism has spread, quite understandably: It’s an outlook that provides some cognitive shelter in a situation that—having historically been at least somewhat rule-bound—has one side shredding the rules and cheering at how much they’re winning. Folks who at one point gave Republican declarations of principle the benefit of the doubt (I include myself) feel like chumps now. Conversely, the cynical prognosticators who used to seem crabbed and paranoid just keep getting proven right. Whatever the worst thing you imagine McConnell doing might be, he can usually trump it.
Just by way of example: A former White House official told the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer for a piece in April that McConnell reassured donors that he would install a Supreme Court justice for Trump regardless of how close to the election Ginsburg’s death might be. He apparently referred to the prospect of replacing Ginsburg in the event of her death as “our October surprise.” In 2019, McConnell gleefully tweeted a photo of some tombstones, one of which had Merrick Garland’s name on it—hours after a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, in which 23 people died. He has said that stopping Garland’s nomination is the proudest moment of his career. It’s uniquely painful that this is the person architecting Ginsburg’s replacement in violation of his own contemptible theories.
I am not saying anything new here. But what I am interested in, because I think it must be understood, and because the stakes of it have never been higher, is what McConnellizing does, affectively, to so many American citizens. What it feels like, in other words. We are overdue for a real reckoning with what it means to be degraded by our own leadership. And make no mistake: It is degrading when people lie to you openly and obviously. Leaving the polity aside for a moment, it’s the kind of emotion we humans aren’t great at coping with. Sometimes we react by snorting at anyone who expects any better (that is again the “you’re surprised?” cynicism). But if you can’t cover it with cynicism, it simply hurts.
Shall we experience being degraded together? Here is the justification McConnell offered, shortly after Ginsburg died, for violating his own rule:
In the last midterm election before Justice Scalia’s death in 2016, Americans elected a Republican Senate majority because we pledged to check and balance the last days of a lame-duck president’s second term. We kept our promise. Since the 1880s, no Senate has confirmed an opposite-party president’s Supreme Court nominee in a presidential election year.
This last sentence—which you will recognize as the heart of McConnell’s argument—is a lie. But before I supply the dull fact proving that it is a lie, I’d like us to pause and notice the extent to which whatever I am about to say will not factor into how you feel reading the above. Whatever I say, it will not provide you relief for me to demonstrate that this tortured reasoning McConnell supplied is horseshit. You are already meant to understand it as horseshit. That’s the insult. That’s where one part of what I guess we could call patriotic pain comes from.
OK, now for the dull facts: What McConnell says in that statement is not true. In 1988 (an election year!), the Democratically controlled Senate confirmed Anthony Kennedy—President Ronald Reagan’s nominee to the Supreme Court. McConnell tried to circumvent this reality by crafting his new rule to exclude any vacancy “that arose” in an election year (Lewis Powell retired in late 1987).
Does an exercise like this leave us anywhere? I think it might. I think we have a habit of misnaming political experiences in ways that help us metabolize loss. I think, for example, that we have a bad habit of calling McConnell’s double standard—which will be devastating to a country already struggling through various legitimacy crises—“hypocrisy.” And sure, step onto Twitter after Lindsey Graham also unabashedly went back on his own word and you’ll see many a person rolling their eyes at anyone pointing out that Republicans are hypocrites, as if it matters. One can sympathize with the eye-rollers—of course hypocrisy doesn’t matter. But that’s mostly because hypocrisy isn’t the word for what this is. Hypocrisy is a mild failing. It applies to parents smoking when they advise their kids not to for their own good; it does not apply to parents lighting the family home on fire for the insurance money while high-fiving each other over how stupid their fleeing children were for thinking anything they told them was true.
When Ginsburg died, those whose rights she championed were caught in a cruel double bind. Raging against the indecent replacement effort feels wrong, because raging before it happens can feel like implicitly conceding. Treating the matter dispassionately, on the other hand, sensibly pointing out that McConnell has stated clearly what should happen, means granting him a good-faith reading he does not deserve. Thanks to the swiftness with which he declared his intentions, we are no longer under any obligation to attempt the latter. All that remains is to let honest anger do what it must.
It will not help to call the leadership we have right now hypocrites; they will not care, and I doubt the charge will motivate the people who need to be motivated much. But insofar as our own reactions are concerned—and while we think about how to counter an obvious and ugly attempt to steal the Supreme Court seat of a feminist champion of equal rights even as Americans have already started voting—it may help to register the lies they tell you as the calculated insults to your intelligence and to your citizenship and to your country that they are. Fully witnessing and registering insults and degradation is more painful than sneering that you aren’t surprised. But I’ll be blunt: People are more willing to fight people who insult and degrade them than they are to fight mere “hypocrites.”
We deserve better than this. I confess I had no personal feelings about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing; my admiration and gratitude were purely professional and civic. But I found this quote—a response to Irin Carmon asking her how she’d like to be remembered—deeply moving: “Someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability. And to help repair tears in her society, to make things a little better through the use of whatever ability she has.”