Brett Kavanaugh’s Ruined Reputation

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Appearances matter — especially to President Donald Trump. On the first day of his presidency, Trump lauded the look of “my generals,” proudly describing them as products of “central casting.”

Trump’s obsession with appearances is often dismissed as shallow. It shouldn’t be. His worldview is backed by the full resources of the federal government and the majority political party. It shapes the look of the nation, turning back refugees and rebuffing immigrants. It leads to lawsuits against universities seeking to diversify their student bodies. And it results in the elevation of guys like Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to positions of power and keeps the black and brown and female bit actors — the sort who never play the hero in the movies Trump watched as a kid — at the margins of the action.

“Beyond the qualifications, what really matters is, does this nominee fit a central casting image for a Supreme Court nominee, as well as his or her spouse,” a Trump ally told Politico before he announced his nomination of Kavanaugh. “That’s a big deal. Do they fit the role?”

Kavanaugh, boyishly handsome, understood his role when he accepted Trump’s nomination. He was so acutely aware of appearances — and what they conveyed about Republican efforts to further consolidate white male power — that his presentation to the Senate Judiciary Committee included an extended paean to women, girls and racial minorities.

“All the girls I have coached are awesome,” Kavanaugh said in his opening statement. In a parody of conservative attacks on bean-counting affirmative action, Kavanaugh enumerated his admissions policies. “My law clerks come from diverse backgrounds and points of view,” he said. “A majority of my 48 law clerks have been women. More than a quarter of my law clerks have been minorities.”

The Senate understood. It’s filled with men like Kavanaugh, professionally invested in existing social hierarchies while cognizant of the social and political challenge posed by awesome girls and striving minorities. The trick is to bolster the existing power structure while extending congeniality and plenty of compliments.

The posture borrows from both sports and Hollywood. Michael Jordan couldn’t have won six NBA titles without the “role players” who encased his brilliance like a felt-lined jewel box. Every Hollywood star knows to thank, publicly at least, the lesser lights who come to the set each day, making it possible for the star to shine so brightly.

Kavanaugh and other successful players have the social graces and rhetorical sensitivity to soften the sharp edges of dominance, and to highlight the contributions of role players.

Then came Trump. With his blunt sexism and racism, Trump shouts the quiet part out loud, as the Internet meme has it: White men rule. Deal with it.

Whatever the reality beneath Kavanaugh’s carefully crafted image, however genuine his respect for others, he made the choice to shackle himself to Trump. It can’t be done without some thuggishness rubbing off. So even before Christine Blasey Ford’s story became public, there was reason to question Kavanaugh’s good reputation. His acceptance of a prize offered by a deeply corrupt president had already tainted him.

Trump liked the way Kavanaugh looked. Like the bad girl in a 1940s melodrama, Kavanaugh was seduced — by power. Now he’s ruined. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

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