After days of controversy swirling around the so-called Muslim travel ban, President Donald Trump inspired conservatives by nominating Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court on Tuesday night.
“President Trump hit a grand slam with Judge Gorsuch, and now conservatives are awaiting the nominations for over 100 other judicial vacancies,” said Tim Goeglein, vice president of external relations for Focus on the Family. “If Gorsuch is the benchmark of the new Trump-Pence administration, conservatives are prepared to be dazzled.”
Simply put, Trump delivered. And in doing so, he justified the votes of Republicans who held their nose and pulled the lever for him—clinging to the hope that this day might come. The Washington Post’s James Hohmann is even going so far as to speculate that Trump’s election hinged on this vacancy. “The election was very narrowly decided,” he argued, “and many conservatives who live in the suburbs of Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Detroit found Trump odious but rationalized voting for him because of the Court.” If they made a Faustian bargain, it does seem to have paid off.
My entire life, I have been lectured that every election “is the most important in history”—and the reason given was usually “because there will be at least two or three lifetime appointments to the Supreme Court.”
Why does this matter so much? During the 1960s, conservatives started noticing that America had changed rapidly. This coincided with the spate of liberal decisions handed down by the infamous “Warren Court” (the era when Chief Justice Earl Warren presided over the Supreme Court). Had the world gone mad? Suddenly, it was OK for communists to get passports, but not for kids to pray in public schools.
Next came the Roe v. Wade decision (the impact of which goes unsaid) and laments about “activist” judges. No longer were elected representatives the primary driver of social political change. Simultaneously, they began noticing the culture—media, entertainment, academia, etc.—slipping away from them. Cultural conservatives began strategizing ways to make America great again.
Infiltrating the media and entertainment worlds are vast projects. One could attempt to place allies in these industries, but this mission would be dicey. First, aspiring conservatives might be weeded out for political reasons. Second, making it into showbiz requires an unpredictable combination of talent and luck. Lastly, once these worlds accept the young conservatives, those young people are tempted (or tend) to “evolve” toward the left.
Stacking the court with conservative justices was a much tidier, more linear process (but it has proven very difficult and has taken decades just to get to where we are now). However, this process is easier to sell, and there is a substantial and obvious return on investment.
It would take time for Republicans to figure out how to get reliably conservative judges confirmed. They had to endure the “borking” of Robert Bork—and the attempted “borking” of Clarence Thomas (a “high-tech lynching,” as he termed it).
Who could forget the stream of stealth nominees—most infamously, David Souter—that contributed to the sense among conservatives that it was hopeless and the feeling that conservative voters were being stabbed in the back by Republican presidents who appointed liberal judges?
It might be too much to call this a fetish or an obsession, but just as the New England Patriots would consider their entire season a failure if they lost the Super Bowl, conservatives tend to view winning the presidency as a means to an end—a stepping stone to changing the courts.
“There is no more unifying issue for the GOP and conservative movement than the fight for the Supreme Court,” said Gary Marx, a senior advisor for the Judicial Crisis Network. “The Supreme Court touches every part of our life and those who care about limited government have unified in the face of the last few decades of judicial activism.”
Republican voters were starting to feel like Sisyphus. With Trump, they can finally see the mountaintop.
The worries and pessimism of a few days ago are, on the right, washed away. For now. (“Just when I think you couldn’t possibly be any dumber, you go… and totally redeem yourself.”)
“The biggest domestic legacy of most presidencies is its Supreme and federal court nominations and confirmations,” said Goeglein. If some Christian conservatives were distraught over that controversial executive order, a solid Supreme Court nomination covers a multitude of sins.