Right-Wing Identity Politics Propelled Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court - Will Trump Follow Suit And Appoint a Woman?

Election '16

“Whaddya mean I’m anti-women? Look at my Supreme Court woman over here!” Can’t you just imagine Donald Trump—wearing that sh*t-eating grin he’s always got when he thinks he’s being clever—saying something like that tomorrow night while presenting Amy Coney Barrett as his nominee to replace Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court? 

Trump could do that in an attempt to wipe away the stain of decades of misogyny, of his proclamations of pussy-grabbing, and of the dozen women who have publicly, and in great detail, accused him of sexual assault. He could do it just a few days after making light of the #MeToo movement while attacking Sen. Elizabeth Warren for having claimed American Indian ancestry—based on what her own ancestors told her. Trump demanded that she take a DNA test to prove it. He never believes the woman.

Who is Amy Coney Barrett, and what kind of Supreme Court justice would she be, in particular on the matter of reproductive rights, where Justice Kennedy has long been seen as the fifth and decisive vote preventing the overturning of Roe v. Wade? First of all, she was on the list of pre-approved conservatives the Federalist Society provided Trump. Whatever she says or doesn’t say about Roe v. Wade, she wouldn’t be on that list if she wasn’t a reliable vote to overturn that almost half century-old precedent, as NBC’s Hallie Jackson pointed out last weekend. Here’s what Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer had to say:

The bottom line: Judge Barrett has given every indication that she will be an activist judge on the Court. If chosen as the nominee, she will be the deciding vote to overturn Roe v. Wade and to strike down pre-existing conditions protections in the ACA. #WhatsAtStake

— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) July 2, 2018

In 1991, President George H.W. Bush appointed Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court seat vacated by the retirement of the first black Supreme Court Justice, civil rights champion Thurgood Marshall. Conservatives know how to play identity politics—which in its rawest, most cynical form simply puts forth a person’s identity, rather than actual political positions or principles, as all that should matter when assessing someone. Don’t worry, the Bush Administration said, we’ll make sure there continues to be an African American voice on the Court. Unlike Trump, Poppy Bush wasn’t crude enough to say: “Look at my African American over here,” but he didn’t have to.

Sen. Bernie Sanders was warning against the potential of that specific kind of identity politics to be used against progressives when he said:

"It's not good enough for somebody to say 'hey I'm a Latina vote for me' that is not good enough. I have to know whether that Latina is going to stand up with the working class of this country and is going to take on big money interests," Sanders said.

"It is not good enough for somebody to say, 'I'm a woman, vote for me.' No That is not good enough," the Vermont senator continued."What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industries."

The selection of Clarence Thomas would be loudly echoed by Trump nominating Amy Barrett—both in terms of right-wing identity politics and because of the sexual assault allegations leveled against Trump and Anita Hill’s detailed, public testimony in which she, under oath, accused Justice Thomas of sexually harassing her in the workplace. #MeToo goes back long before hashtags. 

Progressives and women more broadly are not going to be fooled into thinking that Judge Barrett represents the two-thirds of women (and, it’s worth noting, an essentially equally strong percentage of men, according to polls released last week by Kaiser and Quinnipiac) who oppose the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

To their credit, conservatives aren’t stupid when it comes to political strategy, and most are just as willing to support a woman, or a person of color who agrees with them on the issues. They are thrilled to have ‘their African American’ or ‘their woman’ (vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, anyone?) standing alongside them both because they think it helps assure middle of the road whites and/or women that they aren’t really the party of racism and patriarchy, and because they think it gets under the skin of progressives, which gives them real pleasure.

Whichever conservative Mr. Popular Vote Loser nominates—and I could see him nominating a white man as well, just to show he can, or because he thinks that’s the person who looks most like someone out of his beloved Central Casting (Vanity Fair has a new article from Bess Levin called “Trump Is Picking His Supreme Court Nominee Like He’s Casting the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition”)—it is that person’s conservatism that matters most.

Democratic candidates running this fall and in 2020 need to remind voters about the importance of the Supreme Court—in particular the protection of women’s reproductive rights, equal voting rights, civil rights, consumer rights, the rights of workers and union members, and more. We cannot afford to allow Donald Trump to give lifetime terms on our courts to even more justices who would undermine or abolish these rights, rights that are fundamental to ensuring that all Americans enjoy liberty, justice, and equality.

Ian Reifowitz is the author of Obama’s America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity (Potomac Books).

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