Presidential Historian Jon Meacham Calls Senate Judiciary Hearing a 'Victory of Tribalism' - Here's Why That's Spot-On
When presidential historian Jon Meacham appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Friday, September 28—the day after Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh and his accuser Christine Blasey Ford testified at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on her sexual abuse allegations—host Joe Scarborough asserted that he was sick of hearing the words “This is the worst it’s ever been.” The U.S., Scarborough stressed, is an incredibly “resilient” country, and it will get through the tensions of the Kavanaugh nomination and Donald Trump’s presidency just as it has survived so many challenges in the past.
Scarborough is right about the U.S.’ resilience: the U.S. has survived two world wars, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Great Depression, the Great Recession, the Civil War, Watergate, the Vietnam War and the assassinations of four sitting presidents (John F. Kennedy in 1963, Abraham Lincoln in 1865, William McKinley in 1901 and James A. Garfield in 1881). But while the 49-year-old Meacham agreed with Scarborough that the U.S. is a “totally resilient country,” he found one aspect of the Thursday, September 27 hearing to be especially troubling: the events at the hearing, according to Meacham, represented “the victory of tribalism” in the U.S.—and his analysis is spot on.
Meacham characterized the events at the hearing as the victory of “a fundamental, instinctive impulse to believe that which you wish to believe because your fellow tribesmen believe it over a fairly American openness to search for the truth.” And he went on to say, “The thing I found so off-putting about the Republican performance yesterday was this predisposition to say, ‘We don’t need—we don’t even want, more to the point—any other facts….What you saw yesterday, particularly on the right side of that Committee, was passion before reason.”
Kavanaugh’s nomination and the sexual abuse allegations of Ford and two other women (Deborah Ramirez and attorney Michael Avenatti’s client, Julie Swetnick) have underscored the bitter partisan divide in the U.S., with most Republicans and supporters of President Donald Trump rallying around Kavanaugh despite those allegations and most Democrats opposing the nomination. And that partisan divide was painfully evident on September 27.
During his testimony, a combative, emotional and overwrought Kavanaugh angrily pointed the finger at Democrats specifically—declaring that he was being persecuted as an act of “revenge on behalf of the Clintons.” Kavanaugh didn’t outright insult Ford during his rant, but he did paint her as a tool of the Democratic Party. And Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina drew a line in the sand as well, agreeing that Kavanaugh is a victim of Democratic persecution and insisting that any Republican senators who voted against his confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court would be aiding and abetting that persecution.
Graham declared, “To my Republican colleagues: if you vote ‘no,’ you’re legitimizing the most despicable thing I’ve seen in my time in politics.” And while he didn’t mention them by name, it was painfully obvious that the Republican senators Graham was referring to were Jeff Flake, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski. Graham reached a shameless new low on September 27, doing everything possible to bully, coerce and strong-arm those senators into a vote for Kavanaugh.
The allegations against Kavanaugh are troubling, to say the least. Ford, at the September 27 hearing, testified that he attempted to rape her back in 1982—and Swetnick has alleged that Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge were present when she was gangraped during that time period. But even when it comes to something as serious as alleged sexual assault, Graham insists that independent thought on the part of Flake, Collins or Murkowski cannot be tolerated. And his message to them on September 27 was clear: either you are with our tribe, or you are against our tribe.
In the past, most Supreme Court nominations weren’t nearly as polarizing. President Ronald Reagan’s first High Court nominee, Sandra Day O’Connor, was confirmed by a Democrat-dominated Senate in 1981—and although Senate Democrats torpedoed Robert Bork’s nomination in 1987, they voted to confirm a different right-winger that year: Reagan’s more libertarian nominee Justice Anthony Kennedy. But that spirit of give and take was absent when, in 2016, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to even give President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, the time of day. And the ugly us-versus-them tribalism of the modern-day GOP escalated with Kavanaugh’s nomination and the overt partisanship that Kavanaugh, Graham and other Republicans brought to the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on September 27.
The events of that hearing can only add to the country’s divisions, with many liberals and progressives seeing Republicans as unsympathetic to alleged victims of sexual abuse and Republicans agreeing with Kavanaugh and Graham’s cartoonish depiction of Democrats as a lynch mob that could care less about due process.
It was, in Meacham’s words, “the victory of tribalism” in the United States.