In an episode with no shortage of losers, tribalism came out on top.
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The Senate’s confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh this weekend means the swing seat on the Supreme Court has been filled by someone about whom Americans are sharply divided. He comes to the seat after the most divisive of processes, with virtually all institutions of government suffering a measure of potential damage.
At nearly every turn of the long and unusual fight, partisan actions worsened the natural expected divisions. The Senate process revealed itself as broken. Kavanaugh’s defense of himself was partisan beyond any precedent for a Supreme Court nominee.
And President Donald Trump – in perhaps the least surprising part of the drama – used it all to sharpen political wedges.
Perhaps the most dispiriting aspect of the searing and emotional three-week span since Christine Blasey Ford came forward was the way that political allegiances seemed to overwhelm any search for facts. Polls showed that party affiliation – more than gender, age, or other variables – were the most predictive factor in whether voters believed Ford or Kavanaugh.
In the end, the Senate delivered on the country’s divisions almost as cleanly as possible, with only a single Democrat and a single Republican voting with colleagues on the other side of the aisle. Trump treated the lone GOP defection as an affront that he quickly predicted would cost Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, her career.
"I think the people from Alaska will never forgive her for what she did," the president told The Washington Post.
If the road to Kavanaugh joining the Supreme Court was ugly, the path doesn’t open up from here. Both parties are talking up the fight as key to their midterm motivation efforts, with congressional elections only a month away.
Already, some Democrats are talking about the possibility of impeachment proceedings against Kavanaugh – calling into question the legitimacy of his ascension.
"He's going to be on the Supreme Court with a huge taint and a big asterisk after his name," Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, told Jonathan Karl on ABC’s "This Week."
The final vote on Kavanaugh came amid raucous protests in the Senate chamber itself and far beyond. Demonstrators stormed the doors of the Supreme Court building even as he was being sworn in for an appointment that will last for his lifetime.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, perhaps the man most responsible for making the nomination into a confirmation, took it all in and predicted a boon for the GOP.
"I want to thank the mob, because they’ve done the one thing we were having trouble doing, which was energizing our base," McConnell said in an interview shortly after the final vote.
It was easy for participants in this national drama to come away weary and frustrated.
"One can only hope that the Kavanaugh nomination is where the process has finally hit rock-bottom," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, in the speech where she announced her support for Kavanaugh, tipping the Senate balance in his favor.
Talk will continue in the Senate and beyond on how to learn and grow from these last few weeks, but no good solutions are readily apparent. It’s tempting to say there are no true winners in what just played out before the nation.
Yet Trump found no small measure of validation in it all. He turned up the partisan rhetoric at critical moments, and wound up delivering on his promises with a second confirmed justice on the Supreme Court.
The White House took a victory lap that leaned into the partisanship: "Instead of a 6-3 liberal Supreme Court under Hillary Clinton, we now have a 5-4 conservative Supreme Court under President @realDonaldTrump, cementing a tremendous legacy for the President and a better future for America," White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders tweeted.
Congratulations Judge Kavanaugh! Instead of a 6-3 liberal Supreme Court under Hillary Clinton, we now have a 5-4 conservative Supreme Court under President @realDonaldTrump, cementing a tremendous legacy for the President and a better future for America— Sarah Sanders (@PressSec) October 6, 2018
Part of the president’s legacy is the tribalism that defined his political rise and helped cement achievements like this one. America is as divided as ever, and a president who has exploited those divisions is vindicated by how things turned out.