The Threat Republicans See in Ketanji Brown Jackson

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In our current era of bitterly fought Supreme Court confirmation battles, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination had a lot of factors working in its favor. President Joe Biden chose a historic candidate who broke a nearly two-and-a-half-century-old barrier and who’d been confirmed by the Senate before with bipartisan support. A Democratic Senate would control the confirmation process, and the early spring hearings would be a misty memory by the November midterms. Republicans won’t be able to prevent Jackson’s confirmation, and so they did not have to go hard on her.

But they chose to, and so here we are.

After a week of Republican interrogation, Judge Jackson has been asked to comment on free speech on college campuses, the appropriateness of advanced legal theory in elementary schools, and the factors involved in the sentencing guidelines for a heinous crime about a thousand times each. She has sat and listened patiently while Lindsey Graham ranted at her about Brett Kavanaugh’s treatment during his confirmation process, as Tom Cotton tried to portray her as soft on crime, and as Marsha Blackburn accused her of supporting “progressive indoctrination” in schools.

But nothing demonstrates the cynicism of Senate Republicans like the constant and insidious insinuations from Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley as they attempted to paint Judge Jackson as a wild-eyed racial radical who endangers children. In his attempt to associate Judge Jackson with the bogeyman of critical race theory, Cruz waved around a number of books, from The End of Policing to a book called Antiracist Baby, and asked: “Do you agree with this book that is being taught to kids, that babies are racist?” In a line of questioning that extended over multiple days, Hawley harangued Judge Jackson over her sentencing in a past child-porn possession case, asking her repeatedly if she “regretted it.” His messaging was eagerly embraced by QAnon supporters and boomeranged around the internet.

Of course, it’s nothing new for Cruz and Hawley to rouse the rabble for their own political purposes. Both have advanced the Big Lie about the 2020 election; both offered rhetorical or demonstrative support for the January 6 insurrectionists; both have aspirations for the Oval Office and a transparent willingness to cater to whoever will get them there. With these hearings providing all the ingredients necessary to inflame the anger and tensions of an ever-rabid base — racial politics, gender dynamics, ideological purity tests, and so, so many opportunities to “own the libs” — neither senator could ignore a chance to interrogate and humiliate a historic first — a Black woman — to demonstrate their fealty to the cause.

And just as the party has shifted with each new boundary breached, so again did “moderate” Republicans echo Cruz and Hawley’s bad-faith talking points, forcing repeated and exhausted answers from Jackson on the same topics, and stay silent as their colleagues used their precious minutes to read disturbing and distressing details about child pornography into the congressional record. All of it to try and force a stumble from a clearly qualified and accomplished candidate for the highest court that could be weaponized into a meme or a clip or a bad edit to be churned through the GOP disinformation machine and further a narrative that Democrats and the people aligned with them are an active threat to the imagined white, Christian, patriarchal America they desire.

Because regardless of her accomplishments and demeanor, her excellence and intelligence, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is merely a punching bag in a political spectacle. Republicans have cast her as aligned with their “enemy” in the culture war, an unworthy aspirant sought only because of her identity, and as another dangerous change in history that can soon transform — as Obama did — into a new normal. And while Cruz, Hawley, and the rest of the Republicans on the committee cannot directly attack her Blackness or womanhood, they can make Judge Jackson into a symbol of the fear of their own replacement in positions of power, a diverse and open future that the Republican base has been carefully taught to hate.

So a judge whose answers, out of context, could very easily sound like a constitutional originalist, who insists that she sticks to the limits of the law, and who has a healthy respect for tradition in the form of precedent has become an immediate and existential menace to the future of the United States. Republicans have tried to saddle her with the paranoid fever dreams of a rising crime wave and a secret cabal of pedophiles, knowing that even if reasonable people can see through the obvious charade, their increasingly conspiratorial core of followers will hold even tighter to the illusion and neither see nor trust the sources that would attempt to debunk it. Dependent on grievance to sustain their political activism, the current base of the Republican Party needs villains in order to feel like victims and requires rationales to vindicate their extreme actions. It doesn’t matter that it’s not true: It’s enough that they can pretend it’s real.

To the Republican base and their elected enablers, Ketanji Brown Jackson isn’t a person — not a judge and not a nominee. She isn’t her accomplishments or her record or her beautiful family. Instead, she is a representation of a new world, a country that does more than make the dreams of white men possible. And so the people who are feasting upon the thin gruel of Cruz and Hawley’s insinuations, Graham’s rants, and Cotton’s malice aren’t people looking for reasons to reject Judge Jackson; they are looking for reasons to destroy her.

The Threat Republicans See in Ketanji Brown Jackson