The SCOTUS Vote Is a Sign of Republican Weakness

They think they're going to get blown out on November 3.

1. Weakness

Here are the two data points that explain why Republicans are going to push a SCOTUS nomination through before November 3:

  • 62 percent of Americans say the winner of the election should pick the next nominee.

  • Joe Biden leads the national polling average by +7 points.

That’s it. That’s your explanation.

The polling on who should be making this SCOTUS pick is pretty definitive. Only 23 percent of respondents said that Trump should be the one making the nomination.

So why would Republicans rush into a high-profile fight where they’re on the wrong side of public opinion by nearly 3-to-1? And in the process weaken their presidential nominee and make a bunch of vulnerable senators even more vulnerable?

Because they believe Trump is going to lose.

If Republicans were confident that Trump was going to win, they’d hold off on the SCOTUS vote. They wouldn’t expose senators such as McSally or Gardner.

If Republicans thought that Trump had a realistic chance to win, they’d also hold off on the vote. Because they’d be scrapping for any issue that might tilt 50-50 odds in their favor.

(And besides, they could tell themselves that if this gamble didn’t pay off, then they could always vote on the nomination in the lame duck session.)

But the decision to vote now tells us that Mitch McConnell and the Republican caucus have decided that Trump is highly likely to lose—and that they are likely to lose their majority, too. 

Which is why they have to push the vote through before the election—because doing it in a lame-duck after a large-scale loss would invite apocalyptic levels of public backlash.

In other words: This is a decision based not on strength, but on weakness and fear. And you know what the old green guy says about fear:

You might think of Senate Republicans as a bunch of bank robbers, running around in the vault, stuffing every last wad of cash they can grab down the front of their pants because they hear the sirens and they know that the cozzers will be on the scene any minute.

One more thing: In all of the SCOTUS drama of the last few days, you don’t see a lot of “more in sorrow than in anger” arguments from Republicans saying, something like:

Yes, this is worrisome. Yes, it’s a judgment call. And yes we understand that it looks bad and that there will be adverse consequences for the court and the country if we hold this vote. But for reasons X, Y, and Z, voting on Trump’s nominee is still the most prudent course.

Instead what you see is closer to . . . glee.

It’s almost as if Republicans are relishing jamming through a last-minute vote even more than they would a normal, orderly confirmation process.

It’s almost as if the norm-busting is part of the appeal.


2. The Prophet Amos Williamson

Over the weekend a friend sent me a 4,000-word email that is sheer genius. But because it steps on a lot of toes in the world of Conservatism Inc., he doesn’t want to have his name attached to it.

I want to share it with you, just the same. (Though I’ve cut it down quite a bit.) So here is the prophesying of “Amos Williamson” taking up the question of whether or not people like Rudy Giuliani & Co. went crazy, or were always crazy:

Problem #1 is personnel.

People generally go into meaningful intellectual decline by 70. There are exceptions, but they are exceptions. Sometimes that decline morphs into crazy. And not “crazy,” but crazy.

That kind of crazy is real, and part of why you're supposed to age people out of roles is so that they don't tarnish from previous work (in your cites, Dershowitz and Epstein).

So, part of the problem is that a bunch of Boomers have held onto positions of prominence for a solid decade after they should have been promoted to retired elder statesman status. The model for what should have happened is (like many things conservative) Bill Buckley: he had the foresight and the humility to let go of the reins at NR when he started to slow down.

A related problem for old dudes is that divorce turns about a third of men who go through it into nihilists, and a lot of conservative leadership consists of divorced men. I have not gone and checked systematically, but I would be willing to bet money that:

P(collapse of principles | divorce) >> P(collapse of principles | still married to first wife)

at a highly significant level. The case study here is Steve Moore. Early-2000s Steve Moore could write weirdly but hilariously about teaching limited government to his kids by having them fill out tax returns on their allowance. Trump-era Steve Moore is, well, Trump-era Steve Moore. In between? This.


Problem #2 is market segmentation and social media. 

There was always a highbrow/middlebrow/lowbrow class structure to conservative thought. An idea with the same general shape would show up in three different ways. Example:

Highbrow: The agencies of the federal government are overwhelmingly staffed by liberals, which creates a permanent leftward bias to the direction of federal policy. The agencies drag their heels and slow-roll conservative policies Republican administrations attempt to implement but eagerly implement liberal policies of Democratic administrations. The agencies enjoy sufficient insulation as to be quasi-independent and functionally impervious to political control by elected officials, and this is a serious and constitutionally dicey structural problem. 

Middlebrow: The unelected bureaucrats picking winners and losers are a constitutional monstrosity and a rogue branch of government which collaborates with leftist activists to undermine the center-right majority of the country.

Lowbrow: THE SOROS DEEP STATE IS A COUP. 

The strange thing about this is that while each has the same basic shape and expresses basically the same sentiment, there are huge differences in terms of accuracy.

The highbrow version is unambiguously correct.

The lowbrow version is bonkers conspiracy theory.

The middlebrow is somewhere in-between: somewhat unfair and untrue as a broad generalization, but true in detail frequently enough to be polemical fair game.

A key difference going down the intellectual food chain is a shift from bias to malice as explanatory, and that line was always in between highbrow and middlebrow. Middlebrow always had an element of pugilism. 

As a matter of sheer audience size, middlebrow was (pre-social media) where the most people were. Middlebrow was where talk radio and Fox News was. Middlebrow was where the book sales were. Middlebrow is where congressmen and CPAC operated. However the producers of middlebrow all read the highbrow version, which meant that even though the audience for highbrow was small, it was highly influential. It also meant that highbrow conservatism had to be very careful about punching down, because the influence of highbrow conservatism was indirect and dependent on middlebrow conservatism developing a cheaper, flimsier, mass-produced version for general consumption.

It's hard to judge the scale of pre-social media lowbrow. It was definitely "large," but the range potentially described by that is two or three orders of magnitude wide. Furthermore, it was diffuse, with no particular lowbrow figure having an audience size or stature comparable to the middlebrow. So punching down at shitheads like David Duke was easy. 

Three things collapsed this ecosystem:

(1) The absolutely correct Terry Teachout "collapse of the middlebrow" thesis valid across all of American society. The audience for middlebrow shrunk and more went lowbrow than highbrow.

(2) Highbrow conservatism lost the producer-of-middlebrow audience over the aforementioned bias/malice distinction and therefore lost nearly all influence downscale within the political right. 

(3) Social media. As you are keenly aware, social media neutron-bombed traditional media economics. It also made building a lowbrow platform and catering to an exclusively lowbrow audience really easy (c.f Trump and birtherism). If you were in the middlebrow business (and middlebrow is a business) you had some really tough choices to make.

The case study for how the market segmentation worked is Ann Coulter. Ann Coulter is an Ivy Leaguer who in 1998 could hold her own as an interlocutor on Firing Line. By the mid-2000s she had made the cynical choice to slum it and had pioneered and perfected the genre of the pugilistic, personal-brand promoting, overwrought, full-sentence-subtitled "idea" book with physique-highlighting pictures on the covers and 9th-grade level, moderately dishonest writing in between, which if you squinted a bit was not that different from the honest version of the argument.

By the mid-2010s she'd gone full lowbrow and basically become  a white nationalist. I bet it would be interesting to chart the Flesh-Kincaid reading-level scores of the books published under her brand over time.

We could ask your crazy question about Ann Coulter: Was she always what she is now? Or did she change? I have no idea, but my hunch is she made a deal with the devil to become famous and the devil collected by turning her into the monster she had created. 

One of the key features that always separated highbrow and middlebrow conservatism was the pugilism. Highbrow conservatism played by Republic of Letters rules, as is appropriate for serious intellectualism. In order to have honest discussion one must maintain low personal stakes so that borderline and over-the-line ideas can be defeated by argument rather than by ostracism. 

Republic of Letters rules make for terrible ratings. Conservatism may have been the steak, but pugilism was the sizzle, and the sizzle is what sells. You're a WWE aficionado so should understand this intuitively: personal conflict is what makes for compelling drama, and drama is what gets eyeballs. Middlebrow conservatism was always advertiser-supported rather than donor-supported. Thus, Roger Ailes made sure every male personality on during prime tme had some variation of Outer Borough Tough Guy persona. 

The difference between middlebrow and lowbrow was and is real content.

With middlebrow conservatism, pugilism may have been the sizzle that sold things, but there really was a conservative steak it was selling. It may have been a $14 national-chain steroid steak, but at least there was some beef in there, somewhere.

Lowbrow conservatism is not that. It's pugilism in the service of raw us-versus-them tribalism. It's a WWE fight, where the beef is the beefing. And that's where things get really ugly. 

Because highbrow “us” is always a cultural designation (which does have a religious dimension). While lowbrow “us” gets racial pretty quickly. 

I am of the opinion that this middlebrow-to-lowbrow shift in mass-market conservatism is 95 percent "there go my people, I must find out where they are going so I can lead them."

Which is to say that anyone who took over the Bill O'Reilly slot would have gone the same route Tucker Carlson did. Or have been replaced by someone who did—because that's what the audience wants now.

And it didn't always want that.


Problem # 3: Movement Conservatism was always an alliance between two slightly different conceptions of conservatism which have now split. 

One version is what you might call Hume-style: A principled belief that change should be slow, measured, and gradual even when warranted. A belief that the status quo should be tinkered with only with trepidation because it's much easier to break than to build. A belief that traditions should be maintained because there's no telling what important embedded wisdom they contain whose value we would only discover by its absence. It’s a conservatism that understands that no matter how much material, technological, or moral progress humanity has achieved, to be human is to always live only a few months away from The Lord of the Flies.

The other version is positivist. It believes in the intrinsic rightness of a specific set of traditions identified as distinctly American: Anglophone legal and literary culture; decisively valuing both freedom and excellence over equality; and a robust set of nonstate institutions enforcing Christian (and when you really get down to it, Reformed Protestant) behavioral norms. It adhered to those traditions not because they were the traditions they happened to have but because it was affirmatively rightful. And most important, this version believes that America's special place in the world was downstream of it embracing and promoting that particular culture

This is the sort of division which only becomes clear in retrospect, after it broke down, because for essentially 50 years they were complementary. Your typical movement conservative believed in both and thought the theoretical argument over which was True Conservatism was like arguing whether milk chocolate or dark chocolate was True Chocolate.

The split point of these two branches of conservatism is the following question: "Suppose the left won a clean-sweep irrevocable culture war victory. Would you still love your country?"

A Hume conservative sighs wistfully but answers yes.

A positivist conservative answers no

Those two camps can only remain under the same banner when the question is preposterously hypothetical, which for two generations it was. Then it suddenly became very, very real. Barack Obama, especially in the second term, broke this coalition by moving the status quo sufficiently leftward as to make it intolerable to positivist conservatives. Attributing it all to him is of course more than a little absurd—but it was something that absolutely happened with a big assist from executive branch power. 


3. Rounders

Hook this Wired piece on poker beefs directly into my veins:

MIKE POSTLE WAS on another tear. The moonfaced 42-year-old was deep into a marathon poker session at Stones Gambling Hall, a boxy glass-and-steel casino wedged between Interstate 80 and a Popeye's in suburban Sacramento. The September 21, 2019, game, which Stones was broadcasting to audiences via YouTube and Twitch, had attracted several top players to the casino's card room, a gaudily lit space done up like an Old West saloon. One pro from Las Vegas had flown in on a chartered jet with $50,000 in cash. Yet, as usual when he appeared on Stones' livestream, Postle was shredding the competition; he was the evening's chips leader by a comfortable margin.

Five hours into the show, a curious hand took shape. . . .

Even before the flop, though, seven of the nine players chose to fold. Postle, who'd been dealt the queen of diamonds and jack of hearts, pressed forward with the hand. His sole opponent would be Marle Cordeiro, a Las Vegas-based pro with a large social media following.

The flop contained the 8 of spades, 9 of diamonds, and jack of diamonds—a promising trio for Postle, who now had a pair (jacks) and was just a 10 away from a queen-high straight (8–9-10-jack-queen). There were two shared cards left to be dealt. The turn produced the relatively useless 4 of spades, after which Cordeiro placed a $600 bet.

Postle, his white baseball cap nearly concealing his eyes, clutched his right shoulder with his left hand as he mulled his options. Most seasoned players would call or raise in his situation: The statistical likelihood that his hand would yield a favorable monetary outcome was high enough to make proceeding to the river an easy choice. But Postle had an unorthodox style of play, and he often made decisions that his rivals deemed either wildly aggressive or inexplicably meek. Those instincts had served him well in recent months: He was in the midst of an epic winning streak—a “heater”—that had turned him into a local folk hero. He'd become such a force on Stones' livestream, in fact, that casino regulars had taken to calling him the Messiah and even God.

Postle spent half a minute in quiet contemplation, almost motionless in his black leather chair. Then, pursing his lips in resignation, he chucked his cards forward to fold.

Postle's surrender, though counterintuitive, turned out to be a canny move because Cordeiro was holding “the nuts”—poker slang for the most valuable hand. Her hidden hole cards were the 10 of diamonds and queen of spades, so she'd already secured a queen-high straight before the river; she had a 96 percent chance of maintaining her edge once all the cards were dealt.

Justin Kelly, one of the livestream's two commentators, gushed over the genius of Postle's eccentric play. “This is what I'm talking about people!” he exclaimed from his broadcast booth across the room. “Postle takes the weirdest lines and gets people to lay down huge hands all the time. But when he has top pair and a straight draw, he is able to just lay down against the nuts. Postle is just like a freak! He's just a freak of nature.”

Kelly's co-commentator, 42-year-old Veronica Brill, did not share his sense of awe. She had been observing Postle up close for a while, both as an opponent at the table and a broadcaster, and she'd come to believe there was a nefarious reason for his success. For months she'd resisted mentioning her suspicions on the livestream, hoping that Stones would handle the matter behind the scenes. But the fold against Cordeiro struck her as so fishy that she could no longer keep quiet. Brill leaned back, gently shook her head, and took a half-step toward calling out God.

“It doesn't make sense,” she said, her soft monotone tinged with mockery. “It's like he knows. It doesn't make sense. It's weird.” . . .

Brill, a self-described analytics geek whose day job is building medical software, was among those who got clobbered by Postle at the table, and she served as a livestream commentator during much of his streak too. By early 2019, she had seen enough to surmise that Postle's success didn't make mathematical sense. She thought he was winning far too often, particularly for a player whose strategy didn't jibe with game theory optimal, or GTO, the prevailing strategy in Texas Hold 'Em today.

Read the whole thing.