Trump's twisted neo-aristocratism
President Trump believes Brett Kavanaugh was born to be a Supreme Court justice.
At a rally last week in Missouri, Trump gushed of his embattled high-court nominee: "He was born — you talk about central casting — he was born, they were saying it 10 years ago about him, he was born for the U.S. Supreme Court. He was born for it. And it's going to happen."
This is problematic for all sorts of reasons.
Various commentators have fastened onto Trump's fondness for the term "central casting," which he has applied to everyone from Defense Secretary James Mattis to Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. They worry about its superficiality: If Trump is so concerned about how someone looks, he's necessarily going to overlook qualified people who don't fit the role as he imagines it. The converse — giving jobs to unqualified people who do look the part — holds true as well. Can anyone doubt that an ex-neurosurgeon wound up running the Department of Housing and Urban Development because, in Trump's mind, HUD equals "inner city" equals African-American?
The problem goes deeper than insipid superficiality, however.
Trump wouldn't be wrong to say that Kavanaugh was bred to be a Supreme Court justice. If such a thing as a fast track to the nation's highest court exists, Kavanaugh was most certainly on it: from the privileged upbringing in a leafy Maryland suburb to the elite private schooling to the plum professional postings with Ken Starr and George W. Bush.
Yet when Trump says "born," I think he means it. It's a telling formulation. It is related to but distinct from his "central casting" preference for men who look like they care about black poverty or like eminent general officers. The idea that someone might be born to be a judge is a peek into Trump's twisted neo-aristocratic view of social relations.
It pains me to say this, but it's actually quite Burkean. Indeed, Trump seems to subscribe to Edmund Burke's notion of the "little platoon," one of the most often cited but misunderstood concepts attributed to the "father of modern conservatism." Burke's "little platoons" aren't churches, neighborhoods, community groups, or other voluntary associations — they are social classes. Without "subdivisions," Burke wrote in his seminal 1790 work Reflections on the Revolution in France, society would generally regress toward a lower, undignified mean. Sure, you can "level" all you want, but you will "never equalize."
Burke wrote further that, while there's nothing dishonorable about being a tailor or carpenter or hairdresser, such persons can't possibly be permitted to rule the state. To contend otherwise, in the name of equality or combating prejudice, was to be "at war with nature" — a passage Burke actually supports with a footnoted verse from the apocryphal Book of Ecclesiasticus. ("The wisdom of a learned man cometh by opportunity of leisure: And he that hath little business shall become wise … every carpenter and work-master that laboureth night and day … shall not be sought for in public counsel, nor sit high in the congregation: They shall not sit on the judge's seat, nor understand the sentence of judgment.")
I don't mean to pick too harshly on Burke; he was a product of his time and place and there is much wisdom and value in Reflections' critique of late-18th-century revolutionary politics. And strictly as a practical matter, it's true that hairdressers and carpenters would not make particularly competent Supreme Court justices. But it's a universally accepted tenet of the modern American social contract that the sons and daughters of hairdressers and carpenters should absolutely aspire to become Supreme Court justices. Neither Republicans nor Democrats believe that affection for one's current "subdivision" or "little platoon" should define the future of one's offspring.
I don't believe Trump has deep feeling at all for such aspirations of social mobility. Trump "loves the poorly educated"; they should stay just as and where they are — so long as that means they pay tribute to his greatness and continue to play their unwitting role in his ongoing scam. In 2016, Trump managed to earn a reputation as some kind of populist. Yet his embrace of coal miners and steelmakers makes perfect sense in the context of "little platoons." In Trump's static, anti-dynamic vision of the American economy, the hard-hats continue to thrive in their "subdivision" — while the role of rich golfing master-of-the-universe playboy plutocrat is left to him.
As for the future of Brett Kavanaugh? Donald Trump has one abiding answer to that question: Let me be the judge of that.