Rot on the Right, Green Shoots on the Left

Alexandria Ocasio Cortez could herald a new era in American politics, regardless of what the post-Kennedy Supreme Court does. Photo: Courtesy of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, the Supreme Court after Anthony Kennedy, the politics of civility, and Sean Spicer’s next act.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, often seen as the swing vote on an ideologically divided court, has announced his retirement, effective at the end of this term. What does a post-Kennedy Court look like?

Despite the ostensibly moderating influence of the very conservative Anthony Kennedy, the Roberts Court will go down in history as having enhanced the rights of corporations while eroding those of minorities. Kennedy not only wrote the majority decision on Citizens United but joined the 5–4 majority that castrated the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This week alone he sided with the majorities upholding the Trump travel ban and pummeling organized labor. Yet hard as it is to imagine how this court could get much worse, it will, now that it loses Kennedy’s anomalously liberal votes extending gay civil rights, abortion rights, and habeas corpus, and restricting prayer in public schools and capital punishment. The results are likely to be swift and brutal, including the striking down of Roe v. Wade, which Jeffrey Toobin of CNN estimates will lead to the outlawing of abortion in some 20 states.

The Trump Court will be more than ever a boon for white men and the wealthy, as is the Trump presidency in general. But it will be practicing its antediluvian jurisprudence against the backdrop of a nation where the nonwealthy are economically aggrieved, women are in the majority, and the white population is shrinking every day. With time, the discrepancy between this Court’s decisions and the realities of the fast-evolving modern America beyond its chambers could lead to a national conflict as convulsive as the one that followed the Taney Court’s Dred Scott decision in 1857.

This hand has been dealt. Scenarios that pro-choice GOP senators like Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski might block Trump’s nominee are wishful thinking. It might be more profitable to start moving past the Democratic leadership that helped bring us to this moment. As my colleague Eric Levitz has pointed out, if Barack Obama had nominated a bolder choice than Merrick Garland to replace Scalia — a pick who might have roused the Democrats’ minority base much as Trump’s will the GOP’s old-white-guy base — it would have been far harder politically for Mitch McConnell to rob America’s first black president of his nominee in 2016. The Democratic leadership in Congress that went along with this thinking with nary a peep, and that then proved so ineffectual in battling McConnell’s unconstitutional tactics, is still in place. Who can now watch them promising fierce resistance on MSNBC without laughing or crying?

This is why, in a terrible week, the one bit of hopeful political news was the upset primary victory of a 28-year-old political novice, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, over the ten-term incumbent Joseph Crowley in New York City. This race, no more than any other House primary, cannot be construed as a harbinger of what might happen nationally in November. But it can be seen as an object lesson in what effective Democratic politics can look like, as a contrast to the moribund state of the party’s status quo in Washington.

Despite her embrace of the socialist label, there is nothing radical about what Ocasio-Cortez ran on — government-funded higher education, Medicare for all, abolishing ICE. These are solid Democratic positions and not much to the left of where the liberal Crowley stood. But unlike Crowley, Ocasio-Cortez was not locked, Hillary-style, into corporate donors and didn’t settle for cautious euphemisms in making her case. And unlike Crowley as well, she worked her ass off, both in terms of retail campaigning and building a digital-age political organization from scratch.

What’s remarkable is that her opponent was widely considered to be in line to succeed Nancy Pelosi as the Democratic leader of the House. Worse, at 56 — twice Ocasio-Cortez’s age — Crowley was among the youngest leaders of the party’s possible heirs apparent. No less telling is the fact that the Times barely covered Ocasio-Cortez, a local story, until after she won. (A variety of other national and local outlets had done so, including the television channel NY 1, the Intercept, Vogue, Splinter, and New York.) The former Times executive editor, Jill Abramson, tweeted: “Missing her rise akin to not seeing Trump’s win coming in 2016.” This is true enough if the Times and other major media organizations are missing other Ocasio-Cortezes — and voters who love them — throughout the country. Isn’t it time for the so-called liberal media to stop refighting the last lost journalistic war with repetitive articles taking the steadfast temperature of the Trump voters? Those voters are not going to change their views no matter what. What’s going on at the Democratic grass roots is arguably the undercovered story that may tell us more about what happens (or not) on Election Day 2018.

The request from a Virginia restaurant owner that Press Secretary Sarah Sanders leave her restaurant last weekend is only one of the latest confrontations to be followed, in left-leaning circles, both by calls for civility and declarations that civility abets injustice. Are we witnessing a partisan realignment?

No. What we are witnessing is yet another example of how some liberals and centrist editorialists have internalized the notion that Democrats have to play by different rules than the opposition. Trump encouraged physical violence at his campaign rallies, engages routinely in barely coded racist slurs of blacks and Muslims, and countenances the ridicule of a dying American senator and war hero. Contrast this to the Red Hen incident and the few scattered similar examples that have led the right to play the victim card this week. Yes, incivility is bad — how’s that for a gutsy opinion! — but these few nonviolent incidents of protest pale next to the president of the United States inciting a crowd to a lynch-mob frenzy by demanding that a “son-of-a-bitch” NFL player be fired for exercising his First Amendment rights.

When it wasn’t covering Ocasio-Cortez, the Times did run a page-one piece in which Trump voters talked about how angry criticism of their guy makes them support him even more. I’ll say it yet again: This is not news. These people have remained loyal from the start and nothing will move them away from Trump, ever, least of all stinging criticism, whether it comes from the proprietor of the Red Hen, a special counsel, an op-ed writer, or even (occasionally) a Republican politician. This base is also likely to turn out in droves in November. Will Democrats and Independents do so in enough numbers to outvote them? That’s the crucial story about which, as the Ocasio-Cortez media shortfall proved, we need to learn a lot more.

Sean Spicer is trying to launch a second career as a TV talk-show host, with a pilot to be filmed in July. Who do you think he imagines as his audience?

Perhaps those all-time record crowds he saw at Trump’s inauguration? Let’s keep in mind that the pilot for this putative show, with the provisional title Sean Spicer’s Common Ground, is not being produced by any network. My guess is that the only way it will get on the air is if Melissa McCarthy plays Spicer in every episode, as she did on Saturday Night Live. As Sarah Ellison of the Washington Post has reported, Spicer’s previous attempts to land a television gig as a talking head since leaving the White House were spurned not just by CNN but by Fox News. Sad!

That said, this is not the worst idea for a new television talk show out there. This spring the New York Post’s “Page Six” reported that Charlie Rose was plotting a comeback in which he would interview fellow celebrity #MeToo villains. There is no evidence that this vile concept has gotten any traction anywhere, thankfully. What’s more, the obvious candidate to produce it — Bill Shine, the late Roger Ailes’s enabler during his reign of sexual terror at Fox News — is off the market now that he’s widely reported to be joining the Trump White House.

Frank Rich: Rot on the Right, Green Shoots on the Left