Needless to say, Saturday Night Live ripped into Brett Kavanaugh over the weekend. As we all know, every late-night TV comedy—some would write “comedy”—show is now an anti-Republican slaughter-fest; Kavanaugh is simply the latest slaughteree. The mean-spiritedness is so obvious that Republicans have begun to play jujitsu, using the weight of the one-sidedness to buoy themselves and, lately, Kavanaugh. For instance, in response to the SNL attack on his Supreme Court nominee, President Trump tweeted: “No longer funny, no talent or charm. It is just a political ad for the Dems.”
Of course, in a game of tit-for-tat, the media, too, can play. So Trump’s attack on SNL means more buzz for the show. No doubt Alec Baldwin will soon be back, mocking the president all the more.
Kavanaugh has been good for the mainstream media’s business. As Axios reports, 17 of last week’s 20 most read articles on NYTimes.com concerned him. So we can assume that the Times is hungry for clickbaity headlines, such as this one from September 29: “Fury Is a Political Weapon. And Women Need to Wield It.” (Thus it is that the recent tsunami in Indonesia, which killed hundreds, will be recorded as a least-recorded natural disaster: the American media have been too busy inside the Beltway.)
So yes, the media should be plenty happy. The #Resistance has given it a big boost.
Yet there’s another group on the left that might not be so pleased—the Democrats. If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last half century, it’s that a victory for the left in the media is not the same thing as a victory for Democrats in electoral politics. Yes, the media might be trying hard on behalf of Democrats, but favored media causes—most obviously various flavors of left-liberationism—are often not the same as American centrism. And it’s in the center that a party builds out a majority. In other words, if the Democrats let the media push them too far to the left, that’s not good for their electoral health.
To illustrate, we might consider the fate of Democratic presidential nominees since the media embraced New Journalism in the mid-1960s. The Democrats have won five and lost eight of the last 13 presidential elections—a sad record. So we can see: while the mainstream media might go 10-to-1 Democratic in every election, reporters have a hard time persuading the public to be equally obedient.
So now we come to Kavanaugh, who was obstreperously disobedient. His assigned role was to be slaughtered in the Senate Judiciary Committee; the precise word for this process is “borked.” Had Kavanaugh been a typical Republican nominee, he would have gone to his fate without much of a fight, although maybe, a few years later, he would have written a wistful book about the experience.
Instead, Kavanaugh lit the place up. The Democrats, he said, were engaged in “search and destroy.” That’s a term that will stick. We also recall Senator Lindsey Graham, normally a mild-mannered bipartisan dealmaker, who stunned the committee and electrified Republicans with his vehement follow-up to Kavanaugh’s lightning bolts.
Immediately, other Republicans rallied to Kavanaugh’s cause, and some took the counterattack even further. For instance, Senator Tom Cotton, a veteran of military combat in both Afghanistan and Iraq, tore into one of Kavanaugh’s tormentors, Senator Richard Blumenthal, recalling Blumenthal’s fabricated Vietnam vet biography.
In the meantime, the GOP grassroots also perked up. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy observed that the Kavanaugh brouhaha had “drastically” increased Republican enthusiasm ahead of the midterm elections. Indeed, a new poll in Missouri shows Republican challenger Josh Hawley pulling ahead of Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill, who had just announced her opposition to Kavanaugh.
To this observer, the GOP backlash against the MSM and the Democrats seems familiar. A half-century ago, Republicans decided they were tired of being slugged—and so they slugged back.
On November 14, 1969, another GOP White House launched an attack on the media—and in so doing, rallied much of the country. Back then, the lead slugger was Vice President Spiro Agnew (although everyone knew that his boss, President Richard Nixon, had the same sluggo instincts).
Speaking in Des Moines, Agnew punched the press with both fists. Referring to the relatively new phenomenon of television, he declared, “No medium has a more profound influence over public opinion. Nowhere in our system are there fewer checks on such vast power.” Most Republicans, weary of helplessly turning the other cheek when the media attacked, loved every word.
From there, it was off to the rhetorical races. Soon, Agnew was alliterating his way to apogees of adulation, viz. “nattering nabobs of negativism.”
He also broadened his assault to include the entirety of the left, reporters and Democratic politicos alike. They were all, in Agnew’s pile-driving prose, “radiclibs,” “effete intellectual snobs,” and “pusillanimous pussyfooters.” Thus a onetime liberal Republican became a favorite of the red-meat right—“Spiro our Hero.”
To be sure, plenty of Americans didn’t like what Agnew was saying; the country was, one might say, polarized. Yet in the 1970 midterm elections, Republicans did well with their Agnew tactic—they actually gained seats in the Senate. And then, of course, came 1972, when the Nixon-Agnew ticket won a landslide re-election. The “silent majority” was now roaring.
Still, all these decades later, when we think of Agnew, we’re likely to recall the corruption scandal that forced his resignation in 1973. It’s thus a bit of a challenge to realize that if he hadn’t been forced out, Agnew likely would have been the Republican presidential nominee in 1976. We can only wonder whether Agnew’s tough-guy style—he was proto-Trumpian in that regard—would have won over more voters than the nice-guy nominee Gerald Ford, who lost.
In the wake of Agnew’s ignominious end, the GOP’s flirtation with press-bashing went into quiescence. Of course, it didn’t go away completely. In the ’80s and ’90s, every activist Republican knew that the bumper strip “Rather Biased” was a sneering reference to then-CBS anchorman Dan Rather. (And in 2004, of course, Rather proved his rightist critics right as he was embroiled in a career-ending journalistic scandal.)
Today, nobody really bothers to deny that the mainstream media leans left, even if some wish that it leaned left even further. According to Pew, 68 percent of Americans think the media favor one side, and Gallup finds that, over the last decade, 69 percent of Americans have lost more trust in journalism.
In fact, as of this writing, we don’t even know the fate of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination. If Kavanaugh makes it to the Court, we can assume that he will serve as he has for the last dozen years on the D.C. Court of Appeals—as a quiet conservative. (In which case, it will be up to other Republicans to pick up the incendiary torch he wielded last week—after all, it’s proven to light ‘em up.)
However, if Kavanaugh loses his SCOTUS bid, he will find that he has an option other than simply returning to low-key judicial life on a lower court.
That other option would be to take the Kavanaugh Show on the road, doing some searching and destroying of his own. That is, bash those who have bashed him—and do it for a living. He’d have to resign his judgeship, of course, but he could write a big score-settling book, and it would sell big time.
More to the point, out on the hustings, in the role of avenging angel, blasting those who blasted him, he’d be a heckuva draw, maybe even one who could change future election results. And his debate with Michael Avenatti would be must-see TV.
James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.