I am going to try to write this calmly. I want to remain calm because I want to remain lucid. Also, if my hands are shaking with rage, I cannot type. So you'll have to give me a minute, as I work up to the bit about Molotov cocktails. I’ll get there, but first I have to talk about podcasts.
My podcast feed can be divvied up into two types of show: shows about politics and the news, and shows that I listen to in order to escape politics and the news. Of the latter, Karina Longworth’s Hollywood history, You Must Remember This is a favorite. I also like to dip into the BBC Radio 4 series In Our Time, where I can find out about cephalopods and hear eminent scholars discuss Middlemarch. There are some junkier podcasts, too, but I’ve found, over the past year or so, that the best way for me to eject myself from the crashing fighter jet of current events is to expand my mind. Learning allows me to see myself as part of the tapestry of earth and time, rather than someone stuck in a present that’s all too often dumbfoundingly horrifying. Thus did I dive into to the Revolutions podcast, Mike Duncan’s five year-old series exploring history’s great revolutions.
It was somewhere in the midst of Duncan’s season on the July Revolution, when the post-Bastille, post-Terror, post-Napoleonic Empire French terminated the Bourbon Restoration and got rid of the Bourbon monarchy once and for all, that I realized I wasn’t escaping current events; rather, I was understanding them. In 1829, King Charles X of France made the same epic error as had King Charles I of England, Scotland, and Ireland 200 years earlier: Sick of the bitching of people who didn't 100 percent agree with their policies, both of these unpopular kings told the loudmouths to eff off and moved to consolidate power. In the case of King Charles X, that entailed suspending civil rights and denouncing anyone who complained as a hotheaded insurrectionary—actions that the king and his Royalist defenders spun as protective of France’s Charter of Government, the country’s sorta-kinda constitution. Nevertheless, elections did loom—and an energetic group of liberals had been organizing furiously, under the banner of a club called Help Yourself and Heaven Will Help You. Parrying Royalist efforts to disenfranchise voters and otherwise game the polls, the Help Yourself club fielded such a strong fleet of candidates, and mobilized so many fed-up French citizens, they swept the election. Whereupon the king and his enablers embarked on a Royalist coup. In a matter of weeks, France didn’t have a king anymore.
Maybe you see where I’m going with this? History rhymes, as they say, and if you listen to a few seasons of Revolutions, what you’ll discover is that the prerevolution rhyme scheme tends to go something like: People demand more rights and more economic equality/ The minority of people with the majority of the money and power get freaked out and respond by seizing even more money and power/ The people get very mad but at first they try to work within the system, like, they might storm the Bastille but even then they’re still basically cool with the king/ The rich, powerful minority make a big show of giving the masses the finger, pretty much to make the point that they're in charge, and they always will be/ Blammo, revolution.
If you’d asked me, before last week’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearings with Judge Brett Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, where we were on the road to revolution, I’d have said we were somewhere around “the people are very mad but they’re working within the system.” As of today, I feel like the revolution could kick off any minute now, because with the vote to send Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, the GOP (and Joe Manchin) have officially flipped us the bird.
When I say “us,” I mean all of us. Not just women. Not just Democrats. Standing by Brett Kavanaugh—a historically disliked nominee, with crappy poll numbers (even before Dr. Ford came forward with a credible allegation that he’d sexually assaulted her in their teens) who walked right up to the line of perjuring himself in his Senate testimony and exposed himself as a both a jerk and a partisan hack—was, make no mistake about it, a display of power. A president who badly lost the popular vote, abetted by 51 Senators who represent a mere 44 percent of Americans, rammed through their nominee just to show us they could. Trump and McConnell could have easily jettisoned Kavanaugh in favor of an equally conservative replacement; instead, fearful of looking weak, they stuck with him, not in spite of all the protest but because of it. God forbid they seem to entertain the concerns of their constituents, because then those constituents might think they have a claim on how this country is run, and who for.
Ask yourself: For whom, right now, is this country being run?
Well before she was co-bylining New Yorker exposés with Ronan Farrow, Jane Mayer published the indispensable book Dark Money. Though it’s primarily a history of the Koch Brothers, the donor network they founded, and the inscrutable ways they funnel money to conservative candidates and causes, Dark Money digs deeper into the past, and presents for readers’ consideration “the Powell memo,” penned in 1971 by future Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell. In the wake of the civil rights and women’s rights movements, with labor unions strong and the government expanding its oversight of business via environment regulations and consumer protections, corporate America, Powell wrote, was on its heels. What was required, he argued, was for “business,” writ large, to cultivate political power and use it “aggressively and with determination.” Before Powell circulated the memo, there were about 100 corporate lobbying offices in Washington, D.C.; by the mid-1980s, amid the ascendancy, under Ronald Reagan, of neoliberal economic doctrine, there were more than 1,200.
The movement kick-started by the Powell memo was avowedly reactionary. Because most voters didn’t particularly like the idea of having their waterways polluted, or their banks given free reign to fleece them, and because mostly they did like the ideas FDR had presented in his New Deal–era “Second Bill of Rights” (proposing guarantees of health care, a good education, a decent home, and a job that paid enough to provide “adequate food and clothing and recreation”), the anti-tax, anti-regulation, pro-maximizing-shareholder-value corporate agenda required a certain savoir faire in order to take hold. It demanded the curtailment of unions, and with it labor’s ability to rally members’ votes. It necessitated aggressive—Powell’s word—furtherance of Nixon’s Southern strategy, not only ratcheting up white racial resentment all across the country, but also taking steps to keep black voters away from the polls. Religion and patriotism were drafted into the cause, in order to taper the expectations of women and queer people and immigrants that they were fully equal members of society. Poor folk—especially those of color—had to be warehoused in jails and rich folk had to be safeguarded their institutional sinecures. As long as the United States remained majority-white, and its representatives nearly uniformly straight and male, there was, periodically, a coalition that could be cobbled together which, as a whole, voted in support of declining investment in public infrastructure and increasingly regressive taxation. And so on.
But, despite the reactionaries’ best efforts, the future kept on coming.
Now, I’ll say this straightforwardly: Democrats were often complicit in kowtowing to corporate interests and the 0.001 percent. But all you need to do is look at the Republicans and Democrats in Congress to comprehend that one party is at least partially committed to principles of universalism, and the other not at all. More and more, the GOP is the party of the old, the white, the homophobic, and the rich, and, to a greatly disproportionate degree, the male. And as the country’s demographics have shifted away from that profile, and as, meanwhile, the lingering effects of the 2008 economic crash and America’s forever wars singe populations one would generally expect to be moderate in their views, the GOP and their dark money funders have had to tighten the screws on democracy. Hence, insane voter ID laws, changes to the census, norm-busting à la refusing to hold hearings on Obama’s judicial nominees. (Merrick Garland, cough.) OMG, I almost forgot to mention Citizens United! And the flip side to all this chipping away at people power, which is the vast expansion of the rights of the powerful.
No wonder we cling by our fingernails to the rights we do have. For some people it’s guns. Me, I bemoaned Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement, for he had helped to preserve Roe and make gay marriage a reality. But let’s get real here. Kennedy voted to stop ballot-counting in Florida in 2000 and anoint George W. Bush president. He wrote the Citizens United opinion. In just his last session on the Supreme Court, he sided with the majority in Janus v. AFSCME, a decision that gutted public sector unions, and he forced a punt on a group of gerrymandering cases that submitted extreme redistricting to the scrutiny of the law. So, you know, ol’ Kennedy was a mixed bag where the rights of everyday citizens were concerned. Or he was, right up until the moment he delivered another Supreme Court seat to Donald Trump, and perhaps quietly proposed to our offender in chief that his former clerk, Brett Kavanaugh, would make a terrific nominee.
Much of the recent discussion of Kavanaugh’s nomination has turned on the rights of women. And justly so. It’s an undigestible, poisonous irony that a man credibly accused of sexual assault—twice credibly, by my lights, and another time that, for the sake of rigor, I’ll give a pass—will sit on the highest court in the land and hear cases pertaining to the autonomy of women’s bodies. Indeed, given that he’ll be taking his seat on the Court alongside Clarence Thomas, credibly accused sexual harasser, and forming a reliable conservative majority with his seat-stealing former Georgetown Prep classmate Neil Gorsuch, I really wouldn’t be surprised if millions of American women spend the weekend Googling “how to make Molotov cocktails.” (See, I told you I’d get there.)
And make no mistake, women do start revolutions. As Mike Duncan elucidated, in my beloved Revolutions podcast, the French one only got started in earnest when thousands of furious Parisiennes marched on Versailles. The National Guard—the King’s army—met them along the way, and, hedging their bets, decided to see the ladies to the palace gates. Mass uprising: It works! (Sometimes.)
But this isn’t just about women. If I had to wager, I’d guess that Mitch McConnell, the architect of this whole nightmare, doesn’t care a whit about abortion, either way. Not in the depths of his shriveled heart. (Ditto Susan Collins.) What McConnell does care about is power. He genuinely believes in the concept of a ruling class, wherein boys’ club mediocrities like Brett Kavanaugh—Yale undergrad legacy admit, unexceptional student at Yale Law—get promoted and promoted and promoted until they’re in position for the rabble to petition them, mostly fruitlessly, for a soup?on more fairness. The word privilege comes from the Latin for “private law,” as in, the privileged are governed by their own set of norms, which don’t apply to the rest of us. And vice versa. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was a lethal threat; 17-year-old Brett Kavanaugh was “just a boy.” Privilege. Donald Trump glides to the presidency on a wave of unpaid taxes; Detroit residents get their homes possessed because of overdue water bills. Privilege. Pedigreed white men loudly feel sorry for themselves, tuning out the quavering voices of women forced to relive the worst days of their lives. Privilege. That’s what this whole fight was about—the culmination of a 30-year war to codify private law for the few.
Other conservative Supreme Court nominees would have helped consolidate the privileged’s grip on power. But thanks to the firestorm around Kavanaugh, no other nominee could demonstrate so plainly to the American public that consolidating power is precisely what McConnell, and his fellow GOP senators, and their wealthy backers, intend to do. Well, history rhymes. They’ll have no one to blame but themselves if we riot.