Jackie Calmes is one of the country’s foremost political reporters. As the Wall Street Journal’s chief political correspondent, the White House correspondent for the New York Times during the Obama administration, and now a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, she has an unparalleled knowledge of how Congress and American politics have changed in recent decades — particularly on the Republican side.
Her new book Dissent: The Radicalization of the Republican Party and Its Capture of the Court is at the same time a revealing biography of Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh, an in-depth analysis of his controversial 2018 confirmation hearings (and what they left out), and a historical examination of the Republican Party’s radicalization leading to the presidency of Donald Trump. As she writes in the book’s preface, “Trump’s rise in the Republican Party was the logical result of the party’s ever-rightward, populist, and antigovernment evolution, a shift that coincided with my career in political journalism and was its single biggest story.”
In this interview, Jackie discusses her four decades in journalism, her studies of the influence of right-wing media on Republican politics, and her writing of Dissent. She covers the influence of Newt Gingrich in shifting the Republican Party toward populist conservatism, the rise of the Federalist Society and its role in conservative battles over court appointments, and Trump’s triumph in the 2016 Republican primaries. She describes the sexual assault allegations leveled against Kavanaugh by Christine Blasey Ford in the confirmation hearings — but also the allegations that the FBI inadequately investigated. She also predicts what Kavanaugh, as the pivotal justice in what’s now a 6-3 conservative-dominated Supreme Court, may rule on contentious issues like abortion and gun rights.
Jackie Calmes: The Tea Party — there was no leader. It was almost amorphous. But it was the base that, writ large, had been created and radicalized by this combination of post-Newt Gingrich politics and conservative media.
Geoff Kabaservice: Hello! I’m Geoff Kabaservice for the Niskanen Center. Welcome to the Vital Center podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the muddled, moderate majority of Americans drawing upon history, biography, and current events. I’m thrilled to be joined today by Jackie Calmes, who’s one of America’s greatest political reporters. She covered Congress and the White House for 18 years with the Wall Street Journal, starting in 1990 and ultimately becoming the paper’s chief political correspondent. She was then a White House correspondent for the New York Times during the Obama administration as well as a national politics reporter and chief economic correspondent.
Since then, she’s been the White House editor and a correspondent with the Los Angeles Times’ Washington Bureau, and she is the author of the terrific new book Dissent: The Radicalization of the Republican Party and Its Capture of the Court. Welcome, Jackie.
Jackie Calmes: Good to be with you, Geoff.
Geoff Kabaservice: Good to have you here. Jackie, as you know, I am a big fan of the reportage in Dissent, which focuses on Brett Kavanaugh’s personal history, his rise through conservative activist circles, and his tumultuous Supreme Court confirmation hearings. But I’m equally a fan of your work in that book as a historian and your ability to place the Kavanaugh hearings, as well as the Trump presidency, in the context of changes in the Republican Party. And I want to read from the opening lines of Dissent because I was so struck by this. You wrote: “As my fortieth anniversary in journalism approached, Donald Trump had just been elected president. While his victory was a surprise, including to himself, he was no political aberration.
“Trump’s rise in the Republican Party was the logical result of the party’s ever-rightward, populist and antigovernment evolution, a shift that coincided with my career in political journalism and was its single biggest story.” In many ways, that is the history that I’ve been following as well in my own research and writing. And I really love how you told this tale. But before we get into some of the specifics of your pursuit of that story, can you tell me something about your own background and how you came to be interested in political reporting as a career?
Jackie Calmes: Wow, that’s a big question. Well, from my earliest childhood, I gravitated to reading books of history and biographies. As a child, I remember there was this series of biographies in the public library that were biographies written for children about famous characters — mostly men, of course, but there were a few on women. And I read them all. And so when people talk about Nancy Drew and those sorts of books, I don’t know what they’re talking about because I wasn’t reading fiction, I was just reading history.
Then as I got older, and I knew I liked to write — I loved history — it was a matter of figuring out: How do I make a living at that? The only way I really could figure that out was journalism. And the other advantage journalism has is you can do… You can get a job with a bachelor’s degree. I wouldn’t have had to come up with the money for advanced degrees — although I then did get a master’s degree in journalism at Northwestern, but that’s another separate story I won’t bore you with.
I also got into journalism because I wanted to see the country. When I grew up… People think I gravitated towards journalism because I sort of came of age during the Watergate period — Bernstein and Woodward — and I wanted to be the female version. But I had actually… My interest predated that. Like I say, it went back into elementary school. So when I was at Northwestern, a recruiter came to the school for a chain of Texas papers and he had an opening at one of their fourteen papers in Abilene, Texas, in west Texas. And so I thought, “Well, I’ve never been out of the Ohio-Michigan-Illinois area, so that’s a part of the country I’d like to see.”
I took the job. I didn’t particularly like living in Abilene, but within the year I was transferred and promoted to cover state government in Austin for the paper’s chain. So within a year of getting out of college, I was covering politics and government, and I’ve never stopped. I’ve loved it from the start. And I’ve seen the country, I’ve seen the world with presidents — and there’s really no better way to see the world than traveling with a U.S. president. You get into rooms you would never get into as a tourist and see people — like a drunk Boris Yeltsin in Moscow one time. It’s been great all around. I never would’ve guessed how much the journalism industry would change and how much politics would change in that forty years. So it’s been quite a ride.
Geoff Kabaservice: You grew up in the Toledo, Ohio area, correct?
Jackie Calmes: Yes.
Geoff Kabaservice: Did you grow up reading the Toledo Blade?
Jackie Calmes: Yes. I’m old enough that my father also subscribed to the Toledo Times, which for a while was what we called the morning paper and the Toledo Blade was the afternoon paper. That also made me interested in journalism. How in the world do you know about the Toledo Blade?
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, I’ve actually been thinking about this because the Niskanen Center website just published a paper that I edited by Robert Saldin, Kal Munis, and Richard Burke on the decline of local newspapers. That has a real connection to the decline of local community and perhaps the decline of local democracy as well. On the television side, there actually was an interesting set of posts in the, I think it’s the Knight-Cronkite News Lab, on the talent shortage in local TV newsrooms. It really seems to me that there actually was great value in having started your reporting career in a place like Abilene, Texas after having read a strong, quality local newspaper like the Toledo Blade.
Jackie Calmes: Right. It’s interesting because when I was at Northwestern, a lot of my, shall we say, more privileged classmates were holding out for job offers from the likes of the networks or the national newspapers. And probably… Well, I know it was because I didn’t have the luxury — I needed to immediately get a job so I could pay all of my school debt. I took the job as I did at a small paper. And I have, ever since that time, I have considered that I was the smarter. Not only did my friends not get those jobs they were holding out for, but they didn’t get the sort of experience I did.
You get to do everything when you’re at a small local paper, and you get to… I think it’s important, especially if you’re going to go on to cover politics, that you see things from that local level. I mean, it was just a stroke of luck that I was seeing Texas when I did at that point where the government — it was just the eve of the Reagan revolution — and the South, including Texas, was about to switch from one-party Democratic to eventually one-party Republican. I’m looking forward to this paper you described because I really do think the decline of local journalism — and it’s getting worse by the day — is one of the reasons we find ourselves in the position we do of our democracy being under threat.
I have a friend, for instance, who used to… He had been in journalism with me years ago, but then he got a law degree and ultimately became chief of staff to a governor of Oregon. And he told me not so long ago that there’s next to no local coverage in the state capital or local papers, in the state capital press corps in Salem, Oregon. And he said, “The state legislators can get away with murder.” That’s the thing. I mean, the accountability — you’re missing a whole level of accountability, nonpartisan accountability, that voters need to make informed decisions.
Geoff Kabaservice: I totally agree. As you mentioned, 1978 was a momentous midterm election during the Jimmy Carter presidency in the South, because that really marked some of the first breakthroughs of the Republican Party into what had been the Solid South. And Texans elected Bill Clements, who was the first Republican governor since Reconstruction. And even some of the Democrats who got elected that year, like Phil Gramm, were very conservative, Boll Weevil Democrats…
Jackie Calmes: Charlie Stenholm in Abilene.
Geoff Kabaservice: Right, who went on to become proto-Republicans. What I find interesting is you also reported that year on one of the Republicans who lost, which was George W. Bush, who was running in Texas’s 19th district, which I guess is somewhat near Abilene.
Jackie Calmes: Yeah, to the west, Midland-Odessa.
Geoff Kabaservice: There’s a great story… I still remember that he lost to Democrat Kent Hance, who was kind of a folksy guy. George W. Bush had been a Yale graduate and business school graduate not that long beforehand, and he shot a campaign ad that showed him jogging, presenting a strong physical appearance. But joggers were pretty rare in that part of Texas, and Hance’s comment was: “The only time folks around here go running is when someone’s chasing ‘em.”
Jackie Calmes: I tell you, Hance had a great sense of humor. That was one of the things that helped get him elected. He had been a state senator in Texas. And yes, it was… But again, George W. Bush did better in that election in 1978 than he was expected to. But Democrats had a real advantage back then, and the fact that Bush did as well as he did was a sign of the wave to come for Republicans.
Geoff Kabaservice: And then, of course, Texas went for Ronald Reagan in 1980, although they had gone for Carter in ’76. The Senate also turned Republican for the first time since the Eisenhower presidency. You really were sort of witnessing the beginning of the conservative revolution at that time.
Jackie Calmes: Absolutely.
Geoff Kabaservice: Then you moved to Washington in 1984 to work for Congressional Quarterly. For our friends who don’t live inside the Beltway, what is CQ?
Jackie Calmes: Well, CQ is not… Back then, it was different from what exists today. It’s been sort of folded into other publications now. But back then it was a weekly magazine, even though it was called Congressional Quarterly, and then they took to calling it CQ Weekly. It was someone who, when they heard I was coming to Washington, said that if I really wanted to learn about Congress, I should go to Congressional Quarterly. It was sort of an adjustment because I like newspapering and daily deadlines, and just the pace of a newsroom… CQ was a little bit more… It was slower and more detail-oriented. But boy, did I get to know about Congress, down to the technical and procedural parliamentary level.
I was there for the better part of five years. It was another advantage I had over daily newspapers, is that… Not having a daily deadline, I could, at the end of a day, walk around the halls of the congressional offices and just pop in and talk to staffers, even talk to a Member sometimes after hours. I’d have red wine with Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico, the Republican whose family were Italian immigrants, and he loved to get out the red wine. It was a real learning experience, not just in what I was writing but in what I was able to do in taking the time to build sourcing and learn things that reporters don’t really have today in our 24/7 Internet age.
Geoff Kabaservice: I know it’s a big and ultimately unanswerable question, but how was Washington, how was Congress, how was politics different at that time from what it is now?
Jackie Calmes: Well, it was all new to me at the time, pretty much. But it was interesting in that it seemed very partisan. I mean, I remember writing things and we’d talk and members would kvetch about just how partisan things were. And yet you had, in each party, you had a range of members from left to right on the spectrum. You had liberal Republicans and you had very conservative Democrats. Over time, they all left. The liberal Republicans, their party got rid of them in Republican primaries when more conservative people ran against them. And a lot of the most conservative Democrats either switched parties to the Republican Party or lost in their party primaries.
So you had this homogenization of both parties over time. But in the Reagan era, it still seemed very partisan, and yet now we look back and it seems like the good old days compared to what we have now. I don’t even consider it partisanship — it’s polarization now. It’s almost a parliamentary government where you have each party sort of voting in lockstep for the most part. Democrats, as we see, are less guilty of that than Republicans are. But it was really exciting. Because you had diversity within each party, to some extent, it made the votes on legislation hard to predict and more sort of exciting to watch.
What I saw really started to change big-time with the Newt Gingrich era in the ’90s, in the House — I say in the ’90s, but it had actually started by the mid-to-late ’80s when I was there. You could see the ferment among House Republicans who had been a minority since the early ’50s and were restless about it. They considered that the leadership of the party was too complacent, too cooperative with the Democrats, and had a minority mindset. The Republicans in the House started to radicalize when they decided that the way to shake things up was to be far more militant. Forget legislative compromises — let’s just battle it out and then take it to the voters.
Geoff Kabaservice: And how much of that change do you ascribe to Gingrich?
Jackie Calmes: I ascribe a lot of it to Gingrich. But he started out as a, what you and I know or used to call Rockefeller Republicans — the more liberal-to-moderate variety of Republicans that reflected former New York governor and then vice president Nelson Rockefeller. He was an opportunist, Gingrich was, who sort of saw that this was taking hold in the Republican Party, because it was taking hold already because of the license that Ronald Reagan had given to the conservatives in the party. Ronald Reagan represented — you know better than me — a victory for the conservative wing of the party in what had been a decades-long battle within the party between the moderate establishment and the conservative activists and the conservative wing. This wing, under Reagan, became empowered. And through the ’80s, they became restive and wanted to exert their power.
And Reagan, likewise, gave rise to things like very conservative think tanks on the right that also provided ideas, new ideas for Republicans. There were also groups empowered that brought a more militant style to the party. And Gingrich harnessed all of that by the mid-to-late ’80s. He had started what was called the Conservative Opportunity Society. As I write in my book, some of the members who were aligned with him on that came to say that Newt Gingrich was more opportunist than conservative. But nonetheless he, by the late ’80s, had made his way into House Republican leadership. And the establishment chafed at his style.
He didn’t come to Congress to pass legislation. That became more and more true of Republicans in general that were elected with his help. He had what was called GOPAC, the political action committee, which provided not just money for other conservative candidates but also tapes for them about how to talk, in fact. And his slogan was “Be nasty,” which pretty much encapsulated his style. He, I think, harnessed what was already percolating within the Republican Party and then took it to a whole new level and personalized it.
People that weren’t around at the time don’t realize just… He was sort of the pre-Trump. He was everywhere. He was on the cover — you remember he was Time magazine’s “Man of the Year.” And he was a big deal and the pre-Trump.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah. Which segments of the Republican Party or the conservative movement seemed to care most about the courts in your estimation?
Jackie Calmes: The courts were more in the background, in my experience, up to then. I mean, I knew about the Federalist Society, which was one… When I say that Reagan’s victory and his presidency empowered and gave license to some of these groups… The Federalist Society was formed on Yale’s campus. Yale and University of Chicago law professors were its mentors, not least Antonin Scalia and Robert Bork. And it formed in 1982, like I say, and it just surprised itself by its success in going from an organization of conservative students on campuses to, when they graduated, becoming lawyer groups in the cities where they found jobs. And the next thing you know, there’s a de facto job ladder for Federalist Society members, who could then get into administration jobs in the Reagan and Bush administrations, and then get on federal judgeships, and all the way on up until we have now, today, all six of our Republican appointees on the Supreme Court have been or are Federalist Society members.
I don’t remember… There were fights over judicial nominees in the Senate from the time I came. But they, again, were not as pitched as they would become — in part because you had Republican senators, for instance, who would vote against a Reagan appointee or a George Bush appointee as being too extreme, too far right. And it was really obviously the Bork… Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 1987 was the first big fight that I covered and that a lot of people will remember. And to this day, obviously, conservatives go back to… In the book, I could refer to Robert Bork’s nomination fight, and then Clarence Thomas’ in 1991, as the bloody shirts that conservatives to this day like to wave whenever there’s a Supreme Court nomination, as if to suggest that Democrats are more liable than Republicans for making battles against judicial nominees and doing so in a way that amounts to what the other side would call character assassination. And so that really was something that evolved too, on a parallel track with the increased radicalization of the Republican Party itself.
Geoff Kabaservice: So skipping ahead a bit, you and I first crossed paths, I think, in early 2015, when you were a fellow at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. How did that fellowship come about?
Jackie Calmes: It fell in my lap, luckily. At the time I was a New York Times White House reporter. All throughout my career, I’d been too busy, mostly with my job but also raising two kids, to think about taking things or applying for seminars or fellowships. And I got a call one day from the head of the program at the Shorenstein Center asking if I would like to be a fellow. And I said, “Sure.” I checked with my bureau chief at the New York Times. She was very supportive. But that meant, since I hadn’t applied, that I also didn’t have a research topic to propose working on during the semester. And I pretty quickly… I talked to a couple of my colleagues and I pretty quickly came to one idea that had been gnawing at me for a long time, which was… To summarize my area of study, what I researched at that point was the expansion of conservative media in the Internet Age and its corrosive of impact on the Republican Party.
And so in my earliest research, in order to see how the Republican Party had come to where it was, one of the first (if not the very first) books I read was yours, Rule and Ruin — I always have to look if it’s Rule or Ruin or Rule and Ruin — The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party from Eisenhower to the Tea Party. And then I also had consulted… In addition to you, also central to my thinking on getting me started was Nicole Hemmer, a political scientist who was working on her doctorate. And she was studying and continues to study the impact of conservative media.
And I was so interested in this because I had this… It wasn’t actually… I didn’t consider it a particularly novel idea, to say the least. But having watched the Gingrich era and then on through George W. Bush’s presidency and the Tea Party, and in that time from 1996 on I had seen the growth of Fox News. But even more influential, it seemed, were these websites that were forming that were on the far right, like Breitbart.com.
Not only could I see the impact it was having on among Republicans in Congress, but I was fielding complaints and had been for several years from Republican leadership, staffers, or Members about just what a corrosive impact it was having on their Members. They had no control over their Members anymore because their Members were just going on Fox or going to Breitbart. There was just this back-and-forth that empowered the Members that had this channel to this media that was… It was sort of a chicken-and-the-egg. Which one was calling the shots? Were the conservative media just trying to get clicks and viewers by putting out really right-wing stuff, extreme stuff? Or were they reflecting what the grassroots wanted? And in any case, there was this cross-pollination that was just really coming to impact what was happening on the Hill and the increasing polarization. And so it was a really good opportunity for me to stop and look into that.
Geoff Kabaservice: And your paper, called “‘They Don’t Give a Damn About Governing’: Conservative Media’s Influence on the Republican Party,” did anticipate a lot of the themes of Niki Hemmer’s book Messengers on the Right. And I particularly like the quote you had from Tom Latham, who I guess had just retired as a Republican member of the House, which gave your paper that quote. He was talking about conservative media, how they really just ignored the need for deliberation and compromise that the Founders built into the legislative process. And he told you: “They will not take 80 percent. It’s got to be 100 percent or you’re not pure. They don’t give a damn about governing.”
Jackie Calmes: Yeah. The interesting thing about Tom Latham, at that point a retiring Congressman from Iowa, is that he had been a member of the Gingrich revolutionary Republican Class of 1994, elected in 1994. And he began, at the time he arrived in Congress in January ’95, he was among the most conservative members. And by the time he left, he was completely disillusioned and worried for his party.
And it was worse than what you say about they discouraged or looked down on compromise, which as you and I would agree is essential; as they say, it’s the art of politics. They not only looked down, they penalized it. You had seen by 2015 a number of examples of prominent and undeniably conservative Republicans who were challenged and defeated in Republican primary elections or conventions because they had committed the mortal sin of compromising with a Democrat.
I mean, the best example that pops to mind — and which really put a chill in many Republicans in Congress — was in 2010, the Tea Party year, when Robert Bennett, a conservative senator from Utah, was defeated for renomination in a convention of the Utah Republican Party, chiefly because he had specifically compromised, come up with a compromise healthcare plan with Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon. And the idea that this respected conservative could be not conservative enough simply because he had compromised with a Democrat was just so memorable. I’m here talking about it today. But it really did scare other Republicans into not compromising anymore. You could just see it, the impact of that. So the extent to which compromise became a four-letter word was so destructive.
Geoff Kabaservice: Your paper didn’t quite predict the triumph of Donald Trump…
Jackie Calmes: No.
Geoff Kabaservice: But you did notice that Trump was one of the relatively few Republican presidential candidates in 2015 who would repeatedly appear on second- or third-tier radio shows like the Steve Deace show out of Iowa, and would get a very favorable response from his audience.
Jackie Calmes: Yeah, because he really was speaking to that audience. People just liked that he was saying what they thought, and saying it in a way that they especially, and we’re talking… I mean, these audiences were predominantly white male and he had great appeal to them. Now, Steve Deace himself, the conservative, who’s still a conservative broadcaster in Iowa, and who takes his influence from the fact that he does work in the state that is the first to vote in presidential nominating contests… He came not to like Trump himself, and especially was turned off when in 2015 — later, after I’d already written my paper — when Trump famously said that he didn’t like Senator John McCain because he didn’t like people in the military who got captured. And Deace, that turned him off. But Deace has since become much… He seems pretty Trumpy to me as I follow him on Twitter. So he just is indicative of much of the rest of the Republican Party, which in fact has become the Trump party.
Geoff Kabaservice: There are a thousand reasons we could come up with for Trump’s success both in the Republican presidential primaries in 2016 and then in the general election. But what, in hindsight, seemed to be to you to be some of the big reasons?
Jackie Calmes: For the rise of Trump? I think Trump was the ultimate opportunist. He saw that the Republican Party base was one that… I mean, it played to the issues that he had actually, in fairness, been talking about since the late ’80s: a xenophobic message against immigrants. He went back and forth, sort of like the Republican Party was doing at that point, on military. He didn’t like military adventurism and yet he wasn’t quite isolationist. To this day, he insists he wasn’t once in favor of the Iraq invasion, when actually he was.
But this base was there. And he, having been 14 seasons on “The Apprentice,” he knew how to play the media, use the media, and to a mass audience of — I don’t want to say lowest-common-denominator, but it wasn’t exactly highbrow television, “The Apprentice.” And so he was very adept at the media. And like I say, he spoke their language. He had been shameless from the time he was in the New York tabloids in the ’80s. And he shocked everyone.
He was in a field in 2015, 2016, for that 2016 nomination fight that included some of the stars of the Republican Party, led perhaps by Jeb Bush and Senator Marco Rubio. And Ted Cruz was in the mix, of course, and Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin. I mean, nobody in the Republican Party I talked to was predicting that Trump would emerge as the winner. And people didn’t even take him seriously, including in journalism. People put their B-team reporters on Trump. And within a short time, he had come to the front of the polls, as you remember. And then once the voting started, it was virtually over. And by March of 2016, he was the nominee apparent.
But he took this base that had already been radicalized by first Newt and then through the Tea Party era. And he spoke their language and he was shameless. And unlike the members, the leadership of the party, which had been throwing red meat to the base for years but knowing that they wouldn’t do anything about it once they were elected, because they either couldn’t (like as in balancing the budget) or knew it would be terrible politics for general elections (like defunding Planned Parenthood or repealing Obamacare)… The base had become so disillusioned by all of these broken promises and stoked by conservative media, which was constantly complaining about the Republican establishment at that point, that Trump was able to waltz in as the most anti-establishment candidate of them all and win the nomination.
Geoff Kabaservice: I agree. But to return to those first sentences in your book, you said that “Trump was no political aberration. His rise was the logical result of the party’s rightward trajectory…” You know, in 2015, 2016, he was far from the most orthodox conservative candidate. In fact, he might have been the most un-orthodox conservative.
Jackie Calmes: Right.
Geoff Kabaservice: So was there a contradiction there?
Jackie Calmes: I don’t think so, in part, because of what the base had… The extent to which, by the time he came along, the base was sort of like the tail wagging the dog. The base was effectively calling the shots. The leadership of the party was reacting to the base. And conservatism, as we think of it… Policy ideas no longer seemed to be all that important, or at least the old ideas that united the party weren’t. You had trade free trade and immigration of a somewhat liberal… I don’t mean open borders, but immigration was considered a good thing, and balanced budgets, low spending. And Trump was opposed to all of that. But so was the base.
In the Tea Party, for instance, you had people protesting Congress, saying “Keep your hands off my Medicare.” The base had rejected the Paul Ryan kind of ideas of entitlement reform. And so when I say Trump was the logical extension, I’m thinking in terms of what that the leadership of the party had… And not just Gingrich and post-Gingrich had created this more militant base that eschewed compromise, but also the conservative media had done so. I mean, I think we all tend to underestimate the impact of conservative media in this — I can’t think of the word. The relationship was sort of, like I say, chicken-and-egg between the audience and who was influencing whom, the audience or the broadcasters. But in any case, there was this mutual radicalization. That’s what Trump was the logical extension of, the fact that the party had become [radical].
I talk about four revolutions of which Trump was the fourth. Reagan, and then Gingrich, and then that third revolution, the one that was the predicate for Trump, which was bottom-up. Any previous political movement usually had a leader that was associated with it. In this one, the Tea Party, there was no leader. It was almost amorphous. But it was the base that had been writ large, that had been created and radicalized by this combination of post-Newt Gingrich politics and conservative media. And so that was what Trump was an extension of. He took that headless movement and he harnessed it and he became the leader of it.
Geoff Kabaservice: In hindsight, one of Trump’s most durable legacies, I am sure, will be seen to have been his appointment of three conservative Supreme Court justices: Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett.
Jackie Calmes: Yes.
Geoff Kabaservice: And the nomination process for each was extremely controversial. In Gorsuch’s case, because then Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell failed to allow a vote to confirm President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, allegedly because the vacancy occurred during the 2016 election year. In Barrett’s case, the nomination was controversial because the Senate, controlled by Republicans, confirmed her days before the 2020 election. Then controversies surrounding Kavanaugh, of course, were in a different register altogether. But the appointment of those three judges, as you describe it, brings to fruition this forty-year conservative movement plan to get a conservative majority on the Court — even though that goal was tangential at best to Trump’s populist vision, to the extent that he had one. So how did you come to the idea of writing a book about Brett Kavanaugh as a representative figure for the Republican Party’s rightward transformation?
Jackie Calmes: Well, again, it was one of these things that fell in my lap — which is why, I guess, I was smart to never make Five-Year Plans. But I had been talking to an agent and an editor at one of the publishing houses since early 2017 after Trump’s election, and I had left the New York Times and wanted to do more in-depth journalism, including writing a book. So I was talking to this agent and this editor about trying to come up with a book concept that would allow me to tell the story of the forty years that I had witnessed (or was coming up on forty years) of the evolution of the Republican Party. At that point I was calling it the “evolution” or the “transformation.” I thought “radicalization” was a bridge too far. But I quickly dispensed with that thinking, and “radicalization” seemed just right.
But in any case, because of the press of… I then got a job as a White House editor, and I was just too busy to think about the book. Then they came to me in 2018, just as Brett Kavanaugh was about to be confirmed, and they wanted a book on the controversial confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh — about him. I didn’t particularly want to write a book that was just about him, so I countered by suggesting… By that point I knew a little bit about him, and I thought he was the perfect what some people call “petri dish Republican” — that he represented the perfect specimen of what it takes to succeed in the Republican Party these days, which is a blend of politics as well as conservative policies record.
But he just was, again, also… What a couple senators called him was a Forrest Gump or Zelig-like figure, where he just was uncannily at the scene of some of the biggest moments in the Republican Party’s evolution. So what we came to is I would write this book about Kavanaugh and his story, from his birth within the Beltway of Washington, D.C. to a Republican lobbyist father and a mother who had changed parties from Democrat to Republican in this same era (as so many people did), and juxtapose his story with what was happening more broadly in the Republican Party, both in the political arena and in this evolution of the Federalist Society and other conservative organs to create this de facto system of identifying and vetting what would be considered true conservatives for the judiciary from district to appeals court to Supreme Court, which has been successful beyond any of the founders’ dreams.
So that’s what I did. I think it worked pretty well. I mean, just to summarize… Kavanaugh, when I say that he was a Zelig or Zelig-like figure… He was, like I say, born within the Beltway. He went to Yale (which was the founding camp) and Yale Law School, and joined the Federalist Society just a couple years after it had been formed. He quickly saw that it was a good point of reference to have on your resumé if you wanted to move up in Republican circles. He worked for Ken Starr, who was the Solicitor General under George H. W. Bush — did I get that right?
Geoff Kabaservice: Yes.
Jackie Calmes: Or was it at the end of Reagan? I think it was George H. W. Bush. And he clerked for some of the most conservative judges on the federal bench, and then ultimately for Anthony Kennedy, who wasn’t one of the most conservative but he was a Republican appointee on the Supreme Court. So from there, Kavanaugh went to Ken Starr, and for four years worked for Ken Starr on the investigation of Bill and Hillary Clinton, which I think was really the era in which he, like so many other people, became much more… He became more partisan and the country became more divided along political lines. Then he briefly did some private practice in which he worked at what he considered pro bono on some politically charged cases that were popular in the conservative community.
And then from Bush v. Gore — in which he, like a lot of Republican lawyers, had a role — he secured a job in the West Wing of George Bush’s White House, George W. Bush’s White House, and immediately was seen as… Again, he’d been marked for the federal bench because he was not just a proven conservative but a loyal Republican. So the rest is history.
The other thing… When he was nominated for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, he became representative of what had become by that point — you asked earlier about the judicial fights… By the George W. Bush era, the judicial confirmations, there were more battles than not in a lot of these Appeals Court nominations. His took three years. And then George W. Bush predicted that some Republican president would make Brett Kavanaugh a Supreme Court Justice, and indeed Trump did.
Geoff Kabaservice: Although interestingly you also point out that Kavanaugh’s associations with the Bushes counted against him in the Trump era, at least among some of Trump’s most populist advisors.
Jackie Calmes: Yes. So Trump had come out with these three lists to reassure evangelical voters, and conservative voters generally, that he would indeed name conservatives to the Court and to the courts of all levels. He put out this list twice before he was elected, of actual people he would name. No one had done this. Yet Brett Kavanaugh’s name, even though anybody you asked in the conservative legal community would’ve named Brett Kavanaugh as among their prospective Supreme Court candidates — he didn’t make Trump’s list until after Trump was already president. And it was a year into his presidency (or nearly a year) when Trump came out with a third list. A lot of it was just this…
Trump, as you suggest, wanted nothing to do with anything that smacked of the Bush era. He was as dismissive of George W. Bush and everything he represented as he was of Barack Obama. But I think the thing that overcame it was, in a large part, Trump’s White House counsel, Don McGahn. He knew Kavanaugh well and really liked the fact that Kavanaugh, like Neil Gorsuch, is somebody who casts a real skeptical eye, opposes much federal regulation of business and the environment and such — the administrative state, as they say. And so he was really keen. I think without Don McGahn, Brett Kavanaugh would not have been a Trump nominee.
Geoff Kabaservice: But then, curiously, what does endear Kavanaugh to Trump supporters is his lashing out at the left during his confirmation hearings.
Jackie Calmes: Yes.
Geoff Kabaservice: You provide a very detailed, sensitive, nuanced discussion of those hearings, the accusations brought against Kavanaugh by psychologist Christine Blasey Ford, as well as what really had been under-reported stories about sexual incidents in which he’d been involved as an undergraduate at Yale.
Jackie Calmes: Yeah. I do think… I mean, a lot of people will say that Trump should not have gotten to fill the Scalia seat that went to Neil Gorsuch or the Ruth Bader Ginsburg seat that went to Amy Coney Barrett. But I think the one seat Trump was obviously within his rights as president to have filled was the one from Anthony Kennedy’s retirement. But there’s a lot of other conservatives who could have filled that seat other than Brett Kavanaugh.
I think we all know about Christine Blasey Ford. But the case that Republicans, being the majority in the Senate right then, were able to just railroad was the allegation from Debbie Ramirez, who had been his classmate at Yale. She suggested that he had — and she acknowledged she had been very drunk — that he had exposed himself to her and, with his friends, essentially forced her to handle his penis.
She never got the hearing that Christine Blasey Ford did. I met Debbie and talked to her at length multiple times. I think she would’ve been at least as credible a witness as Christine Blasey Ford. And you don’t have to take my word… I mean, it was Trump himself who, after Christine Blasey Ford testified publicly, said she was both credible and compelling. Of course, this was before he subsequently and ever since has called her a liar. It was disturbing to me the way they were able to just railroad it through. They only allowed for an FBI investigation when they had to, because they would’ve lost at least two Republican votes if they didn’t have this investigation. But the investigation was a sham. It was really no investigation at all, as I go into in my book.
There were so many of Brett Kavanaugh’s classmates who wanted to testify as to his… It didn’t have anything to do with the sexual assault allegations, but the fact that they felt — and these were people who had been friends of his, friendly acquaintances of his — and they said when they saw him on Fox News (and then in his testimony before the Senate) that he had lied about the extent of his drinking. He had lied when he denied that he had never blacked out from drinking, couldn’t remember what he had done. All of that was central to his defense, because if he had blacked out or couldn’t remember what he had done, it would’ve been more possible to believe that he had sexually assaulted someone when he was terribly drunk and just didn’t remember it. So it would undercut his denials.
But in addition to that, there was a third allegation from another Yale woman who — and this has been reported — which never came out. She says she does not remember. I’ve talked to her friends. She was so drunk that she didn’t remember. But there is an eyewitness, a very credible eyewitness. But he wanted only to talk to the FBI and to the Senate and off the record — the thinking being that if he told them what he had seen on top of the other allegations, that the senators would go to the White House and tell Trump to nominate someone else. He was never allowed to talk to… The FBI, to this day, has not contacted him. He was never allowed to talk to the senators privately. And so Kavanaugh’s confirmation was rushed through.
But as I say in the book, and I’ve written since, you can set aside the sexual assault allegations if you like, if you think those things can never be determined. There are other what I think are lies that Brett Kavanaugh told under oath, not just about his college-age drinking but also about things that he had been asked about: incidents that occurred when he was a White House aide to George W. Bush having to do with a Senate scandal over Democrat stolen emails, over judicial nominees that Brett Kavanaugh worked on, and some policy areas — for instance, having to do with the handling of foreign detainees in what the Bush Administration called the War on Terror. All of these things undercut his credibility, even before you get into a he-said/she-said fight.
To me, the argument is compelling when you take the allegations which can’t be answered, the record that suggests very strongly that he at best misled the senators under oath, at worst lied. And add to that what I would consider — and frankly what former (now the late) Justice John Paul Stevens considered — his disqualifying tirade on September 27th, 2018, when he testified after Christine Blasey Ford before the Senate Judiciary Committee in such an angry, partisan, confrontational manner, completely opposite to anything we would consider as reflecting judicial temperament. I think by all rights his nomination should have been withdrawn and another conservative put in his place.
Geoff Kabaservice: I was a year behind Kavanaugh in college. I do remember him with a beer in hand and a look of an aggrieved opossum on his face, which I suppose is neither here nor there. But I guess the question is: Do you think the Democrats could have handled this nomination in a way that would’ve led to some other outcome? Or is his nomination simply a product of the polarized dynamic that we have now in Congress?
Jackie Calmes: I don’t think there were… I mean, there are certainly things Democrats could have done better and should have done. I mean, somehow the allegation from the eyewitness — there should have been a way to force that into the Senate inner circle in a way that maybe would’ve kept it from becoming public, but at least senators would’ve known about it. But frankly, I don’t think there’s anything Democrats could have done that was going to overcome then-Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell’s determination to ram that nomination through. And combined with that, what was critical to Kavanaugh’s success was the continued support of Donald Trump. I mean, we all watched Donald Trump for four years. He could just as well have kicked Kavanaugh to the curb and named somebody else on his list. But he didn’t. And, perversely, I think part of that is because of the nature of the allegations against Trump.
Trump has a well-known record and long one (and he’s added to it since) of coming not only when allegations are lodged against him, but against any man, of a sexual nature. It just gets his juices going. And he came to the defense. This was his kind of fight. He was going to defend Brett Kavanaugh against this. And Brett Kavanaugh’s angry performance before the Senate Judiciary Committee was like so many other things Republicans did in the Trump era: it was for an audience of one.
It pleased Trump, who already had made known that he was not happy with Brett Kavanaugh’s appearance on Fox News with his wife earlier, in which he thought Kavanaugh had been too much of a whimpering puppy. And he wanted him to go on the attack, and Don McGahn coached Kavanaugh to that effect. But I’m not… Kavanaugh was politically savvy. I don’t even think he… Well, people have suggested to me — forget what I think. Republicans have suggested he didn’t need Don McGahn to tell him to come out with all guns blazing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. He knew that’s what Trump wanted. And Trump embraced it. Trump nominated him and Trump made sure he got confirmed. And Mitch McConnell, of course, was equally responsible.
Geoff Kabaservice: There was an article just a few days ago in the New York Times which is talking about how “Kavanaugh has come to wield enormous power as the justice at the Court’s ideological center” — which of course is not to be confused with making him a moderate. He’s not a moderate.
Jackie Calmes: No.
Geoff Kabaservice: He’s come down on the right side on a number of issues. But he has voted, I think, 91 percent of the time in divided decisions with John Roberts, the chief justice, and he seems to share some of Roberts’ concerns for protecting the institutional authority of the Court.
Jackie Calmes: Yeah.
Geoff Kabaservice: So it’s the sort of $64 question here in Washington, but how do you think Kavanaugh is likely to vote in some contentious issues we can see coming up, particularly abortion?
Jackie Calmes: Well, abortion specifically, I see him… I mean, I ultimately think the Court is going to find a way — the conservatives on the Court, the six-justice super-majority — to greatly undercut if not effectively do away with abortion rights, much as Texas has effectively done away with abortion rights even though they haven’t come right out and banned them altogether. They’ll find a way to do that in these two cases from Texas and Mississippi without producing the headline that says: “Court Overturns Roe v. Wade.”
And I very much think Kavanaugh will be in… Being on the D.C. Court of Appeals, that’s a court considered the second-most prestigious, based here in Washington, that mainly handles, is known for handling cases having to do with issues of which the federal government is a party. And so you didn’t get a lot of abortion cases. But towards the end of his twelve-year tenure there, there was one in which he was very much — people say he was auditioning for a Supreme Court nomination by his coming down very strongly in an anti-abortion way in a case that came before that court.
So I have no doubt that he will be deciding against abortion. But I also think that partly because of what you suggest about how he and the chief justice are cognizant of the Court’s public standing and institutional standing, he will not want to just flat-out overturn Roe. But I also think, in his case, it reflects his political savvy. This is a guy who was working, from the Ken Starr years on through the Bush first term, very much as someone who was at the center of the biggest political fights of our day. And I think he knows that it would not be good for the Republican Party to have an outright overturning of Roe v. Wade. But he will support anything that goes right up to that point.
The other major case of the term, of course, is going to be on gun rights. And he has signaled throughout his judicial career — on this court of appeals and in his short time on the Supreme Court — that he is very much for expanding gun rights and for expanding the individual right to bear arms, which was only carved out on the Supreme Court in 2008 in the Heller case.
And he, in fact, was quite vocal in terms of one of his judicial writings in a dissent about — well, more than just once — about bemoaning the fact that the Court had not accepted a gun case in a decade, in more than a decade since Heller and McDonald, and that he was very eager for the Court to take up a case. And now they have one, and I think he will definitely be in favor of expanding gun rights.
Geoff Kabaservice: It does seem, for a number of reasons, that the Republicans have been much more focused on the courts and appointing conservative justices than the Democrats have been interested in and made a priority of judicial appointments in recent decades. Does that seem like a fair statement?
Jackie Calmes: Oh, absolutely. And it’s a cause of no small concern to a lot of Democratic activists. And frankly, I’ve wondered through the years… I mean, going back to the early ’90s when the famous case that upheld Roe v. Wade — although it limited it a bit — was the Planned Parenthood v. Casey case out of Pennsylvania in 1993. So those are considered the two big abortion cases, Roe and Planned Parenthood v. Casey.
And I have always long seen that abortion rights among others were in danger of the precedents being overruled. And Democrats, Democratic voters never seemed to care as much about the courts. But when you think about it, it makes sense. Because the Earl Warren era, the ’60s that so greatly expanded civil rights and the like, criminal rights… You know, there was a complacency on the left and the center-left, while the right was really mobilized by cases going back to the ’60s having to do with prayer in the schools, then Roe v. Wade and religious rights. There was more reason for…
And the more you brought evangelicals into the Republican Party, that became even more true. And then the business wing of the Republican Party wanted to fight a lot of these environmental regulations and other business regulations. So there was much more incentive on the right — and center-right, even — to have the Court be an issue.
That started to change with Bush v. Gore, when Democrats sat up and thought, “Holy cow, a 5-4 conservative majority could essentially pick the president.” And so you saw the beginnings of efforts to form an analogue to the Federalist Society. But it just didn’t work. The Democrats just don’t have the incentive that the right does to work the courts. That is beginning to change, has changed some. And you see it in Joe Biden’s judicial nominations, the sort of people he’s nominating to the courts. But it’s still an imbalance, a great imbalance.
Geoff Kabaservice: And one gets a sense, for example, that a Republican administration, if the situation had been reversed, would’ve strongly encouraged someone like Ruth Bader Ginsburg to retire rather than die in office and give the opposing party a chance to appoint…
Jackie Calmes: Yes.
Geoff Kabaservice: … a justice of their liking. It doesn’t seem that the Democrats have been playing politics all that well in recent years.
Jackie Calmes: Right. And Stephen Breyer continues to resist the pressure he’s under. And I get that. That said, take Ruth Bader Ginsburg… I mean, Barack Obama went to the extent of having lunch with her and making it clear… We don’t know how explicit he was, but it’s clear what the point of their talk was. And she essentially… She loved her job so much, she just wanted to stay there.
And Stephen Breyer feels much the same way. He sort of operated in Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s more senior shadow for years, and he’s finally now the most senior Democratic appointee. So whenever they’re in the minority, as the three Democratic appointees often are, he gets to decide who writes the opinion — and he gets first dibs. And so, he’s finally, for this term, for the first time in that position. And he doesn’t… You can see why he doesn’t want to give that up.
That said, he’s also someone who worked as a staffer for Ted Kennedy on the Senate Judiciary Committee. He has seen what Mitch McConnell has done to politicize the judicial confirmation process to the extent of giving Trump three, instead of just one, Supreme Court seats to fill. You would think that he would sort of step aside — I mean, he’s in his eighties — step aside and let Biden name his younger replacement.
But this is a club of nine. As much as they may disagree on things, they also are very protective. Instead of doing what I just described that I think he should do and what a lot of other people think he should do, he has written a book in which he virtually (and on his book tour) denies that there is any sort of political bent to the Supreme Court, which…
All you have to do is read some of the opinions of Sam Alito and the things they do. And the fact that Amy Coney Barrett, despite her showing she’s not as far right as maybe people thought, she nonetheless gives a speech at the Mitch McConnell Center, with Mitch McConnell at her side, to insist that the Court isn’t very partisan, which was like… Clearly this Supreme Court justice does not have a press advisor at her side, because it was a really stupid thing to do. It only made the point.
Geoff Kabaservice: Since you’ve mentioned Mitch McConnell now…
Jackie Calmes: Several times.
Geoff Kabaservice: It’s interesting that your book ends by throwing the spotlight on McConnell. And you seem to give him the award for the most consequential and perhaps malignant figure in American politics of the past several decades.
Jackie Calmes: Yeah, and that’s very perceptive of you to bring that up. Because I thought about that. I thought… This book is essentially about Kavanaugh and what he reflects about the party at large, and then I’m ending with this other individual.
But I thought it was appropriate. And I do think he’s consequential. I can’t take anything away from Mitch McConnell’s effectiveness, God knows. But I’m not one of these journalists who thinks that effectiveness is the be-all and end-all. I think there has to be a “What is the end that justifies these means?” And he would tell you it’s a more conservative government. I think he has undermined the institution of the Senate and the institution of the Supreme Court — two of our branches of government, not bad. And I think that has consequences.
And I can actually say I was covering Congress the year he arrived, in January of 1985 when he was elected to the Senate from Kentucky. And I was struck from his very first term that this was a guy who — like Gingrich, for instance — didn’t want to be a legislator. He wasn’t interested in legislating. He was interested in blocking legislation and working to expand things that would help the party — things like expanded campaign finance, things within the Senate. He clearly wanted to get on the leadership ladder.
So where he differed from Gingrich is… McConnell’s was very much an inside game, working inside the Senate to move up, where Gingrich wanted to be this sort of outsize, outside figure, running the House but being this leader of a conservative movement. And so McConnell, obviously, has been the most long-lived and more effective than Gingrich ever was. And I just think he’s had a huge impact and not a good one.
And I have to add… What I think of McConnell is he is the ultimate of what John McCain used to say: party over country. And I could (but won’t) tick off examples — aside from what we’ve talked about in terms of his bending all norms and rules to get both Gorsuch — well, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett — on the Court, despite any clear hypocrisy that he evidences in doing so.
But there have just been so many things over the years as I watched him that I just have to wonder. And now, ultimately, he has said some of the right things about Donald Trump and his attempted coup and the extent to which Donald Trump has weakened democracy. But he’s then turned around and said he would “absolutely” support him as the nominee of the party in 2024, and in every other way has enabled Donald Trump.
So I just think he will continue on. And whatever happens to Trumpism, Mitch McConnell will remain. And so he is, I think, an overlooked… He gets a lot of attention, but I still think people overlook just how consequential he has been.
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, Jackie, congratulations again on your book Dissent: The Radicalization of the Republican Party and Its Capture of the Court. And thanks so much for joining me here today.
Jackie Calmes: Thank you.
Geoff Kabaservice: And thank you all for listening to the Vital Center podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform. And if you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks as always to our technical director Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer Ray Ingegneri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C.
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