The Trump administration is not known for its consistency, but some contradictions are too revealing to ignore.
In nominating Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, President Trump has chosen a jurist who is deeply committed to the Bill of Rights and the rule of law. Kavanaugh — with whom I worked at the White House — is brilliant, meticulous, fair-minded and unfailingly decent. In a saner political climate, a nominee of this temperament, intellect and experience would be confirmed in the Senate with 70 or 80 votes.
Yet: In pardoning Dwight and Steven Hammond, the Oregon ranchers convicted of arson on federal lands, Trump gave his blessing to lawlessness. According to the Justice Department, "Witnesses at [the] trial, including a relative of the Hammonds, testified the arson occurred shortly after Steven Hammond and his hunting party illegally slaughtered several deer on [Bureau of Land Management] property. Jurors were told that Steven Hammond handed out 'Strike Anywhere' matches with instructions that they be lit and dropped on the ground because they were going to 'light up the whole country on fire.' … The fire consumed 139 acres of public land and destroyed all evidence of the game violations." The Hammonds' cause had been taken up by right-wing militias. Trump's pardon effectively sided with the militias in their dispute with the federal government.
This is not an isolated incident. By pardoning former Arizona Sheriff Joseph Arpaio, Trump excused disobedience to a federal court order and embraced a figure with a long history of profiling and abusing Hispanic migrants. Speaking to representatives of law enforcement last year, Trump urged the physical abuse of suspects. "Like when you guys put somebody in the car," he said, "and you're protecting their head, you know, the way you put your hand over … I said, 'You can take the hand away, OK?'" During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly egged on the physical abuse of protesters at his rallies. "If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato," he once said, "knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously, OK. Just knock the hell — I promise you I will pay for the legal fees, I promise."
This is not to mention Trump's initial neutrality between white supremacists and protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, which was taken by hate groups and militias as a presidential endorsement. Or coming to the defense of Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, who was repeatedly accused of predatory behavior against young women. Or Trump's systematic attempts to undermine the authority of federal law enforcement. Or his barely disguised admiration for the intimidation tactics of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
How to describe this strange mix of tough-guy posturing, conspiracy thinking, authoritarian envy, recreational cruelty and admiration for norm breakers? At some point, the dots connect and reveal deep attitudes. Trump has a bully's view of strength and weakness, and he seems to instinctively identify with bullies.
This is not consistent with the most admirable forms of populism. Some conservative thinkers have excused their conversion to Trumpism on the theory that he is elevating the little guy and speaking for the "forgotten man." This is accurate — unless you are a minority facing a resurgence of state-blessed prejudice, or the victim of police brutality, or a migrant child torn from your family, or a journalist rotting in a Turkish jail, or a house church leader imprisoned in China. Apparently, these little guys don't count. In fact, only a relatively comfortable white conservative thinker could find Trump's record consistent with a passion for the forgotten.
In reality, many conservatives don't like Trump in spite of his bullying but because of it. They have grown tired of decency and tolerance, which they dismiss as effete.
That is sad in any country, but particularly discrediting in America, where a commitment to universal human rights and dignity is essential to our national creed. A leader with contempt for justice and the weak is not a distinctly American leader.
All this points to the importance of institutional vigilance in the Trump era. Resisting the abuse of power is hard enough for good people. In Trump, the internal moral checks are absent. In a time of national stress and crisis — when executive authority naturally expands — the restraints on lawlessness and bullying would need to be external. And they may even need to be imposed by the Supreme Court.
Kavanaugh is smart enough to know this. And I believe he has the patriotism and character to act upon it.
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