It is a testament to the extraordinary myopia of the American press corps that, day in and day out, it manages to miss not only the biggest story of the moment, but the biggest story that has presented itself within American politics for decades: the threat, currently being issued by many within the Democratic Party, to blow up the United States Supreme Court.
It is almost impossible to convey in words the monstrous enormity of what is being proposed, and yet it cannot be the case that our journalists lack the vocabulary with which to discuss it. For four years now, almost everything that President Trump has said and done has been met with language of the utmost urgency. We have heard about “shredded norms” and “threats to democracy” and “creeping fascism.” We have been warned that we are flirting with “totalitarianism” and “dictatorship” and even “concentration camps.” We have heard comparisons to Reichstag fires and the “secret police.” We have been told “This is not normal.” We have been informed that political parties that “ignore the law” are to be shunned. We have been regaled with lurid accounts of how nations decline. Often, this has been deserved, and, even when it has not, it has been justified on the grounds that free people remain free by acting prophylactically against encroachments. Now that it is the Democratic Party doing the threatening, however, the prose has become tentative, prosaic, and dull. Has there been a national recall on thesauruses?
Equally unlikely is that the lack of interest is the product of a lack of concern for the courts, for, when President Trump has criticized judicial decisions — or, worse, individual judges — he has been rightly lambasted. In a typical piece in The Atlantic, Garrett Epps described Trump’s verbal attacks as part of a “sordid war,” lamented that “the independent judiciary hasn’t faced such a direct attack since the Jeffersonians,” warned readers that we’re headed toward “mortally dangerous constitutional territory,” encouraged Americans to fall into “uproar,” and asked whether Justices Kavanaugh and Gorsuch would see fit to stand up against Trump’s rhetoric. If not, Epps inquired, “who will speak up for them when their time comes?”
One might now ask the same question of The Atlantic, which has started running pieces in favor of Court-packing, and of everyone else who has refused to engage. If, as Epps proposes, it was crucially important that John Roberts denounce Trump’s rhetorical provocations, surely it is utterly critical that the media and the legal profession assail the Democrats’ concrete threat until it is no more? We now have a series of prominent political figures who are not merely criticizing the Supreme Court but promising to destroy it, along with a presidential candidate who refuses to say whether he is on board — and still the matter is covered as if it were a minor dispute. Why? There is no honest calculation by which it can be more alarming for a president to rail impotently about judicial decisions than for the core of a political party to threaten to destroy the entire settlement.
And destroy our settlement it most assuredly would. First, the party would abolish the rules that have governed the Senate for more than a century, and then they would abolish the Supreme Court as a useful check on the government — a destructive binge that would kill two branches for the price of one. Surely, this would be the moment that the nation’s guardians have been waiting for? Surely, this would represent the Rubicon? The crossroads? The all-important fork in the road? Only once in American history has a political party been so contemptible as to raise the possibility of destroying the Supreme Court, and, having considered the proposition, it recoiled in horror — not because it lacked the power, but because it recognized that to use it would be to dismantle the American system of government.