I am convinced that one of the reasons Donald Trump won the presidency is that many citizens watched the campaign as if it were a prime-time soap opera or reality TV show and were entertained by the GOP candidate’s outrageous words, bombast and swagger. He seemed entertaining in an over-the-top, prime-time kind of way, so he didn’t seem dangerous.
I had that same feeling Monday night watching Trump introducing Brett Kavanaugh as his choice to replace Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court. Both Trump and his pick performed well by TV standards: Trump as emcee and CEO, with Kavanaugh as the grateful contestant who gets to join the firm.
I have to admit being impressed with the way Trump started walking off the stage in the East Wing of the White House as CNN’s clock said 9:19 p.m. The networks had given him 20 minutes of time, and this Trump TV production was on the clock in getting off-stage.
But I was also impressed in 2017 with the skilled prime-time TV production announcing Neil Gorsuch as the nominee to replace for Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court.
And that is the very danger. Watching Monday night, it was easy to fall into that semi-mindless place we often go to when we watch TV at the end of a long day and are just looking for something pleasant, non-threatening or escapist.
Kavanaugh’s big smile made me want to smile back at the screen. The obvious joy he openly shared onstage with his wife and two young daughters was hard to resist. And he said lots of mainstream, pleasant-sounding things about going to basketball games with his daughters, coaching Catholic Youth Organization girls basketball and serving meals at Catholic Charities.
He didn’t say much about his judicial or political philosophy, but prime-time TV isn’t the place for that, is it? Prime time is all about appearances, image, bright lights, lots of makeup and “now a word from our sponsors.”
The sponsors here are those right-wing PACs buying the TV ads urging confirmation of Trump’s pick. More will now be filling social media and TV screens in our mad world of media-saturated politics. (Or, with Trump, is it now politics-saturated media?)
The trick for politicians and public figures in using TV, is to try to look and sound like the families on TV in prime-time series, and the Kavanaughs did that.
But he is not a TV judge. He is a real one, who has just been nominated by the president to serve on the highest court in the land in a role that will have profound effects on all our lives and the lives of our children.
As Jeffrey Toobin, CNN’s senior legal analyst, said Monday night, questions need to be asked about what role Kavanaugh might play in deciding that a restaurant owner could be allowed to say it is his or her First Amendment right to refuse to serve a gay person.
“Or,” Toobin added, “what happens when the first physician or nurse in Texas is prosecuted and sent to prison for performing an abortion?”
The slick Trump TV production Monday night created no space for such dark, divisive and deep thoughts.
It was about making Trump look competent amid the chaos of his presidency. And it was about making Kavanaugh, who in additional to his judicial record has a controversial past as a political operative involved in Kenneth Starr’s investigation of Bill Clinton, look like the friendly, happy, solidly mainstream, winning contestant and TV dad.
At 53, Kavanaugh is a relatively young man. What that means is we won’t be able to change the channel and find a Supreme Court we like better for a long time if he is confirmed. We will live with him for the rest of his professional life.