U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos gave another embarrassing and cringe-inducing media interview this past weekend. As veteran political reporter Chris Cilizza of CNN explained in a post entitled “Betsy DeVos’ trainwreck interview on 60 Minutes,” the conversation produced several remarkable moments in which the Amway heiress by marriage was clearly in way over her head on everything from the Parkland shooting to school “choice” to sexual assaults on college campuses.
Not surprisingly, DeVos’ performance has spurred a bevy of scathing critiques. Phillip Rucker, Washington Bureau Chief of the Washington Post tweeted that “just watched the whole @60Minutes piece on Betsy DeVos. Pretty rough. @LesleyRStahl seemed to know more about the nation’s public schools than the education secretary.”
Meanwhile, thousands upon thousands of caring and thinking progressives throughout the country were, once again, up in arms that someone so clearly clueless could sit atop the nation’s public education bureaucracy. As one Ohio teacher and public schools advocate tweeted, “Is this a freaking SNL skit?!!!!!”
And, unfortunately, here’s the other thing to know about the latest DeVos debacle: As bad and depressing as it was, it’s probably getting way too much attention – especially when it’s compared to another, far more important domestic policy matter that currently threatens the American government.
A much graver threat to democracy
For those who rightfully view public schools as one of the key bulwarks for our democracy, this may seem like a strange notion. After all, what could be more dangerous than an uninformed and ideologically-driven plutocrat bent on wreaking havoc with that nation’s public education system?
A moment’s reflection, however, reveals that there is another Trump administration initiative that far outstrips the danger and importance of DeVos and her minions at the Department of Education. That initiative, of course, is Trump’s crusade to remake the federal courts.
As was noted in this space a year ago this week at the moment the nation was getting to know Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch:
For the most part, Trump’s executive orders and corrupt and incompetent appointees are impermanent. Many will never actually take effect or make much of a real mark. The bet here is that Betsy DeVos won’t last two years as Education Secretary.”
And so it remains today. As unaware and incompetent as DeVos is, her tenure in office is temporary. There’s only so much that she will be able to do in that period to transform the vast, multi-million-person education system.
In contrast, Trump’s judicial nominees will be in office for life and enjoy real, often immediate, power to harm the nation. And make no mistake, Trump’s nominees represent a real threat.
The poster child in this effort, of course, is now-Justice Gorsuch. As multiple Supreme Court watchers have observed, the far-right son of a controversial Ronald Reagan cabinet member has been everything the theocrats and corporate fat cats who groomed him for his job could have hoped for.
Court expert Ian Millhiser put it this way last summer at the end of the Court’s 2016-17 term in an essay entitled “The most alarmist pessimists were right about Neil Gorsuch”:
Gorsuch is disrespectful of precedent and eager to move the law very far, very fast. His agenda is both well-thought out and extraordinarily conservative. When the Court splits into its old factions, with Justice Clarence Thomas staking out a position that no other member of the Court will sign onto, Gorsuch embraces Thomas’ view.
Gorsuch spent the last day of the Court’s just-concluded term, moreover, laying out a vision that will make culture warriors bounce with glee. His ascension to the Supreme Court was the culmination of an effort to protect religious conservatives by any means necessary.
And, if Gorsuch gets his way, some very basic civil rights will bow to the Christian right.”
But, of course, Gorsuch is just the tip of a very large iceberg. As the good people at the Alliance for Justice have pointed out in a piece called “Lower Courts 101”:
If you care about equality, reproductive rights, social justice, corporate accountability, civil liberties, clean air, privacy, and fairness, then you care about our federal courts.
Every year, the Supreme Court receives thousands of requests to hear cases – but will only hear about 80. That means our federal courts are the final word on thousands of cases spanning hundreds of issues – including the issues that matter most to the progressive community.”
Trump’s other court nominees
It should come as no shock that Trump’s nominees are, for the most part, a troubling group. First, of all, they come nowhere close to being representative of the American public. As Jennifer Bendery of the Huffington Post reported yesterday:
More than a year into his presidency, Donald Trump is making the nation’s courts look a lot more like him: white, male and straight.
To date, Trump has nominated 87 people to be judges with lifetime tenure on U.S. district courts, circuit courts or the Supreme Court. Eighty of them are white, or nearly 92 percent. One is black, one is Latino and five are Asian or Pacific American. He hasn’t nominated any Native American judges. More than a year into his presidency, Donald Trump is making the nation’s courts look a lot more like him: white, male and straight.
The president also keeps nominating men. Sixty-seven of his court picks are male, compared to 20 who are female.
That translates to about 77 percent being men….
Trump hasn’t nominated any openly LGBTQ people to the federal courts.”
Bendery also pointed out that Trump’s nominees are vastly less diverse than those submitted by Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama.
But even more disturbing is the fact that a large percentage of Trump’s nominees are clearly hard right ideologues – many of them cut from the same cloth as DeVos and Gorsuch. As Paul Gordon, Senior Legislative Counsel at People For the American Way, observed last month in a memo that highlighted some of Trump’s most disturbing nominees:
For these lifetime positions, Trump has chosen many extreme, narrow-minded elitists who have spent their careers seeking to limit the rights of others, including people of color.
This should not come as a surprise. These nominations come from a president who condemned ‘many sides’ in response to white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, urged NFL team owners to fire players for protesting police violence against African Americans, disparaged Haiti and African nations as ‘shithole countries,’ spread the racist birther lie about President Obama, called Mexicans rapists and criminals, pardoned the notoriously racist Joe Arpaio, insulted federal judge Gonzalo Curiel for his Hispanic heritage, proudly announced he would ban Muslims from entering the country, and more.”
So what to do?
There is, of course, no simple or immediate antidote to Trump’s destructive campaign. The Republican-dominated U.S. Senate has fully and enthusiastically embraced the role of rubber stamp when it comes to Trump’s court nominees – even going so far as to do away with the “blue slip” rule that had, for decades, allowed home state senators to block the consideration of nominees to whom they objected. (Richard Burr used this rule to stop nominees from President Obama for eight full years.)
All that said; it’s critical that progressives recognize a central key truth about the Trump court crusade: It was not Trump’s idea.
Donald Trump couldn’t tell you the difference between the Fourth and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution if you gave him an hour to study them. What he does know is that his hard right base cares deeply about the courts and demands a very specific result. It cares so much that it was willing to take the ultimate cynical political step by embracing Trump to begin with.
And so it is that the only hope for turning this disastrous trend around is for progressives to start caring about the courts and working just as hard for their long-term rescue as the Trumpists have worked to secure their current position of hegemony.
The bottom line: Vapid dilettantes like Betsy DeVos will always be a problem so long as there are rich people with the cash to buy high-profile jobs in government. However, the current right-wing assault on the courts constitutes an existential, democracy-threatening moment. Progressives should act accordingly.