On a surreal day of GOP-generated alternate reality, every Senate Democrat tried to get America to awaken out of the Matrix but only one succeeded.
“This is not normal,” said Senator Cory Booker, before asking a Supreme Court nominee if she would condemn white supremacy. (Good news: she did.) “This is not normal,” said Amy Klobuchar, before reminding viewers that 7 million Americans have gotten the coronavirus, including people in the hearing room itself. “These aren’t normal times,” said Chris Coons, before noting that we’re in the middle of a presidential election and an unprecedented pandemic.
And yet, nothing seemed to penetrate the thick fog of unreality. Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett stayed on message, rarely losing her cool (except when challenged by Senator Klobuchar), and saying absolutely nothing whatsoever about anything.
Meanwhile, Senate Republicans asked piercing questions like “Would you be a fair and impartial judge?” and “Do you play any musical instruments?”
And they lied, over and over and over again. They said that Democrats were attacking Barrett’s family and faith. They said that there was no earthly reason why a Supreme Court seat shouldn’t be filled less than a month before a presidential election—who would ever say such a thing?
And most of all, they were shocked, shocked, that anyone could possibly think that Barrett is being put into place to overturn abortion rights and Obamacare by a president who promised to put justices in place to overturn abortion rights and Obamacare. Perish the thought!
And then there was Sheldon Whitehouse, who connected the dots (literally, with a sharpie on a posterboard) between Judge Barrett, Leonard Leo, The Federalist Society, Carrie Severino, the Judicial Crisis Network, the dark money launderer known as Donors Trust, the Bradley Foundation, and other agents in a remarkably small network of highly funded (to the tune of $250 million in anonymous money) conservative extremists who have orchestrated an anti-democratic transformation of the judicial system.
As someone who has researched and written about this network for seven long years, I couldn’t believe my ears. I literally choked up.
Because finally, finally, amid hours of sanctimonious bullshit from the Republican Party and cynical but quite defensible attempts to hijack the hearing by the Democrats and turn it into an election ad, here was someone actually telling us what was going on.
And in a non-normal way: a 30-minute lecture which sounded like a Vice documentary hosted by Russell Crowe’s character from A Beautiful Mind. All that was missing were references to Robert Anton Wilson, The Catcher in the Rye, and the 23 enigma.
“People who are watching this,” said Whitehouse, “need to understand that this small hearing room… is a little bit like the frame of a puppet theater. And if you only look at what’s going on in the puppet theater, you’re not going to understand the… real dynamic of what is going on.”
In fact, he continued, “outside forces” are manipulating the entire thing.
First, Whitehouse described the by-now-familiar hypocrisy of the hearing: that Republican leaders had promised not to confirm a Supreme Court justice in the final year of a presidential term, and were now doing so later than any Senate in history, and in the midst of a pandemic that had closed the Senate itself.
But that was just the beginning. “My experience around politics,” he said, “is that when you find hypocrisy in the daylight, look for power in the shadows.”
Senator Whitehouse continued, “There’s big anonymous money behind various lanes of activity.” He described three of them.
One lane is the Federalist Society, “which has taken over the selection of judicial nominees,” as former White House Counsel Don McGahn has said explicitly. They’ve received over $16 million in anonymous money from an entity called Donors Trust.
“Donors Trust is a gigantic identity-scrubbing device for the right wing,” said Whitehouse. “So that it says Donors Trust is the donor, without [saying] whoever the real donor is.” In other words, we have no idea who is actually funding this movement.
“In another lane,” Whitehouse continued, “we have anonymous funders running through something called the Judicial Crisis Network, doing PR and campaign ads for Republican judicial nominees.”
JCN has received several anonymous donations of up to $17 million, first for opposing Judge Merrick Garland, then for supporting Justices Kavanaugh and Gorsuch. It is closely related to the Federalist Society, sharing staff and offices. In addition to PR, it funds the Republican Attorneys General Association, the lead plaintiff in the current Supreme Court case on Obamacare, and even wrote the amicus brief signed by Republican Senators (including several on the Judiciary Committee) urging the court to overturn the ACA.
Finally, there’s “a whole array of legal groups, also funded by dark money… which bring cases to the court.”
In one case about the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Whitehouse listed 11 such groups, all funded—to the tune of $23 million—by Donors Trust. In a case about organized labor, he listed 15 groups that received $45 million from Donors Trust and the Bradley Foundation, who also funded the lead lawyers in that case.
In sum, the same anonymous donors are paying for the selection of right-wing judges, the promotion of right-wing judges, and arguing activist cases that then get heard by those right-wing judges—even writing briefs for the same senators sitting in the hearing, denying that any of this is about Obamacare.
These revelations were not invented by Whitehouse. The Daily Beast reported on them in July, 2018, and The Washington Post reported on them in May, 2019. But Whitehouse gave them perhaps their best airing yet in the halls of Congress.
Notably, Whitehouse focused only on the corporate aspect of the Federalist Society network, wondering aloud if Big Oil or the Koch Brothers or other “polluters” were behind that $250 million.
Perhaps that’s because daring to speak about the religious-fundamentalist aspect of the network gets one branded as an anti-Catholic bigot, as this writer has discovered firsthand, and as the brilliant journalist Sarah Posner detailed in a long-form investigative piece in 2018.
That tactic has been in full effect over the last few days, as several Republican senators have said that to ask questions about Barrett’s own writings about the conflicts of interest that face a devoutly Catholic judge is to impugn her faith and family.
This despite leading Democrats being Catholic themselves, from Joe Biden to Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. And despite Barrett writing openly and insightfully about the very issue that now must never be spoken of. So it’s understandable that Whitehouse didn’t want to step into the trap that has been laid for him, and that Democrats took pains to avoid issues of faith even as Republicans impugned them for supposedly crossing that line.
The reality, though, is that the network he unveiled to the American public is as much focused on abortion and homosexuality as it is on Obamacare and labor unions. It is focused on redefining religious freedom to include (as Ted Cruz did today in his remarks) the denial of other people’s rights.
And it is run by people who are active in conservative religious orders such as Opus Dei and the Knights of Malta, and who, most importantly, have acted in the public square on the basis of their religious beliefs.
Like Carrie Severino’s husband Roger, who heads up an anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ office at the Department of Health and Human Services. Like the Becket Fund, which has argued every major “religious liberty” case before the Supreme Court, m of which just happen to involve conservative Christians denying other people their equal rights.
Of course, there should be no “religious test” for public office. Of course, anti-Catholic bigotry is and was a despicable manifestation of bias, like racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and others. And of course, that bigotry often manifests as discussion of shadowy papist conspiracies to undermine America.
But it is also unacceptable to play the bias card as a way of deflecting legitimate criticism of a fundamentally anti-democratic and, yes, secretive effort that seeks to harm millions of Americans, including me and my family.
Because, as tawdry and exhausting as this process is, Barrett is not the victim here. After she votes to allow the criminalization of my marriage, I and millions of LGBTQ people will be. And after she votes to allow the criminalization of abortion, millions of women will be. Because as unreal as the Matrix Hearing may be, its consequences are not.