Brett Kavanaugh’s swearing in as a justice of the US Supreme Court will have come as bitter blow to those opposed to his nomination. For Donald Trump and Mr Kavanaugh’s supporters, on the other hand, it represents a significant victory. For both sides, the rancour that accompanied his eventual appointment is unlikely to be forgotten quickly.

The political divide in America is surely deeper now than at any time since at least the 1960s (some have argued the nation has not been so divided since the Civil War). Trump’s second pick for the Supreme Court was always likely to raise some controversy; but few could have expected quite how much Mr Kavanaugh’s nomination would come to symbolise the split which has left many in the US questioning the future of their nation.

Retired Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens says Brett Kavanaugh is not suitable to sit on bench

Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation that Mr Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers caused a storm. Her appearance before a Senate committee was compelling and credible. Mr Kavanaugh’s denial of the claims was impassioned to the point that some felt his angry words in 2018 – quite aside from what might or might not have happened in the mid-1980s – were proof of his lack of fitness for the Supreme Court.

A probe into the allegations by the FBI was more limited than many Democrats had hoped; its conclusions almost certainly didn’t sway any opinions when it came to the final Senate vote. Ultimately, Ms Ford was either sufficiently believable to warrant a vote against Mr Kavanaugh’s appointment; or she was not (or, even if she was, historic misconduct was not regarded as sufficient reason to disregard Mr Kavanaugh's judicial experience or thus to deny his suitability for the job).

No wonder then that the case raised cultural questions as well as legal and political ones: about the gender imbalance in American society; about the seriousness with which historic allegations of abuse are treated; and, more broadly, about whether progressive attitudes hold sway any longer in the United States. The outcome was a setback for Democrats, for liberals and for the #MeToo movement – even putting to one side Mr Kavanaugh’s denials and the lack of any legal determination of the Ms Ford’s claims.  

The question now is what next? When it comes to the Supreme Court, there is now a majority of conservative voices – although it would be wrong to conclude that the five justices on the conservative wing are without their differences; not all are constitutional originalists. Still, when it comes to major questions – for instance concerning abortion – the court’s present lineup may reset America fundamentally. Time will tell.

More immediately, the mid-term elections in November could give an indication of the extent to which the clashes over Mr Kavanaugh have energised the two sides in US politics. Nearly two years into Donald Trump’s extraordinary, bombastic presidency, anger among Democrats – and perhaps among a sizeable proportion of independent voters too – was already rising even before the events of the last few weeks. If the Democrat vote comes out in force, the scene could be set for some major battles between Congress and the White House for the rest of Trump’s term.

However, it is also conceivable that Republicans – including those not automatically sympathetic to the president’s way of doing things – will have been equally roused by the Mr Kavanaugh affair; either because they believe bizarre conspiracy theories about Ms Ford being essentially some sort of Democrat stooge, or simply because it has highlighted the degree to which politics presently matters in America. And if you are not against the president (and the Grand Old Party) then you must be with him.

All in all, it is difficult to see how the rifts in US politics and society can be healed in the near future. Indeed, if anything, the divergence between conservative and liberal attitudes may only grow, not least because the one man who might seek to unite the country – the American president – is also the primary cause of America’s present disunity. What’s worse is that he appears to regard political and cultural division as a major means of bolstering his own support. It is not a recipe for a united USA.



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