If you wanted to capture post-Trump conservatism in a single frame, it would be hard to top Wednesday’s image of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, after an afternoon spent accusing future Supreme Court justice nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson of coddling sexual predators and promoting the indoctrination of children with Critical Race Theory, searching for his own name on Twitter in the Senate hearing room:
— Kent Nishimura (西村賢一) (@kentnish) March 23, 2022
Checking ones mentions during what is supposed to be a sober and historic proceeding takes a certain kind of vanity. Actively searching for what anyone, anywhere is saying about you is a different level entirely. But this isn’t unexpected either. As I wrote last year, the Trump era helped calcify the conservative movement’s shift away from governance and toward the performance of governance. The future of the party is content creation. Few have embraced that ethos as thirstily as Cruz, who in his opening statement on Monday vowed that “this will not be a political circus,” moments before becoming the first senator in history to plug his podcast during a Supreme Court confirmation hearing.
The hearings have offered a glimpse of Jackson as an exemplary nominee in a broken Supreme Court nomination process—someone able to sit in a room without taking the bait while people inside the room talk past you and people outside of it call you names (the Republican Party’s Twitter account changed hers to “CRT,” for seemingly no other reason than she is a Black woman with a law degree). Nothing about the modern Supreme Court or the tightrope you have to walk to get on it is ideal. It’d be nice to learn about what someone who is going to be one of the most powerful people in government for decades actually thinks about things, just as it’d be nice to hear what kinds of questions senators would ask at a hearing if they actually cared about the answers. (Some of them do, of course—but generally not the ones who bring children’s books as props.)
Instead, Jackson was often a bit character in someone else’s TV show. For politicos like Cruz and Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, these hearings were less about advise-and-consent and more about performing—an opportunity to juice fundraising and drive engagement by play-acting as inquisitors. Cruz and Hawley, both of whom were recently on Trump’s Supreme Court shortlist, may never get the chance to sit in Jackson’s seat, but they still found a way to make a confirmation hearing about themselves. The Cruz photo is revealing not because it’s an aberration, but because it reflects the true nature of this work. Cruz, by searching for people talking about him talking about Jackson, was caught in the incriminating position of a Republican senator doing his job.
Still, the chase for ratings has not subsumed the entirety of the Republican caucus. Toward the end of Wednesday’s hearing, Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), who has been complaining about the workings of the Senate for almost as long he has been there (which, to be fair, is also a kind of grandstanding), took a break from his own line of questioning for a bit of meta-commentary.
“A huge part of why this institution doesn’t work well is because we have cameras everywhere,” said Sasse, with Cruz looking on curiously a few feet over:
Cameras change human behavior. We know this. You don’t have the same kinds of conversation over the dinner table with your family when you’re wrestling through issues and apologizing for something and saying ‘I said this before, but maybe I should modify what I said, my tone was jerky, my substance didn’t account for your position.’ There’s a whole bunch of things that humans can do if they’re not immediately mindful of some distant camera audience that they might be trying to create a soundbite for. And Instagram can be useful for some small things but for intellectual discourse it is not a friend. I think we should recognize the jackassery we often see around here is partly because of people mugging for short-term camera opportunities. And it is definitely a second- and third- and fourth-order effect that the Court should think through before getting advocates in there who are not only trying to persuade you nine justices, but also trying to get on cable that night or create a viral video.
Sasse was discussing the possible side-effects of the Supreme Court finally allowing cameras into the courtroom during oral arguments. But he might as well have been talking about his Republican colleague sitting next to him.