The ‘Borking’ of America

Speculation that Donald Trump may fire Robert Mueller is causing people to beef up on their Watergate history. Trump’s slow-motion purge of officials connected to the Russia investigation has drawn comparisons to the Saturday Night Massacre, in which Richard Nixon ordered the firing of special prosecutor Archibald Cox, burning through two attorneys general in one evening before finally finding a willing accomplice in Solicitor General Robert Bork. The renewed relevance of the episode is exposing a new generation of politicos to Bork’s name.

To the extent that people already remembered Bork, who died in 2012, it was mostly as the guy whose name became shorthand for failed Supreme Court nominations. Ronald Reagan nominated Bork to the court in 1987. Within hours, Ted Kennedy took to the floor of the Senate to deliver a blistering attack on Bork’s record and reactionary judicial philosophy. Kennedy painted a vivid picture of “Robert Bork’s America,” one “in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters…and the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens.”

The speech came to largely define mainstream perceptions of Bork’s long legal career, and the Senate’s rejection of his nomination permanently altered the Supreme Court confirmation process. But it was the now-forgotten testimony of Charles G. Brown, an obscure state official, that ultimately offered the more prescient vision of “Bork’s America,” one that had less to do with Watergate or civil rights and more to do with a fundamental economic shift toward gross inequality and concentration of wealth. Bork’s intellectual legacy set in motion policies that have ravaged the middle class, particularly in small-town and rural America. Those changes helped foster the resentment and despair that made a Trump presidency possible. Brown tried to warn us.

– Washington Monthly

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