There was a moment last week—thankfully, it was only a moment—when American liberals’ hearts stopped and it felt like the world was about to end.
It came when the U.S. Supreme Court announced that Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had recently undergone radiation treatment for a tumor in her pancreas—the latest in a long line of cancer scares for Ginsburg going back several decades. (She was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1999 and pancreatic cancer in 2009.)
While this most recent brush with mortality apparently ended well—“The tumor was treated definitively and there is no evidence of disease elsewhere in the body,” the court said—it served as a reminder—which we most certainly needed—that, at 86, the Notorious RBG will not be on the Supreme Court forever; that she is as susceptible to the ravages of age as the rest of us; and that her long and storied history of cheating death will one day come to an end.
Sooner or later, one way or another, Justice Ginsburg will be forced to relinquish her seat on the Supreme Court, enabling the then-president to nominate a successor—someone who, in all likelihood, will serve for the next 30 or 40 years.
As four out of five actuaries will tell you, that president will be Donald Trump.
Consider: Beyond Ginsburg’s own series of health calamities, only three Supreme Court justices in history have lived longer while on the bench than Ginsburg already has. Should Trump be defeated in 2020, Ginsburg would be two months shy of 88 when the new president is sworn in, at which point she could safely retire without the court’s center of gravity swinging irreparably to the right.
But if Trump is re-elected and serves until January 20, 2025? Well, what’s 88 plus four?
Did I mention that Stephen Breyer, the other long-serving liberal on the court, is just five years younger than Ginsburg and possibly less indestructible than she is?
I bring all of this up for one exceedingly simple reason: While the 2020 election may come to signify any number of things—about America, about democracy, about the future of Western civilization writ large—it will most assuredly determine the composition of the Supreme Court for a generation or more, and there is no more compelling reason for left-leaning voters to support the eventual Democratic nominee than that.
Long story short: The re-election of Trump all but guarantees a 7-2 conservative majority on the nation’s highest court. Just for starters, that means the disintegration of Roe v. Wade; the end of Obamacare as we know it; the solidification of the so-called “unitary executive theory,” whereby the president can do pretty much whatever the hell he wants for any reason. It means further erosion of the Voting Rights Act and firmer entrenchment of unchecked voter suppression. It means LGBTQ equality is no longer guaranteed but corporate personhood is. It means guns for all and unions for none.
It’s the great flaw of the Democratic Party (among many others) that its leaders can’t turn these dire, self-evident truths into a foundational election year issue—that they can’t seem to impart the monumental importance of the judicial branch in Americans’ day-to-day lives, and the singular role the president plays in shaping the composition thereof.
You know who did understand this dynamic and communicated it repeatedly, and to great effect, in 2016? Donald Effing Trump.
For all his blabbering, unprincipled incoherence on the campaign trail, candidate Trump made it crystal clear at every available opportunity—particularly when his back was against the wall and it looked like his entire candidacy was going up in smoke—that a vote for him was a vote for a right-wing judiciary from one end of the federal government to the other. That if Republicans entrusted him with control of the executive branch, he would bequeath them an unimpeachably conservative roster of judges—all with lifetime appointments—in return.
It was a brazen quid pro quo of the first order, and boy oh boy, did he deliver.
Ask a certain breed of conservative—the sort who found Trump by turns offensive, odious and embarrassing—why he held his nose and voted for him anyway, and he’ll simply rattle off two names: Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.
That’s to say nothing of the president’s myriad appointments to the all-important circuit courts, filling vacancies that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell cynically—and, in retrospect, brilliantly—kept open while Barack Obama was in office.
This is neither to excuse nor justify the conscious enabling of an authoritarian, racist windbag by millions of voters who supposedly knew better.
Rather, this is to remind Democratic presidential candidates and their advocates that scaring their own voters about the future of the Supreme Court is an entirely valid and potentially fruitful strategy, and if self-preservation is an instinct they possess—a debatable question, at best—they could do a lot worse than to order a few million yard signs reading, “Democrats 2020: Because RBG Isn’t Getting Any Younger.”