Neil Gorsuch, welcome to the Resistance.
This was a prevailing attitude among some high-profile liberals when news broke that the Supreme Court had ruled 6-3 that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects LGBTQ individuals from workplace discrimination — with the opinion written by the Trump-appointed justice himself. That Gorsuch was to author the decision at first seemed ominous to equality activists, but surprisingly, he joined left-leaning Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, as well as Chief Justice John Roberts, in finding that Title VII of the half-century-old law affords anti-discrimination rights to gay and transgender employees.
“It is impossible,” Justice Gorsuch concluded, “to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating against that individual based on sex.”
One doesn’t ordinarily need to point this out, but: Neil Gorsuch is not your friend, nor is he a progressive hero. Last year, he endorsed brutal methods of execution, writing that the Eighth Amendment “forbids ‘cruel and unusual’ methods of capital punishment but does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death.” He wanted to let stand a Louisiana law “that would have closed some of the few remaining abortion clinics in the state.” And he just voted, along with five other justices, to clear a legal obstacle for a $7.5 billion natural gas pipeline that would cross the Appalachian Trail, siding with fossil fuel companies against environmentalists. Doing the right thing in one high-profile case — and happening to enrage conservatives — doesn’t negate the many harmful precedents he’s already put down, and it won’t prevent worse ones in the future.
Additionally, the Title VII ruling is the outcome of tireless effort from those fighting on the ground, not Gorsuch’s benevolence. The case, Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, had begun back in 2013, when an employee of the Atlanta-area county was fired for being gay, and was ultimately heard last fall with similar claims of discrimination from queer and transgender people seeking justice for terminations based on their identities. Gorsuch merely found a “textual” basis for it.
For millions of Americans, hatred of Trump can make anybody who appears to betray him a hero. A single tweet in which the president lashes out (and he may well have some harsh words for Gorsuch soon) endears the target to his most prolific detractors. But government is far more complex than a game of loyalties — that’s just the way Trump happens to see it (and indeed everything else in life). We do not advance as a nation because he was personally embarrassed, wrong-footed or undermined by someone he imagined to be an ally. We achieve good by advancing moral causes until the state must recognize their necessity and legitimacy. Too often, a conservative’s quibble with Trump is without material action, taking a cowardly path of dissent.
We’ve gone through this so many times. Sen. Mitt Romney can “bravely” cast the lone Republican vote in the Senate for convicting Trump on articles of impeachment, knowing it’s a matter of historical symbolism, not the actual removal of a president in his own party. He marches with Black Lives Matter protesters when he could be writing legislation that demilitarizes or even defunds police, as it’s more important to be seen as Trump’s opposite than to counter his “law and order” agenda. Likewise, the anonymous “senior Trump administration official” who wrote the exposé A Warning, based on their laughably titled New York Times op-ed, “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” wants us to believe they are on the side of righteous democracy, even while continuing to work in the White House.
More recently, there were headlines about hawkish former national security adviser John Bolton, who some had hoped would testify in impeachment proceedings: Although he’d vowed to resist a Congressional subpoena at the time, when he later got around to promoting a new tell-all, The Room Where It Happened, he accused the House of “malpractice” in their investigation, hinting that the scope of Trump’s high crimes and misdemeanors greatly exceeded a quid-pro-quo deal with Ukraine. That probably pissed off the president, though it was clearly a cynical ploy to sell books rather than an attempt to hold him directly accountable.
The mistake of credulous Resisters, as always, was to imagine that a right-winger’s feud with Trump signals a shift in their bedrock ideology. Bolton, along with Romney, Jeff Sessions, Mick Mulvaney, Rex Tillerson and many others have faced Trump’s ire without really impeding his reckless and corrupt behavior.
In other words, we should not mistake pettiness for a show of principle. Even Gorsuch, operating by the same judicial philosophy that informs all his reasoning on the bench, was neither sticking it to Trump and the homophobic GOP, nor declaring his solidarity with the LGBTQ community, when he interpreted Title VII the way he did. These opinions are styled to efface the private motivations in play, whatever they may be; it’s irresponsible and counterproductive to act as though any single one of these texts is a salvo focused against the reactionaries of the culture war.
What Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia tell us is not that Gorsuch is taking our side but that he is less predictable than we knew. That he is flexible. True, it’s bad news for the conservatives who elevated him at great expense, yet the left’s victory here doesn’t automatically imply some ongoing pattern. Each win comes from its own circumstances.
And once Trump is gone, we’ll see the importance of beliefs that run deeper than a grudge.