So it seems there actually are limits to how far at least two Senate Republicans will go to support Trump.
On Thursday, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., announced that he would not support the nomination of Thomas Farr to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina. Farr’s nomination was initially opposed by Democrats because he represented the state in its 2016 defense of a voter identification law that was struck down over what the court termed the "almost surgical precision" by which it targeted African American voters.
But, in a statement, Scott said that he’d decided to vote against the nominee because “a Department of Justice memo written under President George H.W. Bush was released that shed new light on Mr. Farr's activities.”
That memo, from 1991, detailed Farr’s involvement in ugly electoral tactics in two senatorial campaigns in the state, during which Farr was a campaign lawyer for the unreconstructed racist Jesse Helms, the five-term North Carolina senator. The DOJ sued the Helms campaign because it engaged in vote intimidation tactics like sending letters to African American voters with false information suggesting that it might be illegal for them to vote. Farr both participated in meetings about the scheme and then lied about it to Congress.
Scott’s suggestion that this behavior is disqualifying for a judge in and of itself is assuredly correct. But it’s also morally repugnant, arguably illegal and an ugly reflection of the racial politics that not only suppresses the African American vote, but would have worked to keep Sen. Scott off the ballot in a different time. (Scott, for the record, is one of only 10 African Americans elected to federal office by the state of South Carolina — and one of only two elected since the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson established the legality of “separate but equal,” also known as Jim Crow laws.)
Well into the 21st century, Farr continued to represent Helms’s Jim Crow vision of North Carolina.
Scott’s no-vote would not have been enough on its own, but because retiring Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., has refused to vote to confirm any of Trump’s judicial nominees as long as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuses to allow a vote on legislation protecting the Robert Muller’s investigation into Russia’s interference with the 2016 elections, Farr’s nomination appears dead. (Flake also said on Thursday that he would have opposed Farr regardless.)
Admittedly, this victory is more symbolic than substantive and may even prove to be temporary; Trump could conceivably re-nominate Farr when a larger Republican Senate majority is seated next January. But it also show that adding diverse voices to a group can matter.
It’s hardly a coincidence that Scott — who, starting next January, will be only one of two African-American Republicans left in Congress — was the decisive vote against Farr. Scott’s unwillingness to support the confirmation of Helms’s protégé to the federal bench illustrates an important point: At the margins, the representation of diverse voices matters. Scott is a reliable conservative vote for the president — which puts him at odds with the typical African American voter — but his life experiences can still matter in particular cases.
In contemporary American politics, partisanship typically trumps socioeconomic position, but there can be important exceptions which illustrate the value of diverse perspectives. When Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah — the only-African American woman Republican in Congress — narrowly lost her House seat, she said in her concession speech that “because Republicans never take minority communities into their home and citizens into their homes and into their hearts, they stay with Democrats.”
The nomination of Farr exemplifies this tendency: Trump’s decision to nominate Farr to a lifetime appointment on the federal bench after his life’s work attempting to suppress the African American vote was a stick in the eye to African-Americans.
And it’s not hard to find other examples of reliable African American Republicans coming down against Republican race-baiting. For instance, Clarence Thomas is a very conservative Supreme Court justice, but in some cases he has joined the court’s four liberal justices in race-related case rulings, including recent decisions striking down a racial gerrymander in North Carolina and allowing Texas to refused to issue license plates celebrating the Confederacy.
And, when Congress passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 — overruling a Supreme Court decision that used a strained interpretation of the Civil Rights Act to make it harder for women to bring pay discrimination claims — only five Republican senators voted in favor of the bill, and all of them were women.
For these reasons — as well as the more obvious fact that apportioning lifetime appointments to the judiciary in a way that continues the supremacy of white male judges — the fact that Trump’s judicial nominations have been overwhelmingly male and white is disturbing. Nominating a candidate with Farr’s history of supporting efforts to stop African Americans from voting just underlines the general trend of attempting to turn back the clock to a time when his actions were the norm.
Its nonetheless disturbing that Farr came so close to taking a seat on the federal bench despite his history (and may yet do so). If so, Love’s arguments about how Republicans alienate minority voters will gain further support and, among the institutions damaged by a lack of minority voices will continue to be the Republican Party itself.