I want to take a moment and share a few observations about the GOP reaction to the leaked draft opinion of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade (with the obvious caveat that scope of the decision could still change before it becomes public next month).
I’d like to be very clear up front: The reaction to this opinion and the political jockeying is a second-order story compared to the actual, dire consequences for real people once states begin to criminalize abortion (and this is, in fact, the reason why the right is obsessing over it). And yet this reaction is important to understand as a tool in the broader right-wing culture war. What we’ve seen over the last day or so is a tried-and-true example of their sore-winners complex.
It is absolutely no secret that ending Roe has been the right’s political project for decades. As the writer Lyz Lenz said on Monday, “It’s always been the plan. And it’s never been a secret. The plan has been shouted at rallies. Held up on signs. It’s been plotted and spoken of and written about over and over.” The leaked opinion is that plan coming to fruition—the success of a long game of often-shameless political maneuvering. Republican reaction to the leak was, of course, faux outrage.
Those were just the mild reactions. As Tuesday rolled on, the right’s fury against the leak intensified. It was compared to “an act of terrorism”:
The Federalist likened the leak to a “treasonous coup,” a trollish nod to the left’s focus on an actual MAGA plot to overthrow the government on January 6, 2021:
Fox News picked up the January 6 comparisons, with one commentator suggesting that “this did more damage than a bunch of elderly Trump voters taking selfies in the rotunda.”
Such comparisons are galling and patently false. But the focus on the leak over the substance is telling.
First, it is an act of deflection geared toward minimizing the sweeping and radical nature of this ruling. Not only is a majority of the American public in support of abortion rights and against the overturning of Roe v. Wade, but, as my colleague Adam Serwer argued, “in the U.S., the rights of many marginalized groups are tied to the legal precedents established in the fight for abortion rights. This opinion, if adopted, provides a path to nullifying those rights one by one.” In the same piece, Serwer quotes Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who notes that:
The majority can believe that it’s only eviscerating a right to abortion in this draft … but the means by which it does so would open the door to similar attacks on other unenumerated rights, both directly, by attacking the underpinnings of those doctrines, and indirectly, by setting a precedent for such an attack.
It is in the best interest of the right to obfuscate and downplay the monumental implications of such a ruling—especially until it is officially enshrined by the court. And the best way to do that is by ginning up a political scandal. Leak obsession and speculation happens to be a favorite topic in the political press especially—this is a media story, but it is also a story about power struggles inside a famously opaque institution.
It is, in other words, a story that mainstream news organizations find impossible to resist covering and prioritizing. When GOP pundits and politicians and activists begin tweeting and obsessing over the leak on cable news, mainstream news organizations begin to justify coverage of the leak as newsworthy (despite the fact that newsworthiness is a choice masquerading as an inevitability). The second-order story of a leak then becomes a crucial part of the main story, and it ultimately dilutes coverage of the legal implications of the opinion.
Second, the sore-winners tactic is also an example of the sheer relentlessness of the far-right’s culture warring. Political wins are celebrated internally, but externally each victory is treated as an opportunity to double down on a victimization narrative and politics of grievance.
I watched this tactic play out frequently during my reporting on the pro-Trump media after Donald Trump’s election. From the very first moments of his presidency, the Trump administration positioned itself as under constant threat. The White House’s first press conference featured little gloating or celebration. Instead, then–Press Secretary Sean Spicer berated journalists as “irresponsible and reckless for reporting erroneously that a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. had been removed from the Oval Office” and accused the press of inaccurately framing photos of Trump’s inauguration to make the crowd look small. When the White House granted pro-Trump conspiracy-theory-peddling outlets like the Gateway Pundit press badges, the group immediately complained of being ignored and mistreated by mainstream journalists. Their ascension in the White House press corps was not a victory, but an opportunity to highlight their own persecution.
Even more common was Trump’s own sense of grievance, despite holding the highest elected office in the country. In 2017, he noted that “no politician in history—and I say this with great surety—has been treated worse or more unfairly.” He’d echo that statement in some form ad nauseam. Rarely was President Trump more aggrieved than after a political victory. In 2018, after his Supreme Court pick Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed, Trump blamed Democrats for bringing up the sexual-assault allegations against Kavanaugh, calling them a “hoax.” Later, he told Fox’s Jeanine Pirro that the allegations were an attempt to “destroy somebody’s life.” And thus Kavanaugh’s confirmation became a deeply consequential political win as well as fodder for the long-standing claim that Democrats are a dangerous, libelous threat to upstanding conservatives.
In this way, a massive, painstakingly architected legal win then becomes a sign that august American institutions are poisoned by partisan treachery. Victory for conservatives (the opinion itself) is recast as a symbol (the leak) of cultural rot and the persecution of conservatives. The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent described this maneuver in an interview with my newsletter colleague David French as “an active desire to make the grass roots feel victimized, to harness the political masses and create a justificatory framework for the use of state power to fight the culture wars.”
We may have won, this paradigm suggests, but the way we won means we are at greater risk of losing. This is key to an apocalyptic view of politics that demands constant outrage and voter grievance. It is an all-gas-no-brakes style of culture warring. Beyond the tweets and headlines, there’s little logic to these arguments, but what matters is that the idea of the persecution energizes the base.
A New York Times piece from last weekend highlighted the way that Fox News and especially Tucker Carlson harness this outrage and program their coverage to fuel maximum grievance:
Mr. Lowell and Mr. Mitchell pitched the initiative as “Moneyball” for television: a data-driven, audience-first approach to deciding what to cover and how to cover it … Segments featuring Fox’s own reporters consistently drew lower ratings, especially if they were covering stories the audience deemed unfavorable to Mr. Trump. So did guests who leaned left, or simply staked out independent viewpoints … But immigration was a hit. Coverage of migrant caravans became a Fox mainstay, with one correspondent even embedded with refugee groups.
Fox executives wanted to focus on “the grievance, the stuff that would get people boiled up,” said one current Fox employee. “They’re coming for you, the Blacks are coming for you, the Mexicans are coming for you.”
The piece also notes that Fox viewers don’t seem to react strongly to segments where anchors bring on left-leaning guests in order to “destroy” them. “Winning” appears to be less engaging than the threat of danger lurking behind every corner. And when the right does win, what seems to animate its adherents even more than the win is their opponents’ response to it. In the case of the leaked opinion, the right’s focus is on the response from Democrats (who they mock), which it is painting as violent or “unhinged.” (As many have noted, these portrayals also casually omit any references to the actual violence committed by pro-life activists and groups.)
That these narratives ignore decades of American history is immaterial to the far right. Most important is the idea that, though they may be winning politically, they are losing culturally in the crucial battle for the soul of America. In a strange way, massive victories like the one foreshadowed by the leaked draft jeopardize this narrative. The right is, as the New York Times’ Jane Coaston put it, “the dog that caught the car.” As she notes, “‘We won everything we ever wanted’ doesn't really sell.”
The sore-winner complex highlights a fundamental asymmetry between the style of culture warring employed by the left and right. The right’s vision is ahistorical and logically confused, but more importantly, it is relentless. There is no appeasing this type of politics. It is a politics that will manage to use its victories to stoke additional fears inside its voters. For the media, there is no amount of evenhanded or both-sides coverage that will get the right to back down from calling the press illegitimate, biased, and corrupt. For non-Republican politicians, there is no amount of bipartisan language or good faith attempts at dialogue or engagement that will inspire bipartisanship, compromise, and a desire for majority rule. For the right, even in victory, there is only grievance and fear.