Dana Milbank: America is still free, and the people will be heard

A woman stands and voices her opposition to Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, during a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on his nomination for Supreme Court, on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble.”

— First Amendment to the Constitution, ratified Dec. 15, 1791

“I don’t know why they don’t take care of a situation like that. I think it’s embarrassing for the country to allow protesters.”

— President Trump, Sept. 4, 2018

Washington • On Wednesday, the morning after the president proclaimed that civil disobedience should no longer be tolerated in America, I chose a seat at Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing right next to the source of President Trump’s rage: the public gallery, where American citizens had stood all Tuesday to voice their objections to the nominee and the Supreme Court confirmation process.

Like clockwork, the protest resumed in the first minute, right after Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, blamed Democrats (without evidence) for the disruption because the 70 people arrested Tuesday were "following their lead."

Now the shouts had returned:

"What are you hiding?"

"No Trump puppet!"

"Save our democracy!"

Capitol Police removed and arrested the demonstrators — 31 of them by lunchtime. Photographers scanned the audience for the next protester to pop up, whack-a-mole style. Yet the hearing went on. The Republic survived.

A foreign journalist sitting near me marveled at the civil disobedience. “You pull that s--- in Venezuela?” she said — then drew her index finger across her throat.

That's true in many of the countries whose leaders Trump praises: Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, North Korea. Now he suggests protests should be abolished here, too. No civil rights movement. No anti-war protests. No Henry David Thoreau fighting slavery. No Boston Tea Party.

On Wednesday morning, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C., picked up Trump's theme: "I just wish we could have a hearing where the nominee's kids could show up. … What kind of country have we become?" Graham asked Kavanaugh what he told his children about Tuesday's spectacle.

A worthy nominee would have told his daughters this: "The people who were shouting do not like President Trump and do not want me to be on the Supreme Court. But even though I disagree with them, I will defend their ability to speak out, because nonviolent protest is part of being an American."

Instead, Kavanaugh declined to say what he told his daughters, merely testifying that they "gave me a big hug and said, 'Good job, Daddy.'"

From the back of the room, a heckler shouted: "The nominee's kids are being able to observe democracy because —"

She didn't finish the sentence before she was evicted.

Violent protest is never acceptable, and the best protest — the kind registered at the polls — hopefully will occur in November. The popular fury at the Kavanaugh hearing is irritating and inconvenient. But it is also entirely American — and fully justified:

• One party in an evenly divided government refused for almost 10 months to seat a Supreme Court nominee of the other party, then changed the rules to push through two nominees from a president of their own party.

• The power play is being executed by a minority government — a legislative caucus and a president elected despite losing the popular vote — seeking to sustain its minority power with a Supreme Court that shields Republicans from the popular will with rulings on voting rights, gerrymandering and campaign finance.

• The party in power is withholding documents about the nominee and hiding others by unilaterally declaring them “confidential.”

• There are persistent indications that the president may have been shopping for a friendly judge in case his legal troubles come before the court.

The anger in the public gallery reminds me of the House Obamacare vote in 2010, when conservative demonstrators outside, whipped up by GOP lawmakers from the House balcony, were so riled that Democratic lawmakers came to the Capitol under police protection. When hecklers in the House chamber interrupted the debate with shouts of “Kill the bill!” and “The people said no!,” Republican lawmakers cheered — for the hecklers.

Now the anger is on the other side, and Republicans aren't cheering. The committee did its best to quiet demonstrators, leaving public seats empty for long periods, even though would-be spectators were lined up outside the room and outside the building.

But hour after hour, fresh demonstrators kept coming, and each time a few more were admitted, the shouts resumed:

"This is a scam!"

"Why don't you listen to us?"

"The American people have no faith in you."

Trump would quash such dissent. But America is still free, and the people will be heard.

Dana Milbank | The Washington Post

Dana Milbank is a Washington Post op-ed columnist. He sketches the foolish, the fallacious and the felonious in politics. Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.