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Red Flags

What we talk about when we talk about the Alitos.

The inverted image of an American flag is refracted in raindrops on a car window. (Photo By Carlos Avila Gonzalez/San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images)

There are many reasons I’m proud to work at The Dispatch. The latest one is that we’ve had a rollicking debate internally over the past week about whether the Great Flag Freakout of 2024 is justified or not.

The Great Flag Freakout began with a New York Times report about the Stars and Stripes being flown upside down at Justice Samuel Alito’s home shortly after January 6. It was sustained by a second Times story published this week about an obscure flag display at a home Alito owns. That would be his beach house in New Jersey, which sported an “Appeal to Heaven” banner at some point last summer.

That flag, the Times explained, “dates back to the Revolutionary War, but largely fell into obscurity until recent years and is now a symbol of support for former President Donald J. Trump, for a religious strand of the ‘Stop the Steal’ campaign and for a push to remake American government in Christian terms.” It was carried outside the Capitol during the insurrection, the paper made a point of noting, just as the upside-down American flag was.

I think the only conscientious reaction one can have to all of this is ambivalence.

On the one hand, I can believe that an elderly conservative couple assigned a different and more innocent meaning to the flags they displayed than the younger populist miscreants who attacked the Capitol did. The “Appeal to Heaven” flag in particular might plausibly represent to them a statement of Christian belief or a tribute to the founding era. It’s sufficiently mainstream as a symbol to have hung in public view outside House Speaker Mike Johnson’s office last fall, as the Times acknowledges.

And context matters. Whatever you think of Sam Alito’s jurisprudence, there’s nothing in his record to suggest he was down with the coup.

On the other hand, I can believe that the two flags were displayed as a pro-Trump political statement. There’d be nothing unusual in 2024 in the abstract about a pair of right-wing baby boomers being radicalized by populist B.S. that they consumed online. That it happened to a Supreme Court justice and/or his spouse would make it somewhat unusual, but only somewhat. Context matters here too: One can no longer rule out the possibility that an eminent conservative jurist’s household might harbor an insurrectionist

As for Mike Johnson, his connection to the “Appeal to Heaven” flag arguably strengthens the case against the Alitos rather than weakens it. His sympathies for Trump’s coup plot are a matter of record, and some Americans were alarmed about seeing that symbol outside his office long before anyone heard of it flying over a judge’s home.

The most astute formulation I’ve seen of why the Alitos’ innocence is in doubt came from Christian Vanderbrouk: “If all you knew about a family was that they flew the U.S. flag upside-down in the days after 1/6 and later flew the ‘Appeal to Heaven’ flag, you’d have a 99.999999% success rate at guessing where they stood on Trump’s attempted coup.” That doesn’t mean they’re guilty, but if they aren’t then they’re having an astounding run of bad luck in the flags they choose to fly.

Because we can’t know their intentions, and because there’s evidence on both sides of the equation, I think ambivalence is the only clear-eyed response. The running debate we’ve been having in our virtual breakroom appropriately reflects that, which is why I’m proud of it. It’s trickled out into some of our content too, such as the thoughtful chat that Sarah Isgur and David French had about it on Advisory Opinions earlier this week. My recent newsletter about the upside-down flag incident began with an argument about why the Alitos’ antagonists in the matter shouldn’t be trusted, reflecting my own ambivalence.

Doubt is inescapable in this matter. So why is there so little of it in commentary elsewhere?

The answer is that the Great Flag Freakout has become a Rorschach test of one’s faith in the conservative movement.

Almost without exception (almost!), your credulity or skepticism of Alito’s motives will align with whether you believe American conservatism remains meaningfully distinct, and immune, from Trumpism.

Not once over the past week have I stumbled across a liberal commentator willing to give the justice and his wife the benefit of the doubt, and no wonder. The left has always believed that principled conservatism isn’t much more than an ideological fig leaf for asserting the authority of white right-wing men over the majority. That’s not true—The Dispatch exists, after all—but The Dispatch is admittedly a small island of principle in a very troubled sea.

So there’s nothing surprising to liberals about conservative hero Sam Alito flying insurrectionist flags. To them, that’s what the right is and always has been; Trump’s arrival simply made it acceptable among Republicans to own it. Alito was a conservative when it was important in polite political society to be known as a conservative. Now that it isn’t, he’s free to let his freak flag fly.

The fact that congressional Democrats are demanding that he recuse himself from cases related to January 6 is partly a matter of opportunism, of course. (And partly a matter of revenge for his opinion overturning Roe v. Wade.) But it also reflects how much they’re willing to infer insurrectionist sympathies from the fact of Alito’s conservatism. The only hard evidence of his pro-Trump bias are two very ambiguous flags that were flown at his homes, and even then it’s unclear whether the justice himself or his wife was the one who flew them. Yet, in light of the “soft” evidence, that’s enough for them to form an irrebuttable presumption that he’s in the tank for Trump. That “soft” evidence: Well, he’s a conservative, isn’t he?

If left-wing commentators have too little trust in the good faith of prominent conservatives, right-wing commentators have too much. I understand giving the Alitos the benefit of the doubt, but I cannot for the life of me understand the theatrical scoffing among Republicans that has greeted the idea that someone in the justice’s household might have been MAGA-pilled.

Near the end of his time at National Review, Kevin Williamson scolded some of his then-colleagues for being myopic about the kookification of the broader American right. The problem is bigger than Trump, Kevin warned them; to oppose him personally while cheering for sweeping GOP victories by radicalized toadies down ballot is to live in denial about it. He ended with this exasperated question: “How many clowns do you have to see getting out of the clown car before you realize you’re at the circus?”

That one line explains the difference between The Dispatch and conservative publications that remain invested in the success of the Republican Party, I think. We realize we’re at the circus. 

And when you’re at the circus, you expect to see clowns. A lot of formerly respectable conservatives have come barreling out of the clown car in greasepaint over the last nine years, including people whom Buckleyites used to hold in the utmost esteem. If Sen. Mike Lee could transform from a staunch small-government “constitutionalist” into whatever the hell this is, why couldn’t Justice Alito? Or, more plausibly, Justice Alito’s wife?

The circus is hiring new clowns every day. One never knows who the next one might be. After a decade of moral corruption that’s infected the right from top to bottom, smug confidence that any prominent conservative might be immune to it is baffling.

And so, while cautious skepticism about the Great Flag Freakout is warranted, sneering about “The Alito Flag Nonsense” is not. Post after post after post at Kevin’s old site over the last 10 days has dismissed a Supreme Court justice’s display of obscure symbols celebrated by post-liberal Trumpist kooks as so trivial as to be almost beneath comment. It’s received wisdom there that media interest in the matter can be due only to a political vendetta against a conservative hero, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the bad-faith “Republicans pounce” tactic that liberals routinely use to deflect attention from Democratic scandals.

How many more clowns do we have to see getting out of the clown car before we realize we might be at the circus? Ginni Thomas is standing right there in the center ring in a red nose and big floppy shoes. 

It’s almost too easy to complain that the right would treat a hypothetical display by Sonia Sotomayor of obscure symbols associated with the far left differently. (As would the left!) No benefit of the doubt about good intentions would be granted, nor would it matter if Sotomayor’s jurisprudence revealed no special favoritism for the leftist cause in question. At a minimum, she would be condemned harshly for having done something thoughtless and irresponsible that will shake public faith in the court’s political neutrality.

As she should be.

But here, too, I think ardent defenses of Alito are best understood as a Rorschach test about the state of conservatism broadly. (And partly as a “lifetime achievement award” for a judicial career that’s served the right well, of course.) If you’re a conservative who still wants the GOP circus to succeed for some reason, there’s real anxiety at seeing your party increasingly swallowed by a Trumpist horde that makes no pretense of respecting your ideology. And so there’s destined to be bitter indignation—and panic—when one of America’s most esteemed Reaganites is accused of joining the horde. Conservatism isn’t dying; the Republican Party is still worth supporting for its judicial picks; the great Sam Alito cannot be a lousy Trumpist.

If anyone has a right to resent the idea that the conservative movement is lowbrow populism in a blazer, it’s the staff of Bill Buckley’s magazine. And so they have. A little too much in this case, frankly.

We should enjoy this moment of ambivalence. As Trumpism takes over the right, the probability rises that Republican Supreme Court appointees will eventually fly insurrectionist flags knowingly and proudly, without apology.

A little part of me wishes Alito would do that, if I’m being honest. Just to see the reaction.

He might as well, as there’d be no way for the public to punish him for doing so. (Although the court might.) You couldn’t impeach and remove him, as Senate Republicans would never allow a seat held by a GOP appointee to go vacant during a Democratic presidency. Even under a Republican presidency, try to imagine senators in Donald Trump’s party penalizing a public official for being too enthusiastic about a Trump coup.

You couldn’t shame Alito either, as conservative political activists give every indication of observing the same “Fifth Avenue” standard for their ideological heroes on the court as Trump fanatics do for Trump. There’d be a robust defense of his overt insurrectionism in right-wing media; the grounds for that defense would be a mere detail.

Someday, after Trump fills the federal judiciary with “Trump judges,” we’ll test my theory.

For now, the Alito household is a simulacrum of America’s right wing writ large insofar as no one truly knows how weird the politics in there have gotten or where they might end up. Maybe both Alitos have remained solid conservatives and this is all a big misunderstanding. Maybe they’ve both gone MAGA and they’re winking at it with their flag displays. Or maybe one has stayed conservative and the other has turned populist, mirroring the GOP’s current uneasy coalition.

Whether the conservative spouse will turn populist or the populist spouse will revert to conservatism is anyone’s guess.

Unless and until more comes out about why they flew the flags, ambivalence is the only position I can live with. And that’s true to the nature of The Dispatch. Everyone on staff here knows what it’s like to be stereotyped unfairly for being a conservative. Everyone is gratified by the 20 percent of Republican voters who keep showing up in primaries to cast a vote for conservatism against populism. Everyone appreciates the virtues of Samuel Alito’s judicial philosophy. Everyone should entertain the real possibility that he’s been smeared by the Times.

But everyone here also understands that they’re at the circus. The next clown will emerge from the car at any moment. It could be anyone. Anyone.

There have been too many red flags since 2015 to pretend otherwise.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.