NOEL KING, HOST:
President Trump celebrated the newest Supreme Court justice last night. With every sitting member of the Supreme Court, President Trump presided over a swearing in ceremony for Brett Kavanaugh at the White House. After a bitter and divisive nomination, Kavanaugh promised that the process had tested but not changed him and that he would always conduct himself fairly from the bench.
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BRETT KAVANAUGH: I take this office with gratitude and no bitterness. Every American can be assured that I'll be an independent and impartial justice devoted to equal justice under law.
KING: But not every Republican is celebrating the appointment of Justice Kavanaugh. In fact, our next guest says he is leaving the GOP because of it. Tom Nichols is a professor of national security at the U.S. Naval War College, and he wrote about his decision in The Atlantic. Thanks for joining us, professor Nichols.
TOM NICHOLS: Thanks for having me.
KING: You have belonged to the Republican Party for most of your life. Why did this confirmation process prompt you to leave?
NICHOLS: It wasn't the confirmation process itself. That was more of the final straw. This had been coming for a while. I had felt estranged from the party even after the 2012 elections. I was hoping for a recovery in the wake of what I think will eventually be the implosion of the Trump administration. But with the Kavanaugh confirmation, it just seemed to me that there was no moderate center left in the Republican Party, that it had become a party captured by the president pretty much in tune with its own institutional interests rather than any kind of conservative or larger ideas. And so I just decided that it really was time to go.
KING: The confirmation was the straw that broke the camel's back, so to speak, and I want to ask you about it. In your piece for The Atlantic, you focused a lot on Senator Susan Collins' very drawn out decision on Kavanaugh. Collins, of course, is a Republican from Maine. This is a little bit of her speech from the Senate floor on Friday.
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SUSAN COLLINS: The Senate confirmation process is not a trial but certain fundamental legal principles about due process, the presumption of innocence and fairness, do bear on my thinking, and I cannot abandon them.
KING: Why did Susan Collins' yes vote matter to you so much?
NICHOLS: For a few reasons. I should add, by the way, that I represent only my own views here.
NICHOLS: I found that the senator's speech - to me, it was cynical. It was cynical in the extreme because you had a country that was anxious and divided and really wanted to get to this question of whether or not she was able to support this nominee. And instead, she kind of gave America this kind of hollow lecture about constitutional law. I, myself - on many of the charges against Judge Kavanaugh, I was actually agnostic, but I thought that his behavior before the Senate, his extraordinary partisanship, his anger, his aggressiveness, his disrespect for the Senate Judiciary Committee, was self-disqualifying. And I was amazed that Senator Collins just walked past all of that. She concentrated on the most extraordinary charges and kind of dismissed them. And understandably that, you know, unsubstantiated charges are unsubstantiated charges, but she completely ignored what I thought was the much more concerning problem about temperament, about partisanship, about respect for the institution. And in that, I think she said, look; you know, this is the guy. He's been chosen. Everybody has to get on board. And I really didn't expect that from the last moderates left. And when there are no moderates left, again, it's time to go.
KING: Let me ask you about your broader point, that the party has lost touch. There is an idea that you praised in your Atlantic commentary - free trade. What do you say to people who say, you know, part of - you're part of the out-of-touch Washington elite who couldn't persuade people who supported Trump, that your ideas would make their lives better? And I'm sorry, we have to answer very briefly.
NICHOLS: This is like saying I'm part of the elite group that is trying to convince people the world is round. And so, you know, the idea that free trade is - had to be - they had to be convinced about free trade is, again, part of the problem. I mean, if it's a party that doesn't believe in free trade, then it's not really a conservative or anything like what the Republican Party once was.
KING: Well, I just wonder when - again, when it comes to free trade, I mean, there were many people for whom free trade didn't work, and those people were drawn to President Trump. And I just wonder what - it's interesting. You've also criticized the Democrats, right? Where is your home now? I guess that's the big question. For a person like you who's broken with the Republicans, who's got problems with the Democrats, where do you go? I assume you still want to participate in political life in this country.
NICHOLS: Well, now I'm part of the largest voting bloc in America - the unaffiliated independents. And I will go wherever I think there are good ideas and, most important, people who I think are decent and well-meaning because I think a big part of what the Republicans have lost is decency. I mean, it's a party that is based in no small measure on a certain amount of cruelty these days, and that was not the optimistic party that I joined as the young person.
KING: Well, who are those people? Where do you find them these days, the kind of people, the kind of leaders that you want to follow?
NICHOLS: Well, as I mentioned in the piece, if - I'm originally from Massachusetts. I would have no problem voting for Charlie Baker, for example, the governor of Massachusetts. But they are far and few between, and I'm not quite sure where my political home is now. I don't think I will ever rejoin a party and, again, I think that one thing the Republicans lost is the notion that character matters. And so I'm very much looking for people of character and of probity and dignity as part of what I'm looking for in candidates at any level from now on.
KING: Just very quickly, if you are not part of a party, do you matter? Oh, professor Nichols, I'm sorry. We don't have time for that question. I apologize. We'd love to hear more. Tom Nichols, U.S. Naval War College, thanks so much.
NICHOLS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.