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Why RBG as Icon Should Bother Everyone

Two images from Justice Ginsburg’s passing help explain our current predicament.
October 2, 2020
(Shutterstock / GettyImages)

In the aftermath of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, two images of mourners helped me understand how we got into our precarious predicament—and why extricating our polity won’t be easy.

The first was a video of RBG’s trainer doing pushups next to her casket as she lay in state, video of which went viral on Twitter.

With this video came wistful sighs highlighting her claim that he was the most important person in her life, a joke that feeds into the bifurcated idea of RBG that made her so appealing to the irony-soaked Internet set. She wasn’t just a wizened, and wise, tiny little intellectual slapping people down from the bench; she’s also a badass, pumping iron and running laps, Ah-nuld in miniature, a physical and intellectual force.

It’s this amusing contradiction that helped launch RBG into meme-dom. From books and t-shirts celebrating the “Notorious RBG” to Kate McKinnon’s hilarious treatment of the aged justice on Saturday Night Live, Ruth Bader Ginsburg transcended her status as a Supreme Court justice and became something more: an icon.

Her status as an icon that may have ended up being her, and the Democratic party’s, undoing in this whole affair. She seems to have bought into her own mythology, apparently believing the perfect sendoff would come by being replaced by the first woman president: Hillary Clinton.

Oops.

After her passing, Barack Obama apparatchiks waited a respectful amount of time before kibitzing with the New York Times about how it definitely was not former president Obama’s fault she died while Trump is in office; the then-president tried during a lunch to convince her to step down while Democrats controlled the presidency and the Senate. That way, they could replace the elderly cancer survivor with little muss or fuss. Unfortunately, RBG had bought into her own myth by this point.

“She made it clear in several interviews that she had no intention to retire; widowed in 2010, she was devoted to her work, determined to have a voice and appreciated the platform her celebrity offered her as an icon liberals liked to call the ‘Notorious R.B.G.,’” Susan Dominus and Charlie Savage reported in the Times.

Icons can only exist if they have a church to sanctify them, however, and that brings me to the second image that can help us understand how, exactly, we got here. It’s a pretty simple photo—in a film, we might think of it as a medium establishing shot—of five women. Four of them have their hands against a door and we are informed that they are praying. The fifth lays on the ground, wailing tears of agony about the dearly departed.

The door these women are laying their hands upon in prayer is the Supreme Court’s. Their supplications are offered up in the hope that Amy Coney Barrett will be confirmed by the Senate before the 2020 election comes to a close. The wailing woman is a mourner of the Notorious RBG, recently departed saint of the Court.

When future historians discuss the tumultuous period of the late American republic in their graduate seminars, I hope a whole class is devoted to this image. There is so much to unpack, so many unstated-but-obvious positions loaded into this one silent frame.

The first being that we have imparted far too much importance to the Supreme Court. Its status as ultimate arbiter over what the Constitution allows and doesn’t allow gives the nine unelected lifetime appointees an undue amount of power that always strikes those out of power as unseemly and those in power as obviously just—infallible, in fact. In so doing, the Court has fundamentally short-circuited the democratic process by removing too many issues from the public debate altogether and turned every presidential election into a proxy battle over who will dominate two full branches of government rather than one.

And those are the only two branches that really matter anymore, given congressional deadlock. Senate rules combined with House districts designed to make seats safe for one party or the other thus ensuring polarizing primaries have rendered Congress sclerotic. The Supreme Court acts as a sort of superlegislature now, its pronouncements expected to be treated as the word of God in our fractured political landscape.

As such, it makes perfect sense that devotees of the Glorious ACB pray at the Temple of Justice next to the mourners of the Notorious RBG, pop icon. This isn’t a political struggle so much as a religious one, a fight over who gets to control the true church of the state.

And religious quarrels are never settled cleanly.

Sonny Bunch

Sonny Bunch is the Culture Editor of The Bulwark. Before serving as editor-in-chief of the film site Rebeller, he was the executive editor of and film critic for The Washington Free Beacon. He is currently a contributor to The Washington Post and his work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, Commentary Magazine, The Weekly Standard, and elsewhere. He is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association