Juan Williams: Justice Thomas seizes his moment in the Trump era

When I met Clarence ThomasClarence ThomasSupreme Court rules Booking.com can trademark name Supreme Court hands win to religious schools Trump's mark on federal courts could last decades MORE in 1980, I never thought that 40 years later he’d be described as “Trump’s favorite” Supreme Court justice.

After all, a poll earlier this year from the Washington Post and IPSOS found 83 percent of black people think President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse panel approves 0.5B defense policy bill House panel votes against curtailing Insurrection Act powers after heated debate House panel votes to constrain Afghan drawdown, ask for assessment on 'incentives' to attack US troops MORE is a racist. So, what does that say about Justice Thomas?

The man I met recited Malcolm X’s radical speeches from memory and had black nationalist views. He believed it is best for black people to take care of themselves instead of waiting for government help or pushing for integration with white people.

ADVERTISEMENT

As an example, he pointed to the failure of government, and of integration, to produce good schools for most black children.

He held the same black nationalist views in the mid-80s when he told me that even educated, successful black Americans who had “made it” knew integration was about whites having a few black people around as window dressing.

“There is nothing you can do to get past black skin,” he told me for a 1987 story I wrote about him for The Atlantic. “I don’t care how educated you are, how good you are at what you do — you’ll never have the same contacts or opportunities, you’ll never be seen as equal to whites.”

Today, that black nationalist is celebrated by Trump conservatives and reviled by black activists for his vote to strike down much of the Voting Rights Act and his opposition to affirmative action.

Today, Thomas is the justice who seemed to dismiss arguments about Congress’ right to see the president’s financial records as nothing more than Trump hatred: “I think we all know it’s about the president,” he said.

Today, his wife, Ginni, is a prominent Trump supporter. She reportedly was among those who gave Trump lists divided into people who were “disloyal” or others who would “work better toward advancing his agenda,” according to CNN.

And Justice Thomas is also the subject and star of a recent documentary made by a right-wing filmmaker who is a fan of Trump’s former chief strategist, Stephen Bannon.

Now, as the longest serving Justice on the high court, Thomas is seeing many of his law clerks appointed to federal courts by Trump. Voting records show he is also a role model for Trump’s two conservative nominees to the court, Justices Neil GorsuchNeil GorsuchSupreme Court hands win to religious schools Trump's mark on federal courts could last decades CNN's Toobin: Roberts 'may not be who we thought he was' MORE and Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughMcGrath fends off Booker to win Kentucky Senate primary Trump's mark on federal courts could last decades Supreme Court rules US requirements on overseas NGOs do not violate free speech MORE.

That is new territory for Thomas.

Even as his “views have endeared him to some conservative legal theorists,” the Wall Street Journal wrote last week, Thomas has had only “limited…influence even on a right-leaning court.”

The Journal cited cases where Thomas’s losing arguments would have made it easier for “states to endorse religion and prosecutors to remove black jurors.”

But with Trump in the White House, Thomas’ arguments are a fit for the Trump agenda. Both want to limit federal regulatory power, oppose abortion rights and support making it harder for news organizations to use the First Amendment to avoid lawsuits.

“He’s the most right-wing member of the court, and we are in a right-wing moment,” Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy told the New York Times last week.

A January survey from the Pew Research Center found that a quarter of black Democrats describe themselves as conservative, and 43 percent describe themselves as moderate.

Thomas’ calls for personal responsibility, protection of individual rights, and for black people to build their own successful schools and businesses fits with many of those black conservatives.

Thomas and I have political differences but his intellect and dignity in dealing with unfair personal attacks led me to admire him. I have been rooting for Thomas all these years and holding him out as an example to my own sons.

ADVERTISEMENT

I have seen young black and white people inspired as they hear Thomas’ life story. He grew up poor and fatherless in Georgia yet followed the guidance of a strict grandfather to achieve academic excellence, graduate from Yale Law School and take a seat on the Supreme Court.

Thomas once told me that a young black person came up to him after he gave a speech about his belief in the ability of black people to succeed to say: “Man, they [critics on the left] lied on you.”

But as John Blake, a CNN writer, argued last year, Thomas’ conservatism and inspiring personal story are not at the root of mainstream black criticism of him. Other conservative black leaders such as Colin PowellColin Luther PowellJuan Williams: Time for boldness from Biden Trump's tough talk on China sparks fears of geopolitical crisis Looking forward to pro sports after COVID blackout MORE, Condoleezza Rice and Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottGOP senators debate replacing Columbus Day with Juneteenth as a federal holiday If only woke protesters knew how close they were to meaningful police reform Officials couldn't reach Trump on golf course to delete retweet of video showing man chanting 'white power': report MORE (R-S.C.), do not come in for such rough treatment.

The issue is that “his judicial decisions harm black people,” Blake wrote, citing Thomas’ vote to weaken the Voting Rights Act.

Similarly, a New Yorker article once described Thomas as being cheered by powerful whites for telling them “that affirmative action was bad, that black people didn’t want or need their help, that government did more harm than good.”

Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden campaign raised M more than Trump in the month of June RNC, Trump campaign raised 1M in June Michigan shuts down most indoor bar service in bid to prevent virus resurgence MORE, the Democrats’ likely nominee for president, has promised that if elected he will appoint a black woman to the Supreme Court.

Her presence is also likely to be seen as a counter to Thomas and his close ties to a president viewed as an antagonist to black wellbeing — Trump.

Juan Williams is an author, and a political analyst for Fox News Channel.