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Two Bad Neighbors

Justice Samuel Alito and his wife Martha-Ann stand during a private ceremony for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, on September 23, 2020
Andrew Harnik/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

"You know what I want?" Martha-Ann Alito asked a stranger who had briefly flattered her at a dinner for the Supreme Court Historical Society last week. "I want a Sacred Heart of Jesus flag, because I have to look across the lagoon at the Pride flag for the next month." The stranger was a documentary filmmaker named Lauren Windsor; the conversations Windsor and a partner recorded with Alito and her husband, Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito, have been the subject of three stories (so far) in Rolling Stone. Windsor didn't even ask Alito about flags, although the couple's high-intensity vexillological approach had been in the news thanks to recent reporting on her long-running feud with a neighbor on their suburban Virginia cul-de-sac. That feud was not really about flags, although the decision to fly an upside-down flag outside their home—the justice said it was his wife's decision; Martha-Ann, when asked about it by a reporter, started screaming and eventually hoisted another, different, flag up the flagpole—did figure in it. It was more about how the Alitos are, as neighbors and just in general.

So it fit that, when given an opportunity or just a moment of otherwise neutral space through which to charge, Martha-Ann simply ran her mania up there in the assumption that the person who had just begun talking to her at a fundraiser would salute. "I’m putting it up and I’m gonna send them a message every day, maybe every week, I’ll be changing the flags,'" she fantasized, to someone she'd never previously met. "They’ll be all kinds. I made a flag in my head. This is how I satisfy myself. I made a flag. It’s white and has yellow and orange flames around it. And in the middle is the word ‘vergogna.’ ‘Vergogna’ in Italian means shame—vergogna. V-E-R-G-O-G-N-A. Vergogna." Anyway, it's a nice thing to think about, someday being able to raise a flag above your home that tells the neighbors that you think they are disgusting and going to hell.

Justice Alito, who is by a wide margin the more public person in this marriage and by a notably slimmer margin the less reliably out of pocket, did not really come off much better in his conversations with the filmmaker. He's duller and more dour, although he was also on the clock: the event, which Windsor entered with a ticket, is one of the few opportunities for the general public to interact with Supreme Court justices, and he was there in his capacity as one of the most powerful, pompous, and unaccountable people in American life. (When I say Alito was duller, the bar is also very high, there. His wife meowed several times during her conversation with Windsor, sort of in reference to someone named Cat and sort of for the same reason that she used the ancient Limbaugh-ian locution "Feminazi," which is that she was absolutely just going Martha-Ann Alito Mode. "You've got to realize," Windsor told Politico, "it's at the end of a dinner, and we’ve had a couple glasses of wine.")

Still, and once again with little more prompting than some flattery and a proffered dollop of the lorem ipsum grievance that is both the currency and sole tenet of contemporary conservative politics, the Supreme Court justice condemned the very nasty and unfair news media and got dark vis-a-vis the challenge of living in a country where people who believe different things are allowed to just go around continuing to believe them. "I mean, there can be a way of working—a way of living together peacefully," he allowed. "But it’s difficult, you know, because there are differences on fundamental things that really can’t be compromised. They really can’t be compromised."

Fundamentally, and meows notwithstanding, the two are saying more or less the same thing. It is an old answer to an old question, which Robert Frost once phrased as the American challenge of "how to crowd and still be kind," and the answer, in both cases, is "fuck you." The energetic and vibrational differences are entirely cosmetic, and each equally off the rack: Justice Alito, a "well-connected GOP lawyer" told Rolling Stone's Asawin Suebsaeng and Andrew Perez, "is like if you turned National Review into a single person," whereas his wife "talks like if Breitbart assumed a human vessel."

It is, in both cases, a sort of liberated and free-floating distaste for the whole rest of the world, and the urge not so much (or not just) to dominate it as to make it stop, to bring it to heel, to shut it up and send it inside. There are more and less nice ways of saying this, but it is fundamentally what David Brooks is on about when he writes both his prissy little hymns to hierarchy and his hand-wringing broadsides against elites. It is not a politics or an ethos or an ideology; the periodic attempts to try to dress it up like an intellectual tradition are never more convincing than a little kid clomping around in his dad's wingtips, and the ongoing campaign to bulletproof it as some sacrosanct embodiment of religious expression has all the moral and intellectual heft of a clerical collar purchased at Spirit Halloween. What runs between the justice's more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger response and his wife's somehow-even-more-in-anger-than-in-anger one is mostly an impulse, a single sour instinct with a bunch of other variously servile and vengeful reflexes firing through it. It is always just a wish to be able to hurt other people with impunity, in the service of every ancient power relationship that currently exists and a few others that were legislated out of existence in the last century and a half.

There is the distinct sense, with Martha-Ann, that she is at every moment of every day only barely resisting the urge to drive her car down a crowded sidewalk at 50 miles per hour. There is not much in Alito's public utterances, in his conversations with Windsor or in the speeches he gives to conservative organizations when the court is not in session and he feels free to grow a beard and hoist his own flag a bit, that suggests he is white-knuckling it any less. Within this impulse, there is room for a wide presentation of revenge fantasies and precisely nothing and no one else.

This miasma is enough to permeate the interior of a car, to sour the vibe at a beach house or in a very important courtroom, to bust out or just boil down a political party that once at least felt obligated to pretend to be about something else. "It’s OK," Martha-Ann Alito told the first stranger she could tell at the Supreme Court Historical Society event. "Because if they come back to me, I’ll get them. I’m gonna be liberated, and I’m gonna get them." In that specific context, she was talking about suing the Washington Post for what she perceived as a mean 2006 column about her clothing. More generally, and more to the point, she is talking about every other thing she can see—everything that exists outside of her control, and so outside of her permission. It is useful, I guess, to see this all laid out in such plain and oafish terms, without the official language and residual pomp of the Supreme Court, if only because it becomes harder to mistake it for anything but what it is. But also this is what the flags were for: not just a signal of what values that house holds, but of how eager those on the inside are to warn those on the outside that they'll find no shelter there.

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