Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions has had a long and illustrious career which prior to the rise of Donald Trump was almost surely to end as a staunch conservative Senator from Alabama. However when Donald Trump reshaped American politics with his anti-establishment populism, Sessions jumped aboard the Trump train early and enthusiastically, a long shot bet which proved to be an incredibly smart move.
For over a year Sessions campaigned for Trump, showed up on news shows week after week, and helped shaped strategy behind the scenes. In the end he had picked the winning candidate and gave new life to a career that otherwise might have ended on the rightward fringes of the Republican Party. Now a Jeff Sessions Justice Department seems more likely than not.
The fact that Jeff Sessions may set the legal priorities of the entire Justice Department really highlights how far to the right the Republican Party has drifted. Sessions is a man who believed passionately, in 1985, that Civil Rights workers registering voters was voter fraud of a problem for democracy than potential voter suppression. Sessions is also one of the few members of congress outspokenly opposed to increasing legal immigration.
As a snapshot of his career those two facts summarize Sessions views pretty well, he is as conservative as they come. So conservative, that when Ronald Reagan tried to appoint him to a district judge position he couldn’t make it through a conservative majority congress in the 1980s. The main points of the opposition focused on comments Sessions made to a black intern who worked for him at the time, but the two decades since have only made those comments even more unacceptable.
When Reagan originally appointed Sessions he was deemed acceptable by the American Bar Association Standing Committee which rated Sessions “qualified” although a decent minority did not agree with that assessment. The Standing Committee isn’t supposed to make a statement on jurisprudence or the laws it might inspire, which makes some of the opposition a little more meaningful. It wasn’t until the confirmation process moved to the Senate that the reservations those who opposed him on the Standing committee had became entirely understandable.
While working as Attorney General of Alabama, Jeff Sessions made a plethora of comments which were viewed as racist at the time and continue to be incredibly offensive to this day. Numerous lawyers who worked with him testified about Sessions’ racist remarks. Specifically a lawyer named J. Gerald Herbert testified that Sessions declared the ACLU and NAACP are “un-American” and “communist inspired.” Those comments are telling enough, but as a Civil Rights attorney Sessions declared that Herbet “might be a traitor to his race.”
Although Herbert testified he didn’t believe Sessions “was a racist” and characterized those comments as sort of off the cuff banter, those comments combined with other things Sessions said at the time paint a pretty damning picture.
During the same hearing a former black staffer named Thomas Figures testified against Sessions and cited first hand racism he experienced from the future senator. Figures alleged Sessions called him “boy” multiple times, which Sessions repeatedly denied. Figures also infamously alleged that Sessions joked he “liked the Ku Klux Klan was OK until he found out they smoked marijuana.” Most ominously Figures testified that Sessions told him to “watch how he acted around white folks.”
Ultimately all of this proved to be too much for the Senate Judiciary Committee and Sessions became the first federal judicial appointee to be voted down in the Senate in 46 years. That hearing derailed his chance to become a Reagan era judge, but it also propelled him to prominence in Alabama.
In 1994 Sessions was elected Alabama Attorney General with 56% of the vote. At the time there were many outspoken opponents to his election, including progressive stalwart Ted Kennedy who decried Sessions as a “throwback to a shameful era.” Despite the criticism. As Attorney General Sessions’ biggest accomplishment was his defense of massive disparities between schools in predominately white districts and schools in predominately black districts. Despite harsh criticism from many opponents Sessions proved to be popular enough in Alabama to start a successful legislative career, going straight from Attorney General to the Senate.
As a senator Sessions wasted no time veering to the far right on basically every issue, sometimes breaking with Republican orthodoxy to do so. Fiscally Sessions is opposed to new spending and new taxes. A major inconsistency in that fiscal conservatism is Sessions willingness to raise defense spending and extend American power abroad. On social issues Sessions is as staunch a conservative as one can be, standing in opposition to civil rights, women’s reproductive rights, and LGBTQ rights. It can’t be stressed enough how far outside the mainstream of American politics Sessions brand of conservatism really is.
However in the age of Trump that brand of conservatism is worth taking a deeper look at.