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Winning isn’t enough for Thomas and Alito. They want praise for their destruction.

Despite recent successes and gifts from wealthy donors, both justices remain consumed with resentment.

Justice Clarence Thomas would appear to have all the ingredients of happiness: a loving marriage, meaningful employment with iron-clad job security, legions of admirers and a lifestyle the rest of us humble proles can only envy. Yet he is vexed, peeved, irritated to the point of distraction.

Despite all that fate and billionaire patrons have bestowed on him, Thomas is still consumed with resentment. “What you are going to find, especially in Washington, is that people are going to pride themselves on being awful,” the justice recently said in an appearance at a judicial conference. “It’s a hideous place.” Thomas is a textbook sore winner, and on this Supreme Court, he’s not alone. 

Even Thomas’ luxury RV — which the justice has featured in interviews to convey an everyman persona — was in fact paid for with a loan from a wealthy friend.

While he is hardly the first to cast aspersions on our nation’s capital, Thomas was clearly talking not about general ill-temper among the city’s 680,000 residents but the nattering nabobs who dare to criticize him. His family, Thomas insists, has been slandered: “We’re in a world and we — certainly my wife and I the last two or three years it’s been — just the nastiness and the lies, it’s just incredible.”

What “lies” he was speaking of, he did not say. But he has certainly been criticized a great deal since last April, when ProPublica published the first in a series of investigative reports documenting Thomas’ relationship with billionaire Harlan Crow. “For more than two decades, Thomas has accepted luxury trips virtually every year from the Dallas businessman without disclosing them,” they wrote; Thomas has availed himself of Crow’s private jet, his superyacht, his private resort, and much more. Crow bought and remodeled the house Thomas’ mother lives in, allowed her to remain there rent-free, and paid the private school tuition for Thomas’ grandnephew.

Other ultrarich patrons have given Thomas “at least 38 destination vacations,” skybox tickets to sporting events and stays at luxury resorts. Even Thomas’ luxury RV — which the justice has featured in interviews to convey an everyman persona — was in fact paid for with a loan from a wealthy friend.

Then there’s the fact that Thomas has heard multiple cases relating to the insurrection of Jan. 6, when his wife Ginny was deeply involved in efforts to overturn the 2020 election. The Thomases did not get their preferred outcome; Trump was forced to leave office. But with Trump’s appointees giving the court’s conservatives a 6-3 majority, Thomas has helped produce a cornucopia of far-right rulings remaking America in many of the ways he wants, whether on abortion rights (shut down), gun rights (expanded beyond all sanity), or sectarian prayer in public schools (brought back). And even as the right rails against activist judges, the conservative justices have limited the Biden administration’s ability to address climate change and help those struggling with student debt. No far-right justice could have asked for more.   

So this is Thomas’ life: Nine months a year, he and his colleagues gleefully undo any government action or law they find displeasing, creating and destroying constitutional rights as they wish. The rest of the time, he reenacts “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” with help from his wealthy pals. But to hear Thomas tell it, his days are grim, clouded by unfair criticism from those who concern themselves with such lowly matters as ethics.

Even when Thomas and Alito twist the law to suit their desires from their lifetime perches, they think of themselves as victims.

The justice’s dark vision of the world is shared by his colleague Samuel Alito. Before giving  a commencement address at a conservative Catholic college over the weekend, Alito received a lengthy standing ovation from the crowd for writing the decision that overturned Roe v. Wade. Yet the adulation was of little comfort to Alito; he lamented that good people like the ones in attendance are hounded and oppressed for their conservative views. “It’s rough out there,” he told the graduating students. “And, in fact, I think it is rougher out there right now than it has been for quite some time.” The knowledge that he deprived millions of women of reproductive rights is surely a joy for Alito, but is it too much to ask that no one criticize him for it?

The outrage over that decision, as well as the court’s ethical lapses, clearly annoys Alito to no end. “We are being hammered daily, and I think quite unfairly in a lot of instances. And nobody, practically nobody, is defending us,” he complained to The Wall Street Journal a year ago. (Like Thomas, Alito too enjoys the occasional billionaire-provided luxury vacation). It isn’t enough that the justices get to reshape the lives of every American to suit their policy preferences. They also want us to love them for it. They want praise and applause, and not just from their political allies (which they are guaranteed to receive), but from everyone.  

This is the essence of the sore winner: Even when Thomas and Alito twist the law to suit their desires from their lifetime perches, they think of themselves as victims. It not only lends their efforts a kind of romantic heroism, it justifies any misbehavior, from the propagation of disingenuous invented legal doctrines to yukking it up with wealthy donors while the little people suffer the consequences of their decisions. 

That victimhood — like other conservative victimhood complexes — must be constantly renewed. It’s not just a matter of old slights but of current insults, every critical opinion article a new cause to convince themselves that as comfortable as they might seem, they are actually martyrs to the cause of truth and justice. 

So spare some sympathy, won’t you, for the poor justice? Imagine him sitting on a Gulfstream jet on his way to a private resort, glass of Dom Perignon in hand. He waves away the attendant offering caviar on toast points, his mind returning again to another news story calling attention to his curiously incomplete financial disclosures. It’s so unfair, he thinks, a single tear welling in his eye. But his noble work will continue, no matter the slings and arrows he must endure. And maybe he’ll have some of that caviar after all.