When John Roberts was first starting as Chief Justice, I remember a lot of commentators describing him as an "institutionalist", someone who was deeply committed to preserving the Supreme Court as a respected, non-partisan fixture in American life.
So I wonder what he's thinking now. John Roberts is on the cusp of being the man who presides over a Supreme Court whose basic public legitimacy has become so compromised that court packing -- long an obvious non-starter in American politics -- now feels close to inevitable upon a Democratic victory (indeed, in a different sense, has already begun under a Republican presidency).
It's not entirely the Chief's fault. But it's certainly more than one-ninth his fault. Under his stewardship, the conservative faction of the Supreme Court has grown increasingly emboldened in acting as essentially an arm of the political right, with a particular eye towards undermining voting rights in a nation where the GOP has lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections. Shelby County is the most egregious example, but the Court has hardly covered itself in glory in adjudicating elections controversies during this administration. At this stage in the game, Democrats are well-justified in worrying that the Supreme Court as its currently constituted (particularly with the soon-to-be rubber-stamped confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett) will not allow small-d or large-D democratic governance -- not because of anything in the Constitution, but because they've committed themselves to protecting perpetual minority rule.
The thing is, I do believe that -- in some non-trivial sense -- Chief Justice Roberts is an "institutionalist" in the way these commentators described, and that the loss of the Court's legitimacy is something he feels as a loss. It's not an act. But all that means is that he is a man who could not rise to the moment history placed him in.