It’s not every day you see a presumptive Supreme Court Justice screaming at the US public and blubbering crocodile tears for 45 minutes. But it is every day in the Trump era that the GOP cynically bolsters the white male persecution complex that helped give an unqualified, white supremacist-coddling sexual assaulter the nuclear codes. So, perhaps we should have expected judge Brett Kavanaugh’s tirade during Thursday’s confirmation hearing — his emotional rambling may have been less a meltdown than a cynical attempt to gin up the same disaffected male animus that plays extremely well to the GOP’s current base.
That was Sen. Lindsey Graham’s strategy when he opened his speech during Friday’s vote with this gem: “I’m a single white male from South Carolina, and I’m told I should shut up, but I will not shut up.” This false premise that white men, even powerful politicians, are the only truly oppressed group is a key tenet of anti-feminist backlash.
Stoking this backlash was a coordinated goal beneath the desperate, angry showboating of Republican judiciary members determined to ensure that multiple, credible sex crime allegations should not be enough to deny a “good man” a lifetime of power to affect countless areas of life for millions of Americans for the next 40 to 50 years. We’ll discuss these withering patriarchs’ efforts to stave off the glimmers of a new feminist world order in a bit. First, let’s consider the nominee’s off-kilter performance.
It should shock precisely no one that — like every bro dominating a meeting to drown out women’s voices — the judge took a disrespectfully excessive amount of time for his opening rant. He shouted and wept about beer, weightlifting and his “good name” for approximately 2.5 times as long as it took for Dr. Christine Blasey Ford to testify, her voice catching, that it was Kavanaugh who drunkenly pinned her to a bed when she was 15, groped her, and tried to remove her clothes. Details like Kavanaugh’s hand covering her mouth to silence her screams, leaving her terrified he might accidentally kill her, were “seared into my memory,” she said. She responded to insulting questions with grace, stating clearly that she is not “mixed up,” as Senator Orrin Hatch had previously described her, not confusing him with some sort of rapist doppelgänger, not mistaken about who held her down against her will all those years ago. That she is “100 percent” certain it was Brett because she knew him. Drawing on her expertise as an accomplished research psychologist, she explained to Sen. Dianne Feinstein that her certainty comes from “basic memory functions” that occur during “the trauma-related experience” when norepinephrine and epinephrine flood the brain, “encod[ing] memories into the hippocampus.” That, she told Sen. Amy Klobuchar, made it impossible for her to forget “the laughter, the uproarious laughter” Kavanaugh shared at her expense with co-assailant Mark Judge during the assault.
Not afforded the luxury of expressing legitimate anger, Dr. Blasey Ford comported herself with quiet dignity, while sharing the most traumatic moments of her life with the entire world. She described the details of an attack she had always “tried not to think about” or discuss, other than in a couple of therapy sessions “because recounting them caused me to relive the experience, and caused panic and anxiety.” Yet she came forward anyway, her sense of civic duty overriding her need to protect herself from certain retraumatization — even more heroic in light of death threats from strangers and assurances from senators like Lindsey Graham that he’d confirm the nominee no matter what she said because “I’m not going to ruin Judge Kavanaugh’s life over this.” Clinical psychologist Sherry Hamby told the LA Times that Dr. Blasey Ford “gave one of the most credible accounts I have ever heard from a victim.” None of that was enough to convince Senator Hatch, who verbally ogled her while refusing to call her credible, saying: “She’s a good witness. Articulate. She’s an attractive person.”
In contrast, Kavanaugh’s irate display served up the exact flavor of belligerence, entitlement and self-pity that perpetrators of sexual violence nearly always express when they’re finally held accountable. They lie, as Kavanaugh did repeatedly under oath (for example, claiming childhood friend Leland Keyser says the incident never happened, despite Keyser stating publicly that she doesn’t remember the party but she believes he assaulted Blasey Ford). They prevaricate (he didn’t write “failed at raping” in his desk calendar, so she must be lying!). They dodge (Kavanaugh cut off senators and filibustered with irrelevant self-flattery to run down their clocks). They wallow in their own supposed victimhood (“My family and my name have been totally and permanently destroyed” because of “Revenge on behalf of the Clintons,” so *sniff* “I may never be able to coach [girls’ basketball] again!”). They go on the offensive (I’m not the blackout drunk, Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s the blackout drunk! But also, beer! I like beer! Lots of beer. Did I mention I like beer?).
Kavanaugh’s flailing poor me! screw you! performance is completely consistent with the scientifically documented Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender script of sexual abusers illuminated in a 2017 psychological study, Perpetrator Responses to Victim Confrontation: DARVO and Victim Self-Blame. Science aside, if this privileged, upper-middle-class white-boy-turned-judge hoped to prove to America that he wasn’t a smug, entitled jerk in high school and college, acting like a smug, entitled jerk during his confirmation hearing was a tactical fail. The only way he could’ve come off as more of a frat boy caricature is if he’d worn Pinto’s Animal House toga. (Try to picture any woman, or any man of color, behaving as Kavanaugh did during confirmation hearing for any position and being embraced by the Senate. I’ll wait…. )
When Sexual Violence Isn’t Disqualifying “Even if It’s All True”
The credibility gulf between Dr. Blasey Ford’s devastating testimony and Kavanaugh’s provable lies, her composed temperament and his obvious instability, didn’t matter. Nor did the allegation, unexamined during the hearing, that Kavanaugh shoved his penis in Deborah Ramirez’s face and made her touch it while they were both drinking in college. Nor did Julie Swetnick’s sworn statement that she witnessed Kavanaugh and Judge at college parties intentionally spiking punch to incapacitate women for gang rapes, and that the nominee groped women without their consent and was “present” during her own gang rape. (The White House has blocked the FBI from investigating these claims, which were roundly dismissed by Republicans during the hearing as mere partisan smears from “Stormy Daniels’s lawyer.”)
Kavanaugh emerged from the hearing looking guiltier than ever, and his apparent history of sexual violence seemed to make the GOP Judiciary members embrace him more fervently. The motives underneath this empathy for Kavanaugh are frightening. In the days since the allegations first leaked, GOP men fell all over themselves to make male sexual violence in high school seem universal and normative. “If this is the new standard, no one will ever want or be able to serve in government or on the judiciary,” said Ed Rollins, a Trump PAC co-chair, while a lawyer close to the White House told Politico, “If somebody can be brought down by accusations like this, then you, me, every man certainly should be worried.”
It’s the opposite, actually. The reason that most every woman you know has been one minute away from erupting in rage and/or bursting into tears this week is because our leaders are fighting with everything they have to convince Americans that “accusations like this” should not be enough to take down — or protect us from — a probable assaulter from curtailing our rights for the rest of many of our lifetimes.
Sens. Chuck Grassley, Hatch, Graham and their fellow GOP Judiciary members paid lip service to the idea that Blasey Ford should be treated with “respect” (by which they meant civil language prettying up structural discrimination) because she was probably assaulted (by some theoretical rapist, somewhere, sometime, anyone other than who she remembers). Yet by the end of the day they were pounding their fists, faces scrunched in wrath, apologizing to Kavanaugh for the Democrats’ supposed attempt to “ruin the life” of a fine, upstanding man in what Sen. Ted Cruz called a “shameful” and “profoundly unfair process.” Sen. John Cornyn applauded the judge’s temper tantrum, professing “It’s outrageous and you’re right to be angry,” calling the inquiry as outrageous as anything anyone endured under McCarthyism. By the time they successfully voted to advance Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Senate floor, the Republicans had cemented themselves as the saviors of aggrieved white male wrongdoers. With all the truculent outrage they could muster, one after another Republican dinosaur sent a clear message to every current and future female sexual assault survivor: Victims should shut up because even if they’re believed, their perpetrators will be prioritized, praised and promoted anyway, because men deserve power while women and girls deserve pain.
Why would they do this with the contentious midterm elections hanging in the balance? It’s not just that they’re obsessed with controlling the Supreme Court, or that they want the seat to go to a guy who would legally prevent prosecution of the president: They simply don’t seem to believe this strategy is a risk. In an Economist/YouGov poll released the day of the hearing, 55 percent of Republicans said Kavanaugh shouldn’t be disqualified even if he was proven to have attempted to rape Dr. Blasey Ford, and 18 percent were unsure. A mere 27 percent would have a problem with a rapist Supreme Court justice. And in the red states, Republicans like North Dakota Rep. Kevin Kramer are campaigning for Senate by declaring that even if Kavanaugh did what Dr. Blasey Ford said, “Nothing evidently happened in it all … it was supposedly an attempt or something that never went anywhere,” and that “Even if it’s all true” it should not disqualify him from presiding on our nation’s highest court. (As the survivor of an attempted rape in my early twenties who was also told that “nothing really happened” because I got away, here’s a humble message for Rep. Kramer.)
In an asked-and-answered tone on FOX, Ari Fleischer, George W. Bush’s former press secretary, pondered, “High school behavior … should that deny us chances later in life? Even for a Supreme Court job?” The GOP is gambling that Kavanaugh’s “high school behavior” will have no more impact on their political survival than Trump’s “locker room talk” did in 2016. They’re hoping the 53 percent of white women who voted for Trump post-Access Hollywood tape will fall in line even after watching Dr. Blasey Ford’s wrenching testimony and witnessing the compassion and admiration Republicans reserved solely for her unrepentant attacker. But, even more than this, they’re banking on the hope that this blatant show of male dominance and women’s humiliation will be enough to woo back some of those 62 percent of angry white male Trump voters who feel buyer’s remorse after his tax, tariff and health care policies, but still get fired up whenever anyone talks about sticking it to “feminazi bitches.”
Grassley and his withering cadre of bigots and bullies are clear about codifying their core-value hatred of women (along with their racism and homophobia) into public policy for decades to come, a bulwark against changing cultural mores to guarantee that time will never be up for rapists and sexual harassers. That’s why they’re so furiously attempting to give a probable serial perpetrator the ability not only to determine laws concerning women’s reproductive functions but also to decide what kinds of behaviors constitute sexual harassment and assault; to shape the
statute of limitations’ lengths for rape and sexual abuse; to change sentencing guidelines for sexual and domestic abusers (and for police who shoot people of color); to limit or expand the circumstances under which victims can bring charges; to affect victims’ rights in civil cases; and so on.
Since the 1970s, the GOP — including some of the older Republicans on the Judiciary Committee — have been backed by right wing donors, philanthropic foundations, think tanks, activists and conservative media, who have worked in tandem to fund and promote efforts to frame feminism as an unnatural, dangerous project that must be defeated. These are the forces that blocked passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, and are responsible for the United States being one of the only countries in the world to refuse to ratify CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women). They want to take away our birth control, eliminate consequences for those who abuse us, and push American women out of the workforce and into a Handmaid’s Tale-style future of female subjugation.
Under Trump’s GOP, Violence Against Women Is a Feature, Not a Bug
During Trump’s September 26 press conference, the same president who once defended himself from sex crime allegations by calling his accusers too ugly to assault was asked, “Are you saying that all three of those women are liars?” “Yeah,” he blurted, repeating every perpetrator’s refrain: “These are all false to me. These are false accusations.” And then the man who endorsed alleged child abuser Roy Moore and defended spouse abuser Rob Porter bemoaned the “trauma” Democrats inflicted “viciously and violently” on Kavanaugh by asking him about that time he allegedly tried to rape a 15-year-old. Because damage to rich, powerful white men’s reputations is the only “violence” that matters.
If this national travesty proved anything, it’s that to the party of Trump, violence against women — in particular, the control over and denial of women’s humanity that undergirds such abuse — is a feature, not a bug. It’s why Dr. Blasey Ford’s clean polygraph test meant nothing to Grassley & Co., even as they yawned at Kavanaugh’s refusal to take one. It’s why even former “never Trumpers” like Lindsey Graham now genuflect to a multiply accused PussyGrabber-in-Chief who bragged on tape about committing sexual assault. (Graham, perhaps auditioning to be Rod Rosenstein’s replacement, bitterly threatened that the GOP may start intentionally making false rape allegations against Democratic nominees in retaliation for daring to take the Kavanaugh charges seriously.)
Endemic but not limited to Republicans, that same ideology has motivated male politicians, journalists, pundits, clergy and comedians of all political stripes to attack #MeToo as a “witch hunt” that has “gone too far,” while defending convicted perpetrators of sexual violence, from Bill Cosby to Roman Polanski, and notorious serial abusers such as Harvey Weinstein and R. Kelly.
What does Kavanaugh have in common with those abusers? They belligerently proclaimed their innocence, too. Rapists lie. It’s what they do. Yet within this rancid misogynist mindset all men — even habitual liars who seem guilty as hell — are assumed innocent, while survivors are presumed either liars, sluts or both. As Sen. Graham said of Dr. Blasey Ford before the hearing, “People lie all the time…. There are accusations made against men that are not true.” Never mind that data science proves that false rape allegations are exceptionally rare.
This is how “sloppy drunk” Kavanaugh (who seems to have given false testimony under oath in the first portion of his SCOTUS confirmation hearing, likely lied during his original federal confirmation hearing, and offered both substantive and unnecessarily petty deceptions on Thursday) gets to be fawned over as a paragon of honesty and virtue. Meanwhile, Dr. Blasey Ford, Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick have had to endure being labeled “lying skanks,” “con artists,” “mixed up,” and unethically troubled “partisan hacks” by the President, senators, media and right-wing operatives. In Swetnick’s case, not even a sworn deposition from a current US Treasury, Mint and IRS employee with an active security clearance and previous clearances from the State Department, Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security is enough to transcend this duplicitous double standard.
Thomas/Hill 2.0: History Is Not Repeating Itself — It’s Regressing
Last Wednesday, I went to dinner with friends as a distraction from my fury and nausea over the structural injustice built into the hearing before it even began. The human connection helped … until the restaurant played “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow,” sparking an intense recollection of balloons dropping while Bill Clinton won his party’s 1992 presidential nomination. So much for distraction.
I was 17 that summer, still young enough to be pre-disillusioned with Democratic politics. I was excited and relieved as Fleetwood Mac promised “yesterday’s gone,” and that a young, progressive president and feminist first lady could make tomorrow “better than before.” In one month, I’d be legally eligible to vote and I was spitting mad about how the all-male Judiciary Committee, helmed by Sen. Joe Biden and including Grassley and Hatch, had humiliated, slandered and attacked Anita Hill’s veracity and character as a Black woman during Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearing. I was furious about how Thomas implied she was a race traitor; how David Brock branded her “nutty and slutty”; how little powerful white men understood about the nature and prevalence of sexual harassment; and how incredulous they were. Women’s outrage over Thomas’s confirmation sparked 1992’s record-breaking number of women running for and elected to office, dubbed “The Year of The Woman” by patronizing media.
“There is no way to redo 1991, but there are ways to do better,” Anita Hill recently wrote in The New York Times. “The job of the Senate Judiciary Committee is to serve as fact-finders, to better serve the American public.” But unlike the Democrats, whose gender politics (and presence of female politicians) have improved somewhat since 1999, the Republicans have devolved. Back then, their argument was essentially, “Thomas couldn’t possibly have behaved this way, it can’t be true, so let’s destroy Anita Hill.” Today, their argument is “Maybe Kavanaugh’s innocent, but if he did it, who cares? He’s a great guy, it was so long ago, and what high school boy hasn’t tried to rape a girl? Stop demanding accountability for men’s actions!”
Twenty-seven years later, women are running for office in another unprecedented wave, and uncreative media have dusted off “The Year of the Woman” label for 2018. In the age of #MeToo and with the benefit of hindsight, the Senate had a chance to redeem itself with the Kavanaugh hearings. Instead, Grassley and Hatch took their second turn at bat and created Thomas/Hill Redux. Despite robotically repeating PR talking points about “respect” for Dr. Blasey Ford, the Republicans denied her even bare-bones elements present when Anita Hill was subjected to such torment. “The Senate failed Anita Hill. I said I believed her,” Sen. Patrick Leahy said on Friday, “But I’m concerned that we’re doing a lot less for these three women today.” Sen. Corey Booker agreed: “[We] have fallen even far short of what I believed was an inadequate process.”
To advance this toxic premise, the Republicans changed the way such hearings have ever gone before: they hired a “female assistant” sex crimes prosecutor/human shield to grill Blasey Ford as if she were on trial … then didn’t even let her interrogate Kavanaugh, the alleged perpetrator, for more than a couple of minutes. No corroborating witnesses were allowed (mirroring Joe Biden’s refusal to subpoena three women who could confirm Thomas’s inappropriate behavior). They didn’t even ask to hear from Mark Judge, Kavanaugh’s named co-assailant. Grassley’s unwillingness to engage with any actual evidence — no normal FBI investigation, two of three accusers absent, a five-minute cap on questions, no follow-ups — forced the illusion of a “He said, she said” situation in which Kavanaugh was being railroaded rather than protected, the better to seduce their angry male base. Raising a giant middle finger at the #MeToo movement and the decades of progress preceding it, the Republicans made clear which Americans they value, and whose lives they consider expendable.
Before the hearings, American women worried that history would repeat itself. By Friday, we learned that it’s potentially worse than we’d feared: In this arena, practices seem to have regressed. Yesterday’s not gone. Will tomorrow be better than before?
It would be edifying to believe that the GOP’s dangerous wagon circling represents the ferocious death throes of patriarchy. Will we successfully quash the backlash and move forward to a more just future, or will we be right back here in another 27 years, fighting to prevent yet another sexual assaulter from replacing a retiring Justice Sotomayor? Only time will tell. But right now, we have mere days to call Congress, protest, participate in civil disobedience, organize sit-ins and raise holy hell to prevent another perpetrator of sexual violence from rising to the Supreme Court.