Going Beyond #MeToo: Brett Kavanaugh’s Affected Outrage, Explained

Here is Will Bunch on the Brett Kavanaugh affair:

Make no mistake: This was also a kind of cultural Pearl Harbor, a date — September 27, 2018 — which will live in infamy in the culture wars between a deeply entrenched patriarchy and a rising #MeToo movement of women telling their survivor stories of sexual abuse and harassment. That rising ride encouraged Dr. Ford to come forward with her long-repressed reckoning, and her courage in testifying on Thursday seemed to pay the #MeToo movement back with interest.

I think this is true, and I also think it’s something that Republicans simply don’t get. The surprise victory of an open misogynist like Donald Trump has blinded them to the way an awful lot of women have viewed the past couple of years. For their entire lives they’ve quietly put up with routine sexual abuse—and who knows? Maybe that would have continued, Harvey Weinstein or not. But the Weinstein revelations came just a few months after Republicans nominated a man who not only proudly assaults women but was caught admitting it on a videotape that was played to the whole country on national TV. And they voted for him anyway. Republicans just didn’t care.

Depending on how many people were watching the Kavanaugh hearing and how it plays in the press, it might well be the tipping point for #MeToo that Bunch suggests. I hope so. It’s going to be an ugly tipping point, but there was never any way it would be anything else.

But there’s something else about the Kavanaugh hearing that struck me pretty hard, possibly because I’m 60 years old and I’ve watched it unfold.¹ For starters, it didn’t change my mind. Quite the opposite. I think it’s obvious that Christine Blasey Ford was telling the truth and that Kavanaugh told a lot of lies. This almost certainly means he’s lying about the assault on Ford too. The funny thing is that I’m still willing to give him the benefit of the doubt about what really happened. Like a lot of people, I refer to his actions as “attempted rape,” but there’s a pretty good chance that this wasn’t his intent at all. At the time, he may well have thought of it as nothing more than horseplay, just a bit of fun and games with no intention of ever taking it past that. And intent matters. Being an infantile 17-year-old lout is way different than being a 17-year-old rapist.

But when he was first asked about all this, he panicked and denied everything. He didn’t have to: he could have admitted what happened, apologized, confessed that he never had any idea how badly it had scarred Ford, and then explained that he’d tried to make up for it by being especially sensitive in his hiring and treatment of women ever since. I’m pretty sure that this would have cooled things down pretty quickly. But once he denied the incident entirely, he had no choice but to stick to his story. Everything that’s happened since has hinged on that one rash mistake.

And this is what explains his almost comically angry testimony. He knew he was guilty and he also knew he couldn’t admit that he’d lied about it. But the Republican playbook has a page for this. Even before his appearance, there were news reports about the advice Kavanaugh was getting: he needed to be passionate, angry, and vengeful against the Democrats who plainly orchestrated this entire witch hunt. And that’s what he did. Unlike Ford, his performance was highly rehearsed: his emotional tone was rehearsed; his lines were rehearsed (and then repeated ad nauseam); and more than anything, his angry insistence that he was the victim of a vicious liberal frame-up was rehearsed.

This has been the signature of the conservative movement ever since the start of the Gingrich era: a deep-rooted belief that conservatives are regular victims of liberal cabals who are out to destroy them and everything that America stands for. Sex and gender are at the core of much of this, but it goes beyond that, something that Kavanaugh knows very well. After all, he’s been a movement conservative spear carrier for years: author of the Starr Report; pro bono counsel in the Elián González affair; part of the Bush v. Gore legal team; and then staff secretary in the Bush White House. He knows what animates the base and he’s perfectly willing to play the role of aggrieved victim if that’s what’s called for.

And to me, that was the most striking thing about Kavanaugh’s testimony: it was an over-the-top, nonstop grievance festival:

Since my nomination in July, there’s been a frenzy on the left to come up with something, anything to block my confirmation…. When it was needed, this allegation was unleashed and publicly deployed over Dr. Ford’s wishes…. This whole two-week effort has been a calculated and orchestrated political hit…. pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election….revenge on behalf of the Clintons…. millions of dollars in money from outside left-wing opposition groups.

That was from Kavanaugh’s opening statement. Later, Republicans took his cue and gave speech after speech about the perfidy of Democrats who had planned this entire smear campaign. Lindsey Graham said bitterly that any Republican who voted against Kavanaugh was “legitimizing the most despicable thing I have seen in my time in politics.” Ted Cruz directly blamed the whole affair on deliberate machinations by Dianne Feinstein: “The ranking member had these allegations on July 30th and for 60 days — that was 60 days ago — the ranking member did not refer it to the FBI for an investigation. The ranking member did not refer it to the full committee for an investigation.” John Cornyn said, “I can’t think of a more embarrassing scandal for the United States Senate since the McCarthy hearings.” Thom Tillis was all about the conspiracy theory from the word go: “I believe you’re the first major target of a new strategy that’s developed here….And maybe one of the best evidence of this is one of the websites — one of the groups that are out there, attacking you and trying to create fodder and all of these red herrings, has already acquired a URL for the next judge that they’re going to attack.”

Win Mcnamee/Pool/CNP via ZUMA

This sense of endless victimization by liberals didn’t start with Donald Trump, but it’s no surprise that it’s reached his peak during his presidency. He literally rode conservative victimization to the White House and taught Republicans that it was even more powerful than they thought. Now they’re using it as their best chance of persuading a few lone Republican holdouts to vote for Kavanaugh—not on the merits, but so that Democrats don’t have the satisfaction of seeing their contemptible plot work.

The problem here is not that Republicans were grandstanding over imagined liberal schemes to destroy anyone and anything that gets in the way of their poisonous schemes to crush everything good about America. The problem is that most of it wasn’t grandstanding. Conservatives believe this deeply and angrily. And it explains the lengths Republicans are willing to go to these days—even to the appalling extent of accepting a cretin like Donald Trump as a party leader. If you believe that your political opposites aren’t just opponents, but literally enemies of the country, then of course you’ll do almost anything to stop them. I would too if that’s what I thought.

There are some liberals who do think that—and more and more of them since Donald Trump was elected. But it’s still a relatively small part of the progressive movement. In the conservative movement it’s an animating principle. This is why it so desperately needs to be stopped—not by destroying Republicans, but by voting them out of office. We simply can’t afford to have a major party run for the benefit of fearful whites who are dedicated to a scorched-earth belief that liberals are betraying the nation. It has to end, and Republicans themselves are ultimately the only ones who can end it. We need a real conservative party again.

¹Almost.