“You sowed the wind for decades to come,” Brett Kavanaugh warned Senate Democrats during Thursday’s hearing on the sexual assault allegations made by Christine Blasey Ford. “I fear that the whole country will reap the whirlwinds.”
It wasn’t the only threat he leveled at Democrats and the American people on Thursday. He and some Senate Republicans — most notably Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) — cast the proceedings as a hit job by Senate Democrats in which Ford was little more than a pawn. If the tactic worked, they warned, then anyone and everyone in America would be vulnerable to accusations of sexual misconduct. The American people, they hinted darkly, would pay the price for Democrats’ behavior.
The message of Kavanaugh’s threats was clear: If he wasn’t safe, then no one was.
That message comes from a place of deep privilege. While women have never been safe when coming forward to report sexual misconduct, men like Kavanaugh — white, educated in the country’s most prestigious schools, groomed through high-profile jobs — have long been able to glide smoothly to the highest levels of our government and other arenas of power.
That may still be true; the Senate Judiciary Committee is set to vote on Kavanaugh’s confirmation on Friday. But increasingly, these men are not safe from the testimony of women who come forward to share their stories.
Many observers have remarked on Kavanaugh’s anger during Thursday’s hearing. But his shouts and threatening words may have revealed something else: the fear of a man whose rise to power has been interrupted — even if only briefly — by a woman.
If Kavanaugh is confirmed to a lifetime seat on the Supreme Court, Ford’s might be the last interruption he faces. But she won’t be the last woman to speak up about her trauma, and her courage may pave the way for others. No matter what happens with Kavanaugh’s confirmation, powerful people who sexually harass or assault others are a little less safe than they once were.
Kavanaugh and his supporters aimed to frighten the American people on Thursday with threats about what will happen if Ford’s allegations are taken seriously. But maybe they’re the ones who are afraid.
Kavanaugh and his supporters threatened the American people: if he’s not safe, they implied, no one is
Kavanaugh’s larger argument during his tearful and angry opening statement on Thursday was that due to the allegations against him, anyone who tried to serve in public life would be vulnerable to smears and intimidation.
“The consequences will be with us for decades,” he said. “This grotesque and coordinated character assassination will dissuade confident and good people of all political persuasions from serving our country. And as we all know in the United States political system of the early 2000s, what goes around comes around.”
He even hinted that the loved ones of those present at the hearing could be next to be accused.
“If the mere allegation, the mere assertion of an allegation, a refuted allegation from 36 years ago is enough to destroy a person’s life and career, we will have abandoned the basic principles of fairness and due process that define our legal system and our country,” he said.
“I ask you to judge me by the standard that you would want applied to your father, your husband, your brother, or your son.”
To some degree, Kavanaugh’s threats sounded vindictive — if he couldn’t have a Supreme Court seat without an inquiry into his past, he implied, then no one else should either. But in another way, the threats signaled outrage that he, Brett Kavanaugh, could be accused of sexual misconduct.
“Throughout my 53 years and seven months on this earth until last week, no one ever accused me of any kind of sexual misconduct,” he told the Judiciary Committee on Thursday. “A lifetime of public service and a lifetime of high-profile public service at the highest levels of American government. And never a hint of anything of this kind.”
Graham articulated the message more clearly, setting the tone for the rest of the hearing to follow. Shouting and scornful, he heaped opprobrium on Democrats: “Boy, you all want power. God, I hope you never get it.”
At times seeming to forget Ford existed, he expressed his outrage at what Kavanaugh had been through.
“This is hell,” he proclaimed. “This is going to destroy the ability of good people to come forward because of this crap.”
“His integrity is absolutely unquestioned,” Graham said of Kavanaugh, noting that the American Bar Association had given him the “gold standard.” “He is the very circumspect in his personal conduct, harbors no biases or prejudices. Entirely ethical. Is a really decent person. Is warm, friendly, unassuming. He’s the nicest person.”
Of course, the version of Kavanaugh that Graham put forth is not the one Ford, Deborah Ramirez, Julie Swetnick, or some former classmates at Georgetown Preparatory School and Yale University say they knew. And the American Bar Association has called for a delay of Friday’s committee vote on Kavanaugh so that the FBI can investigate the allegations against him. But to Graham, Kavanaugh’s record in public life, as well as his reputation (“the nicest person”), means he deserves to serve on the highest court in the country.
“I hope you’re on the Supreme Court,” Graham said. “That’s exactly where you should be.”
That word, “should,” is key. For Graham, Kavanaugh deserves to be on the Supreme Court. The hearing Thursday wasn’t appropriate scrutiny directed at a man about to get a permanent job making life-or-death decisions for all Americans. It was an effort to take away from Brett Kavanaugh something America owes him.
The threats by Kavanaugh and Graham come from a place of privilege
Key to the threats from both Kavanaugh and Graham was the idea of safety. Someone like Kavanaugh — “the nicest person,” in Graham’s words — should be safe from allegations of sexual misconduct. If he isn’t safe, Kavanaugh and Graham implied, no one else is either.
This is a misrepresentation of how sexual misconduct works. Someone who is nice, who is friendly, even who is ethical in other areas of life, is still capable of committing sexual harassment or assault.
But more than that, the suggestion that Brett Kavanaugh in particular should be safe from sexual assault allegations was a perfect example of privilege at work. The implication of Graham’s remarks was that the American people essentially owed Kavanaugh a Supreme Court seat, and that the allegations by Ford and others were an unjust attempt to take it away from him.
This attitude has come forward in other public defenses of Kavanaugh as well.
“President Trump has nominated a stunningly successful individual,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said last week. “You’ve watched the fight, you’ve watched the tactics, but here’s what I want to tell you: In the very near future, Judge Kavanaugh will be on the United States Supreme Court.”
In the words of his defenders, Kavanaugh is “stunningly successful.” He’s nice, he’s friendly, he has (or once had) a stamp of approval from the American Bar Association, he has the right background and has held the right jobs. It’s time for him to serve on the Supreme Court. Anything that stands in his way is an outrage.
Brett Kavanaugh is a white man who went to a prestigious prep school and a prestigious university. He was a fraternity brother and a football player. He served as a White House lawyer and a federal judge. Now it’s time for him to be on the Supreme Court. For those in power in American society, that’s just how these things work.
Many have already offered wise analysis about Kavanaugh’s anger in Thursday’s hearing, about the power of rage “to bring men together, to reinforce their certainty about what is owed to them as men,” and about the judge’s testimony as a performance for Fox News viewers. And Clarence Thomas gave an angry statement to the Judiciary Committee in 1991 — and was confirmed soon after. But there’s another way to see the anger of Brett Kavanaugh, in particular: as the reaction of a man who had presumed his success assured, and then had to face the possibility that it might be taken away.
Kavanaugh probably doesn’t need to worry. Odds are still good that the Senate will vote to confirm him. But he and his supporters have glimpsed something real about this moment in history: Even the most privileged men in our country now have to answer for sexual misconduct allegations. The allegations may not be enough to change their trajectories, but more than ever, women feel able to speak, even if the man in question is in the running for one of the highest offices in the country.
As we saw in public reactions to Christine Ford’s testimony, those women are still vulnerable to shaming, smearing, and abuse. Unlike Kavanaugh, they’ve never been safe. But in the #MeToo era, more and more Americans are willing to support and believe them.
Someone like Kavanaugh, a nice guy with every one of American society’s advantages, isn’t safe anymore — he’s no longer safe from women who might come forward with their own stories to tell. Maybe what we heard on Thursday wasn’t just anger. Maybe it was fear.