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Brett Kavanaugh’s angry testimony made him sound like a Fox News host

Kavanaugh didn’t need to impress the public at large. He had a much smaller audience in mind.

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh
Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Andrew Harnik/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

I didn’t watch all of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in which Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s latest nominee for the Supreme Court, defended himself against accusations of sexual assault brought by Christine Blasey Ford.

But with every moment I saw of Kavanaugh’s angry opening statement, of him shouting at Democratic senators, of his generally loud blast of self-defense, I had a distinct feeling: I know what this is. I’ve seen this on TV.

The impassioned, overly emotional cry of a man who’s not used to being questioned as he’s pushed on something he never even imagined would be used against him? It was an all-too-familiar cadence.

It took me a second to figure out why Kavanaugh sounded so familiar: It was because Fox News — the 24-hour news network I watch more than any other, both because I’m writing something about it and because I find it endlessly fascinating — is a constant dress rehearsal of tomorrow’s talking points today.

So when many of my fellow left-leaning social media participants took Kavanaugh’s loud and angry testimony as a sign that he had let emotion get the better of him — in contrast with the much more restrained Ford — the assumption was that he and the Republican Party had played themselves. And to be clear, I don’t imagine that Kavanaugh’s testimony will play well with the general public, which (polling suggests) is already skeptical of the guy.

But the important thing to remember is that Kavanaugh’s performance wasn’t aimed at me or anybody else who’s not already ensconced in the right-wing bubble. It was for Fox News viewers, and in that regard, it was a home run. Because one of Fox News’s most devoted fans sits in the Oval Office.

The right wing under Donald Trump is an endless stream of inchoate rage at everything imaginable. But Trump didn’t invent that.

George W. Bush
George W. Bush made his redemption narrative a big part of his run for president.
David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

Since the allegations against Kavanaugh were made public, I’ve wondered why, if they’re true, he didn’t just admit that he drank heavily in high school and did things he wasn’t proud of, or something similar. Such an admission wouldn’t excuse sexual assault — in my mind, it would actually disqualify him from sitting on the Supreme Court.

But I don’t get to vote on his confirmation, and I find it eminently plausible that if Kavanaugh had owned up and pleaded that it was a long time ago, he easily could have earned just enough votes to get through.

Indeed, we don’t have to look back all that far in history to find an example of a Republican who did just that. The youthful, alcohol-fueled exploits of George W. Bush, America’s 43rd president, didn’t extend to sexual assault allegations (so far as we’ve heard), but they did involve drunk driving and youthful jackassery and so on.

What’s easy to forget, due to Bush’s tendency to not admit mistakes while he was in office, was that much of what propelled him to first the Republican nomination and then the presidency in 2000 was his ability to confess to wrongdoing in his past, beg for forgiveness, and seek redemption. Performative atonement was a big part of Bush’s appeal to evangelical Christians, who have always loved narratives of people who sin and then have their lives turned around by God. (Convicted Watergate conspirator Chuck Colson is a good example of this; he became a big figure in evangelical circles after turning toward Christ while in prison.)

But something has changed in the larger right-wing sphere, and it changed during the eight years of Bush’s presidency. Today, admitting to wrongdoing or even having second thoughts about something is seen as a weakness worth of punishment. And the default posture of many prominent conservative figures — including Trump and Kavanaugh, apparently — is that of a constantly aggrieved piety. They are right; you, no matter how much evidence you have, are wrong, and honestly, how dare you.

Night after night, this dynamic plays out on Fox News, especially on Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity’s respective shows. But there, the hosts control the game by immediately tilting their guests off-balance. You might be brought in to do a segment on some left-leaning issue with the impression that you’ll be defending the progressive position, only to end up talking about some other story entirely, with just a tangential connection to the news, designed to make Carlson or Hannity look like the justifiably angry but ultimately sane voice in the wilderness.

Reality obviously doesn’t play by these rules. But the tone that defines them — a high dudgeon meant to suggest not just righteousness but moral spotlessness — carries throughout almost everything influential Republicans do. It’s the voice Ted Cruz speaks in, though he’s a bit nerdier about it, and it’s absolutely core to Trump’s appeal. He’s so used to having privilege, to being told he’s right, that it never occurs to him when he’s wrong.

Fox News didn’t invent this strategy — it’s been a fixture of right-wing media for half a century, and Fox News’s version of it, specifically, grew out of talk radio — but the network did perfect it, and made it the oxygen that many of America’s Republican politicians and voters breathe. And it’s easy to see why.

It’s intoxicating to live in a world where you’re never wrong, where you don’t have to question the way the world is changing or how you might have to change to fit in. When all you have to do is be outraged at the fact of change itself, well, it’s a lot harder to step outside of your superior status. To do so is to show weakness.

In the case of Kavanaugh, I’m genuinely curious as to how everything will play out. He might have impressed the president with his performance (and Trump insists the Senate must vote on him). But did he impress the handful of shaky Republican senators he needs to win over, figures like Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski? I’m just cynical enough to think that, yes, they will vote to confirm him. He performed in the way their constituents — and their president — are used to supporting, and the long-held Republican dream of a lockstep conservative majority on the Supreme Court will be too hard to pass up.

To me, that’s a huge strategic mistake, a misreading of a moment in history when the ways that women have been systematically abused, assaulted, and denied their rights are increasingly being dragged out into the sunlight. But when your base is constantly exposed to the idea that questioning long-established institutions is, in and of itself, an unacceptable overreach by the liberal elites — because after all, they never hear evidence to the contrary — well, maybe they don’t want nuance. Maybe they just want a guy who yells a lot, a guy who “fights,” even if what he’s fighting for is to further entrench a cruel status quo.