Republican leaders, pretty clearly, were annoyed when sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh emerged but were never seriously troubled by them on the merits.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed to “plow right through” Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were in high school before even listening to any testimony. Soren Midgley of the Federalist put it even more bluntly, publishing a story Tuesday morning titled, “Why Brett Kavanaugh should be confirmed to the Supreme Court even if he’s guilty.”
And with the exception of Lisa Murkowski, the entire Republican Party has agreed to go forward with Kavanaugh’s confirmation without much more than a cursory effort to consider the charges against him. At the end of the day, they like Kavanaugh and simply don’t care about Ford’s charges except as a political inconvenience.
Ford recalls that some time in the summer of 1982 (subsequent documentary evidence suggests July 1 as the most likely date), Brett Kavanaugh, along with his friend Mark Judge, cornered her in an upstairs bedroom of a center-split Cape Cod-style house in Montgomery County, Maryland, locked the door, and attempted to have his way with her — going so far as to put his hand over her mouth to silence her cries for help — before he drunkenly let her slip away.
Kavanaugh says this did not happen. But recognizing that Ford has no earthly reason to lie about this, Republicans are mostly coalescing around the idea that she is perhaps honestly misremembering. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) said during the hearing: “I think Dr. Ford is a victim, and I think she’s been through hell and I’m very sympathetic to her.” He just thinks she’s somehow gotten mixed up.
But human beings are exceptionally good at recalling the faces of people they know and the central elements of traumatic events. To the extent that faulty memory is an issue, it’s much more likely that Kavanaugh at least temporarily forgot about what would have been to him a not-particularly-noteworthy experience that happened to coincide with one of his seemingly frequent bouts of heavy drinking.
While most high school seniors do not drink heavily (even in the considerably boozier 1980s), it’s of course not exactly a rare occurrence for an 18-year-old. And in a stroke of bad luck for Kavanaugh, the drunken antics of his social circle happen to be recounted in two books Judge wrote: Wasted: Tales of a GenX Drunk, and God and Man at Georgetown Prep. And they’re documented in surprising detail on Kavanaugh’s own yearbook page.
This meant he’s had to get out from under the fairly clear reality that he got blitzed, did exactly what Ford said, perhaps forgot all about it, and then had it unexpectedly threaten to derail his career ambition. So he did exactly what he did during his 2004 confirmation hearings: He offered a range of false and misleading testimony to Congress about his drinking habits.
Some of his current contentions about booze are clearly untrue (that he was of legal drinking age in Maryland as a senior), disingenuous (that he and his friends referring to themselves as “Renate Alumni” was a gesture of friendship, not a smear on the name of fellow high schooler Renate Schroeder), or simply risible (that admission to Yale Law School proves he wasn’t much of a partier).
On its face, his nomination should have died at the end of his testimony. But it didn’t, in part because of blind partisanship, but more importantly because of what was revealed in an NPR/Marist poll taken before he testified: 54 percent of Republicans believe Kavanaugh should be confirmed whether or not he is guilty of the sexual assault allegations against him.
Neither Kavanaugh himself nor the senators on the Judiciary Committee have pressed this argument squarely. But it’s pretty clear that a key driver of pro-Kavanaugh sentiment from the grassroots to the White House and, likely, to Kavanaugh himself is simply a conviction that what Ford said he did is not seriously wrong.
Conservative pundits keep defending what Kavanaugh won’t admit
Mollie Hemingway, a writer with the Federalist, one of the media outlets most in line with the spirit of Trump-era conservatism, offered a bon mot over the weekend that made it clear she believes Kavanaugh stands accused of nothing more than what you’d expect from any red-blooded American man in a social situation.
Alert to Senate Democrats: dude here at the bar appears to be making a move on the attractive lady he’s here with. Should I alert FBI?— Mollie (@MZHemingway) September 29, 2018
Rod Dreher, a conservative pundit deeply inflected by social conservatism, concedes that it is “loutish” to trap a woman in the bedroom of a spare house and try to tear her clothes off, but observes that lots of people do loutish things as teenagers only to mature later.
I do not understand why the loutish drunken behavior of a 17 year old high school boy has anything to tell us about the character of a 53 year old judge. By God’s grace (literally), I am not the same person I was at 17. This is a terrible standard to establish in public life.— Rod Dreher (@roddreher) September 17, 2018
Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND), currently a candidate for US Senate, is one of the few elected officials to actually say what conservatives largely seem to think about this: that since Ford got away, it’s essentially a “no harm, no foul” situation.
Republican Congressman Kevin Cramer, the U.S. senate nominee in North Dakota called the Kavanaugh accusation "absurd" today because they were drunk and assault attempt "never went anywhere." @CNNPolitics https://t.co/jc48DOKb6w— andrew kaczynski (@KFILE) September 21, 2018
The very first weekend the allegations aired, CNN ran a telling segment featuring Republican Party activists from South Florida who simultaneously maintained that Ford’s accusations were an outrageous smear campaign and that Kavanaugh is merely accused of doing things that every boy does.
Being less professionally trained than the 11 men of the Senate GOP Judiciary Committee, these women give voice to the shadow argument that Republican professionals don’t want to make: The outrageous slander isn’t to say that Kavanaugh did what Ford says he did; it’s to say that what Kavanaugh did was wrong.
America’s formal norms around consent have changed
As Vox’s Constance Grady’s brilliant deconstruction of rape culture in the 1980s film 16 Candles shows, the social mores that prevailed when Kavanaugh and Ford were young were very different from the overt message about consent that prevails in America today. And while 16 Candles is an unusually noteworthy example because its primary intended audience is specifically young women, cinema of the late 1970s and early ’80s simply abounds with relevant examples:
- In Revenge of the Nerds, one of the protagonists tricks a woman into having sex with him by disguising himself as her boyfriend.
- In Rocky, Rocky and Adrian’s first date ends with her repeatedly saying she wants to leave his apartment and him blocking her exit before kissing her.
- A similar scene plays out in Blade Runner, with Deckard physically preventing Rachael from leaving his apartment before kissing her.
Critically, even though all these films are depicting what we would today call rape or sexual assault, it’s very clear from the context of the movies that, in the fiction, the men are not doing anything wrong. These assaults are conducted by heroic protagonists that the audience is supposed to identify with.
There is real moral ambiguity in some of these movies (about Deckard’s work, for example) but there’s no ambiguity about taking advantage of a drunk girl (it’s her fault) or using a little light force as part of a seduction strategy (it’ll probably work and end up with her glad you did it).
You just wouldn’t make scenes like that in today’s films, especially given that in almost every case, their construction — and at times, their presence at all — is largely incidental to the main story.
But it’s obvious that the large change in official norms about consent overstates the amount of actual change on the ground. Sexual assaults remain frequent and remain infrequently reported, since the mechanics of both the legal system and corporate HR departments remain fundamentally unequipped to enforce contemporary views about consent.
And, critically, most of the people who made and watched those old ’70s and ’80s movies and found their depiction of sex and consent appropriate are still around and running most of America’s institutions. The Kavanaugh nomination, but also the broader #MeToo movement, is fundamentally about whether America means what it now says about consent.
Will America enforce its new rules?
There’s a concept in the social science of political revolutions known as the “revolution of rising expectations.” It describes a scenario in which people rise up against the powers that be not necessarily because conditions are getting worse, but because earlier events led to the expectation of rapid improvement that has not come to pass.
One way to think about the emergence of #MeToo over the past several years is as precisely such a revolution. A cohort of women raised to expect something better than 16 Candles treatment is challenging America to live up to its currently stated norms and values. But after a couple of instances in which investigative reporting brought to light previously unknown facts followed by swift justice, it’s become clear that an entrenched culture of “himpathy” presents a powerful challenge to that revolution.
On one level, Ford’s critics are doubting her story. But they actually all agree that her testimony seemed heartfelt and sincere and that she has no conceivable motive to lie. The doppelgänger theory of the case is fairly ridiculous — especially since there is no evidence of the existence of any such doppelgänger. But it seems like a more politically palatable thing to say than for Senate Republicans to simply shrug their shoulders and say, “Who cares?”
But we really should care. Slogans about believing victims aren’t just about believing factual recountings of past events. It’s about believing victims when they tell you that their experiences were a big deal and did lasting damage to their well-being. And seeing Kavanaugh face consequences for his actions would send a powerful message to young men — something that conservatives openly acknowledge but see as a bad thing rather than a good thing.
As the father of a son, I’d like my boy to grow up in a country that sends a clear and unambiguous message about consent and that delivers real consequences to people who unapologetically violate the terms of the deal. That’s how people learn right from wrong and can come up asking appropriate questions about affirmative consent, self-control, honesty, alcohol, and all the rest.
Republican senators were obviously impressed by the sincerity of Kavanaugh’s outrage at hearings last week. And he really did seem to be very sincerely outraged. But the pairing of absolute sincerity with multiple clear instances of dishonesty is in fact the scariest thing of all.
He’s not telling the truth about his conduct as a student in high school and college, but he’s totally sincere in his conviction that he did nothing wrong, and genuinely indignant that people would think to hold a powerful person accountable for mistreating girls 35 years ago.
And on some level, I suppose I can even sympathize — it has not, in fact, been standard practice to hold men accountable for sexually assaulting women, and I can see why it could feel unfair to be punished for something that so many other people have gotten away with.
But if change is going to happen, it needs to start somewhere. And Kavanaugh’s decision to handle these allegations from day one with angry denials and weird dissembling rather than an apology and a plea for mercy makes this an excellent place to start.