Friday morning, during a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee Committee on Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said probably the most honest thing about this hearing that a Republican has said during the entire process.
“I’m a single white male from South Carolina, and I’m told I should just shut up, but I will not shut up,” Graham said.
Graham is elevating the stakes of the Kavanaugh hearing. No longer is this about Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, or what he may have done to her in suburban Maryland in 1982. It’s about beating back the challenge from feminists and people of color demanding a seat at the table; it is about showing that white men in power are not going anywhere — that they will not listen, will not budge, and will not give ground to #MeToo or the Black Lives Matter movement.
This was always the subtext of the Republican approach to the sexual assault allegations. But now Graham has officially made it the text: Voting “yes” on Kavanaugh is the battle cry of the reactionary man.
Lindsey Graham, Donald Trump, and backlash politics
Donald Trump’s 2016 election is now widely understood among social scientists to be a kind of backlash to social progress. The backlash against a black president gets the bulk of the attention, but there’s also good evidence that a sexist backlash to the prospect of a woman president played a major role.
Research by three political scientists — Brian Schaffner, Matthew MacWilliams, and Tatishe Nteta — found extremely strong correlations between an individual’s scores on measures designed to estimate racist and sexist sentiments and their likelihood of supporting Trump:
There is not a single, discrete backlash in the United States in the Trump era. There’s a more wholesale one, directed not just against racial minorities but decades of social progress for all sorts of different marginalized groups. Trump is a living, breathing avatar of this kind of politics. But at the outset of his presidency, it was an open question as to how far Republican members of Congress would be willing to buttress the president on these points.
Graham just showed that he’s pretty willing indeed.
The specific language that he used — “I’m a single white male from South Carolina, and I’m told I’m just supposed to shut up” — is a direct reference to one of the core arguments used by feminists and social justice activists: that white men in positions of privilege don’t have direct experiences with hostile sexism or racism, and should listen to the people who have.
Graham is saying he cannot, and will not, listen: He will vote for Kavanaugh regardless of what Ford said, and will defend him in the face of any criticism about the gender and power dynamics at work.
“I will not shut up” is a perfect mantra for Trumpian backlash politics. There is no risk that white men are, en masse, going to be silenced: They occupy the commanding heights of power in every walk of American life. The demands that they be quiet at times are a response to the overrepresentation of their voices, that they understand what life is like for more vulnerable people and then change the way they act accordingly.
But Graham is not willing to give even that little ground. His rage on this point, one shared by Trump’s base, has been palpable throughout this process. During Thursday’s hearing, he interrupted Rachel Mitchell, the sex crimes prosecutor that Republicans had deputized to ask questions during the hearing, to deliver a furious rant in defense of Kavanaugh.
“To my Republican colleagues, if you vote no, you’re legitimizing the most despicable thing I have seen in my time in politics,” Graham said during Thursday’s hearing.
After Graham spoke, Mitchell was denied a single additional question. The Republicans on the committee, all white men, took turns apologizing to Kavanaugh for what he had gone through.
The literal silencing of Mitchell, and the stolid refusal to credit Ford’s account of Kavanaugh’s behavior, shows just how much contempt the modern Republican Party has for the idea of taking women’s equality seriously. The Kavanaugh confirmation has been a defiant attempt to show that #MeToo does not speak for the country, and a declaration that the white men the movement has targeted will not back down.
There is no better epitaph for this whole sorry episode than a white man from South Carolina saying he will not shut up.