Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testified Thursday about allegations dating back to his days as a high schooler. And he really got into the role — in the hearing room he was that arrogant white prep school boy, grounded before Beach Week and fuming. It wasn’t hard to imagine a younger Brett, all prickly entitlement, barking to his parents about the injustice of being told he can’t go boofing on the shore with Squi.
During his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the allegations of sexual assault made against him by Christine Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh harangued the committee in a plaintive squawk. He seemed perpetually on the verge of tears ― especially, for some inscrutable reason, when he lovingly recalled how well-organized his father’s daily calendar was ― yet also incandescent with partisan fury and petulance about the injustice being done to him.
And Republican men, from pundits to the president, apparently reveled in it. Those in the room, such as Sens. Lindsey Graham, Orrin Hatch and Ben Sasse, used their questioning time to apologize fulsomely to the judge and to shout imprecations against government overreach, Democratic perfidy and the great cruelty being done to Kavanaugh by investigating credible assault allegations against him prior to confirming him to a lifetime seat on the highest court in the nation.
Kavanaugh’s testimony stemmed from accusations of a male bonding session gone too far. On Thursday, the nation saw another one, of another kind, in progress.
The torrent of allegations and recollections about Kavanaugh’s high school and college days has been a grim reminder of how cruelly girls and women suffer at the hands of boys and men who bond by laughing at their expense. During Kavanaugh’s testimony, we saw an equally ugly mirror image: men bonding through performative anger and hostility ― again, at the expense of women.
Where Blasey, soft-spoken and gracious, assiduously courted the goodwill of both Republican and Democratic senators ― laughing at their jokes, patiently allowing them to complete questions and graciously asking for clarification when she didn’t understand them, apologizing to them for any inconveniences or misunderstandings ― Kavanaugh burst into his testimony with a pout screwed to his flushed face, the look of a man who has just discovered his S-Class has been keyed. He was ready to brawl ― elementary-schoolyard style, with gratuitous sniffling and eye-rolling. He accused Democrats in his opening statement of executing “a calculated and orchestrated political hit,” perhaps as “revenge on behalf of the Clintons.”
When Democratic senators ― four of them women ― questioned Kavanaugh, his physical reactions were bizarrely juvenile; he squirmed and grimaced and made wounded eyes much like an aggrieved 8-year-old denied a long-awaited trip to Dairy Queen because he shoved his sister. He interrupted their questions to complain, in tones rising nearly to a shout, that these allegations were “sprung” on him at the last minute, or to ask them forlornly if they also liked beer.
In one particularly insolent exchange, he responded to Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s question as to whether he’d ever drunk so much that he couldn’t remember the next day what had happened by turning the question back on her ― twice. Needless to say, whether the Minnesota Democrat has ever been blackout drunk bears no relevance to Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court appointment, nor was it Kavanaugh’s place to ask her questions during the hearing. (After a brief break, having perhaps been informed that the optics on this were spectacularly poor, he reopened the hearing by apologizing to her.)
But Kavanaugh, like Blasey, was courting the goodwill of his audience ― at least of the audience that mattered to him. Where her anger would have irritated and alienated them, his braced them. Robin Lakoff, professor emerita of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, characterized his behavior as “hostile, angry, bullying, uncooperative,” and noted in an email to HuffPost that “when a man, especially a powerful and entitled one, acts that way, it strengthens him in the eyes of many: he’s manly, strong, and credible.”
President Donald Trump, a summa cum laude graduate of this particular school of masculinity, reportedly disliked Kavanaugh’s restrained, anodyne interview Monday on Fox News. The judge’s little-boy-in-a-big-suit tantrum was transparently pitched toward the president, and reports indicate that it worked.
Meanwhile, from the hearing room, the men were whipped into a himpathetic fury. “What you want to do is destroy this guy’s life, hold this seat open and hope you win in 2020,” Graham hissed at his Democratic colleagues, his lip curling in a sneer. “This is the most unethical sham since I’ve been in politics. And if you really wanted to know the truth, you sure as hell wouldn’t have done what you’ve done to this guy.”
“This is worse than Clarence Thomas. I didn’t think it could get any worse than that,” Hatch said to Kavanaugh. “This is a national disgrace, the way you’re being treated.”
It seemed that witnessing visible anger on his behalf from Republican senators was the only thing that could bring Kavanaugh any measure of equanimity. Afterward, he was able to briefly smile or even joke during questioning. Their anger validated his own quivering rage; it clarified his apparent conviction that he is a victim.
“You’re right to be angry,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told Kavanaugh repeatedly during his questioning.
The hearing was a celebration of male anger ― the power of anger to bring men together, to reinforce their certainty about what is owed to them as men and, of course, to sweep women’s anger and pain to the side. Kavanaugh and the Republican senators rarely addressed Blasey or her credibility directly; rather confusingly, the party line was that she, too, was a victim, and that they bore no ill will toward her.
During Blasey’s own testimony, she described in agonizing detail how she recalled Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge laughing as the future judge lay on top of her, covering her mouth with his hand and attempting to wrench off her clothes.
“You’ve never forgotten them laughing at you,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said as he questioned her.
“They were laughing with each other,” she replied, making a precise distinction. “I was underneath one of them while the two laughed. Two friends having a really good time with one another.”
The assault and their laughter were indeed at her expense, but for those two boys, it wasn’t about her. On Thursday, Kavanaugh and the Senate Republicans tried to get righteously angry without attacking a very sympathetic and credible accuser. Instead, they revealed that their anger, like that laughter 36 years ago, isn’t even about her. Like everything else, it’s all about them.