The Magical-Thinking Defenses of Brett Kavanaugh

CSI: Beltway. Doppelgängers. Zillow. The theories offered on behalf of the Supreme Court nominee have come to suggest a determined resistance to a changing world.

A photo of Brett Kavanaugh
Andrew Harnik / AP

Early this week, Christine Blasey Ford came forward: She was the woman, the research psychologist said, who had earlier alleged that in 1982, she had attended a house party that had also been attended by the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh; that during the party, Kavanaugh and his friend had corralled her into an empty bedroom; that Kavanaugh had pinned her down on a bed; that he had groped her; that he had tried to remove her clothes; that his fervor had been so violent that she had feared he might inadvertently kill her.

It was a horrific allegation that, filtered and flattened through the cynicisms of the American political system, presented a predicament for Kavanaugh’s supporters, as he adamantly claimed his innocence: How should they respond, in public, to Ford’s own claims? How would they situate her stated memories within the roiling context of #MeToo and due process and the blunt-force demands of partisanship? Should they simply, as they might have done in the past, denigrate Ford as a liar, as an opportunist, as an erotomaniac? Should they delay Kavanaugh’s confirmation vote, to give themselves time to discern the truth of what had taken place, all those years ago? Or should they forge ahead with a previously established timeline, unwavering in their support of the man who would be justice?

Some found a way, it would turn out, to do them all at once. Soon after Ford came forward, so did someone else: Ed Whelan, the president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a former clerk to Antonin Scalia, and the close friend and adviser of Brett Kavanaugh. Whelan hinted, earlier this week, that he had come into possession of evidence that would exonerate his friend (and that would, as a bonus, bring public shame to Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein). On Thursday evening, Whelan made this “evidence” public, via an extended tweetstorm: Kavanaugh could not have done what Ford claimed, Whelan argued, because … someone else had. A lookalike. A doppelgänger.

To make his case, the lawyer tweeted out maps data for, and then floor plans of, the house he concluded might have been the location of Ford’s alleged assault—coupled with images of that home’s interior, lifted from the real-estate website Zillow—to conclude that the doppelgänger might have been the guilty party. Tweet by tweet, as this particular episode of CSI: Beltway wore on, the Twinkie defense gave way to an absurdity fit for 2018: the Zillow defense. And the worst of it was this: Whelan, nothing if not highly specific in his tweetstormed indictment, named the person he claimed was the real culprit in Ford’s alleged assault—a man, now a middle-school teacher, who had been a classmate of Kavanaugh’s at Georgetown Prep. (A man who was, in fact, one of the signatories of the letter a group of those classmates issued last week, defending Kavanaugh’s character.) As specific evidence of the exonerating doppelgängerism, Whelan included pictures of the man in question, placed next to images of Kavanaugh: in high school, and in the present.

Stunningly irresponsible,” CNN’s Jake Tapper put it, in a sentiment that was widely shared. And by Friday morning, Whelan had deleted the tweetstorm and was apologizing—not for the the general claims he had issued out into the atmosphere, but for the specific way they had treated the classmate in question. “I made an appalling and inexcusable mistake of judgment in posting the tweet thread in a way that identified Kavanaugh’s Georgetown Prep classmate,” Whelan tweeted. “I take full responsibility for that mistake, and I deeply apologize for it. I realize that does not undo the mistake.”

In this, he is correct: It does not. Which isn’t to say, however, that Whelan’s “revelations” aren’t, in their own way, revealing—about, in this case, the lengths to which people will go to resist negative assertions made about a powerful man who is currently in the process of seeking more power. About the desperation with which some will find facts that conform to their sense of the world—even when, summoned as arguments, those “facts” are manifestly absurd. About how deeply ingrained the impulse remains, in American culture, to doubt the memories of women, when they conflict with the memories of men.

Call it Occam’s safety razor: Here, the most convoluted answer must be the right one. Whelan’s vigilante forensics were a sweeping attempt to have it both ways—to maintain a world in which a particular approach to politics might peacefully coexist with a widely empathetic approach to morality. To assemble all the Jenga-bricks in such a way that they—delicately—maintain the status of the status quo. Whelan’s argument attempted to clear Brett Kavanaugh’s name by way of, simultaneously, “clearing” Christine Blasey Ford’s: It’s not that she had been lying, Whelan suggested, Google image by Google image. It’s simply that she had been confused. And so the lawyer, on behalf of his friend and on behalf of the world that had elevated him—and, at the same time, on behalf of the woman who had no need of his help—issued a plea in her defense: Mangled memories. Insanity by another means.

For the record: “There is zero chance that I would confuse them,” Ford told The Washington Post, of Kavanaugh and the classmate, adding that she had socialized with the classmate. And, indeed: Believing the doppelgänger defense requires first that one overlook how traumatic recollections seem to work—the way memories formed under the influence of intense emotion tend to be indelible in ways that everyday memories are not. It requires secondly that one assume that Ford, a professor who is an expert about the workings of the human mind, is ignorant about the workings of her own.

Yet Whelan’s has not been the only effort to exonerate Kavanaugh by way of belittling Ford. On Monday, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch floated the idea that Ford had simply been mistaken—“mixed up,” he put it—about the identity of her attacker. (It was later reported that Kavanaugh himself has been authoring his own version of that defense: Earlier this week, The Washington Post wrote, the nominee told Hatch, one of his most vocal supporters, that Ford had the wrong perpetrator in mind.) On Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board proffered a similar version of that defense. “Experts know,” the anonymous body averred, “that human beings can come to believe firmly over the years that something happened when it never did or is based on partial truth. Mistaken identity is also possible.” Later that day, Kathleen Parker, the Washington Post opinion columnist, published an op-ed that put a finer point on the matter. “Is There a Kavanaugh Doppelgänger?” its headline asked. “In a case without evidence, witnesses or corroboration,” Parker wrote, “mistaken identity would provide a welcome resolution to this terrible riddle.”

At issue here, the defenses insist, are those most generalized and relatable and blameless of things: the fickle workings of the human mind. Anyone could be confused, they assure. Who among us wouldn’t—even if, after allegedly spending decades traumatized by the details of a particular moment—be capable of remembering wrong? Brains are mysterious things!

But if the conversation the nation is currently conducting with itself is going to be concerned with the mysteries of the mind, here is another relevant fact: The human brain has developed, over the stretch of time, deeply canny ways of capitulating to its own desires. It wants what it wants, as it were, and that tautology has direct effects on the soft matter that makes us who we are, and makes America what it is: a place where, among other things, conspiracy theories flourish. A place where magical thinking does its thinking at scale. A place that, when she says it happened and he says it did not, so often reacts according to the automations of its impulses: to assume that—all minds being fickle, but some being more fickle than others—it is the she who must be mistaken.