a bottle of beer with Brett Kavanaugh's face on the label
Andrew Harnik / Reuters / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

The Pernicious Double Standards Around Brett Kavanaugh’s Drinking

Thursday’s Senate hearing served as a reminder of the blithe impunity afforded to those privileged enough to have whole systems invested in their success.

On Thursday, the testimony delivered by Brett Kavanaugh to the Senate Judiciary Committee took a turn that was at once unexpected and, the past week being what it has been, deeply predictable: Sheldon Whitehouse, the senator from Rhode Island, used a portion of his allotted questioning time to ask the Supreme Court nominee about the definition of the “devil’s triangle.” For most Americans who came of age in the same rough decades as Brett Kavanaugh, the term—included, along with his self-identification as a “Renate Alumnius” and references to kegs and ralphing and boofing, on Kavanaugh’s yearbook page—would seem an obvious reference to a sexual act. Kavanaugh, however, told the committee that his definition of the term was different. “Devil’s triangle,” he insisted, was merely a drinking game.

“Three glasses in a triangle,” Kavanaugh said. Like quarters.

If “devil’s triangle” is a game that, indeed, involves bouncing coins into cups, there was, as of Thursday afternoon, seemingly no evidence of this on the internet, when people watching Kavanaugh’s hearing, inevitably, checked. No evidence, that is, until shortly after Kavanaugh testified as to his personalized definition of the term. At that point, congress-edits, the Twitter bot that tracks updates made to Wikipedia pages from congressional IP addresses, recorded a change made to the entry for “Devil’s Triangle”: “‘Devil’s Triangle’: a popular drinking game enjoyed by friends of Judge Brett Kavanaugh.”

The edit might have been a clumsy joke; it might have been a flimsy attempt to corroborate an explanation of things that, in the context of the rest of Kavanaugh’s sex-suggestive and booze-bragging yearbook page, would seem to defy common sense. Either way, it was fitting: Thursday’s hearing, in its assorted grotesqueries, was its own kind of clumsy joke, precisely because of its transparent display of reason-defying entitlement. The event—the raw but measured testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, followed by the rage-fueled indignations of Brett Kavanaugh—was a testament to the corroborative effects of power: the ease with which those who edit entries and chair committees and run countries can rearrange the facts of the world until they conform to, and allegedly confirm, the tales told by the powerful.

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Over the course of the past week, the story that had previously been put forth about the character of Brett Kavanaugh—the carpools and the service projects and the generous mentorship of “Coach K”—has required a necessary addendum: Even a Washington Examiner op-ed conceded that “the Senate Judiciary Committee is witnessing a very different Kavanaugh than the nominee who came before them two weeks ago.” The choir boy, the carefully crafted mythology soon had to allow, is also the frat guy—and the latter guy, Kavanaugh said repeatedly on Thursday, really likes drinking. Not just as an activity but also, it seems, as a core element of his very identity. Drinking as brotherhood. Drinking as belonging. Drinking as dispensation. The young man gets, apparently as a matter of habit, “stumbling drunk,” and “sloppy drunk,” and “incoherently drunk,” and slurringly drunk, and foolishly drunk, and aggressively drunk, and belligerently drunk, and the environment itself, smiling benevolently at his antics, wraps him in its warm protections. Too much has been invested in you, the world whispers to Brett Kavanaugh; I will keep you safe.

Here is an exchange, from Kavanaugh’s testimony on Thursday, between the Supreme Court nominee and Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota—in which the senator tested the theory that Kavanaugh in fact did what Christine Blasey Ford accused him of doing, but, being drunk as he did it, simply did not remember:

Klobuchar: “You’re saying there’s never been a case where you drank so much that you didn’t remember what happened the night before or part of what happened?”

Kavanaugh: “If you’re asking about blackout, I don’t know—have you?”

Klobuchar: “Could you answer the question, judge? ... So, that’s not what happened, is that your answer?”

Kavanaugh: “Yeah, and I’m curious if you have.”

Klobuchar: “I have no drinking problem, judge.”

Kavanaugh: “Nor do I.”

In the course of their conversation, Klobuchar had mentioned that her father battles alcoholism; he still attends AA meetings, she said. Because of that, Kavanaugh, perhaps because he felt bad or perhaps because he’d received some good advice, later apologized for his comments; she tersely accepted. What’s notable in the exchange, though, isn’t simply the I’m-rubber-you’re-glue defense, articulated by a person seeking a seat on a body that claims to value dispassionate reason above all; it’s also how deeply personally Kavanaugh takes Klobuchar’s question in the first place. Her query, after all— given Ford’s long-standing claim that Kavanaugh had been “stumbling drunk” when the alleged attack occurred, and given Kavanaugh’s insistence that he recalls no such event—was extremely predictable. Kavanaugh, however, was unable to treat her question, which of course he could have denied outright, as a simple matter of fact. He interpreted it instead, it seems, as he interpreted so many other questions on Thursday, as an extension of the smear campaign that he claims is currently being leveled against him: the “revenge on behalf of the Clintons” he laid out in his opening statement. The vast left-wing conspiracy that somehow eluded Neil Gorsuch but has settled its cruelties on the house of Kavanaugh.

This, too, is a revealing pattern of behavior. As a matter of course, during the hearing, when Kavanaugh was asked questions about his drinking—about alcohol use that many of the people who knew him in high school and college and beyond described as excessive—his response was not merely to wrinkle his nose in defensive disgust. It was also to deflect. He’d talk about his grades. He’d talk about getting into Yale, and then into Yale Law, which, he would like to remind you—this being a job interview, and thus a time when a little bragging is fitting—was the top law school in the country at the time. Admission, as a defense: Kavanaugh cannot seem to imagine a world in which one could be both a high-achieving student and a person who regularly got aggressively and belligerently drunk—any more than many of his supporters can seem to imagine a world in which a man might be capable of great kindness toward one woman and great cruelty toward another.

The country learned a lot, this week, about the rarefied culture of prep schools and colleges and the elite institutions into which those schools feed. It learned a lot, at the same time, about winking impunities. It learned a lot about what America’s power brokers value, and whom they value. And, conversely, whom they do not. “What happens on the bus stays on the bus,” Brett Kavanaugh said recently, looking back on a drunken outing in law school. “What happens at Georgetown Prep stays at Georgetown Prep,” he joked of his high school. He paused, faux-musingly. “That’s been a good thing for all of us, I think.”

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Here is what women are taught about the kind of drinking that seems to have put Kavanaugh’s young adulthood under its influence: Alcohol is a risk. It’s a liability. It’s something that can be weaponized, both in the moment (she was drunk, and silence is consent) and afterward (she was drunk, so she deserved what she got). If something bad happens to a woman, and she has been drinking—any amount of alcohol will do—there is a good chance, the world will assume, that the thing is her fault. (Rachel Mitchell, the “female assistant” brought in to question Ford during her own Senate testimony, asked Ford about the time before the party where she alleges she was attacked. “Had you had anything to drink?” Mitchell asked. It was of course crucial to the matter of Ford’s much-emphasized “credibility” that she was able to answer as she did: “Not at all.”)

There’s been a lot of talk about double standards of late—rightfully so—and here is one more: the assumption that alcohol is one thing for men and another for women. The allegations against Kavanaugh brought by Deborah Ramirez, who has been doubted on the grounds that, at the party in question, she too had been drinking. And also Steubenville. And also Amber Wyatt. “Alcohol is not an excuse,” the young woman raped by Brock Turner wrote in her victim-impact statement, responding to Turner’s claim that drinking had impaired her decision-making capabilities as well as his. (Turner received six months in prison, a meager sentence that was justified, the judge claimed, because Turner had also lost his swimming scholarship to Stanford as a consequence of his crime.) The quiet tragedy lingering near the loud one was that, in the claim, she was seen to be making an argument rather than stating the obvious.

Women cannot afford to assume that the world will keep them safe, or give them the benefit of the doubt. Nor can the many others who do not enjoy the protective embrace of a place invested in their futures: Trayvon Martin was posthumously denigrated, in the effort to defend George Zimmerman’s killing of him, for being that most common of things: a young man who experimented with weed. The Dallas Police Department, in investigating the killing of Botham Jean in his own home at the hands of an armed police officer, recently reported that marijuana had been found in Jean’s home, as if its presence had a bearing on his slaughter. Substances that alter the mind, certainly, can be just that—temporary escapes from a wearying world, offering lightness and fun and relief—but their affordances are unevenly distributed in a way that mimics many other systemic inequalities. For those who lack the privileges enjoyed by people like Brett Kavanaugh, the escapes themselves can also be profound liabilities.

This is possibly why, for Brett Kavanaugh, alcohol seems to be not just a matter of identity, but also a point of pride. He seems to understand, on some level—and to revel in the fact—that the ability to drink to such excess is a reflection of his status. Earlier this week, Slate’s Lili Loofbourow described Kavanaugh’s now-infamous yearbook entries as suggesting a kind of Omertà: “If you deny wrongdoing as a united front,” she wrote, “you’ll get away with it.” The Beach Week Ralph Club, the Keg-City Club (“100 Kegs or Bust”), the “Rehoboth Police Fan Club” (one gathers the insinuation)—those can be read as extensions of all that. They might have been silly jokes jotted in a yearbook; they are also the braggadocio of young guys who knew they were being naughty, and knew just as well that they would get away with all the naughtiness. Boundaries tested and crossed at the same time. The pride of easy impunity.

It’s a pride that hasn’t been limited to the realm of childish things. An e-mail exchange from 2001, when Kavanaugh was part of the Bush administration (he served in the White House Counsel’s office and then as staff secretary), includes a discussion of a sailing trip Kavanaugh was planning with a group of friends late that summer. It includes a joking reference to the name of the boat rented for the occasion, the Su Ching: “Boys,” one e-mail, from an unidentified sender, begins, “Although you may be hoping that I’ve lined up a hostess for a rub-n-tug massage session, ‘Su Ching’ actually is the sailboat.” The chain, which concludes after the trip was completed, ends with a note from Kavanaugh himself: “Reminders to everyone to be very, very vigilant [with regard to] confidentiality on all issues and all fronts, including with spouses.”

What happens on the boat, apparently, stays on the boat: The e-mail was one of the more than 100,000 pages of records that the Trump White House, citing executive privilege, tried to withhold from the Senate, before Democratic senators, indignant at the redaction, made some of them public.

Maybe this is why Kavanaugh was so manifestly angry during his testimony on Thursday: The secrets had been laid bare, for public consumption. The code had been broken. The naughty boy became the rageful man, and that man seethed. He crumpled his face in response to questions he didn’t like. He occasionally pounded his fist, Sharpie in hand, on the table. He often seemed to be on the verge of admitting to having ordered the Code Red. It was anger, notably, that was performed and indulged at the same time—the kind that plays so well on cable news, and on talk radio, and in the minds of those watching the hearings from the residence of the White House.

Anger, in some ways, is its own kind of inebriation. It is its own loss of control. It is in that sense striking, as yet another glaring double standard on display at Thursday’s hearings: A temper, lost in public, was another luxury that was not afforded to Christine Blasey Ford. She, instead, had to be perfectly composed—perfectly sober, in every sense—to have even the hope of being considered, at the most basic of levels, credible. The pundits, on Thursday, treated this as a matter of conventional wisdom because, of course, it is.

But Kavanaugh’s anger, revealingly—his performed petulance, and his unchecked rage—was not coded, among many of the pundits who discussed it, as a loss of control. It was interpreted instead as something much more noble: “defiance.” As anger that is dignified, because it is anger that asserts itself as a kind of self-defense. Before Kavanaugh made his appearance, commentators on CNN shared a bit of reporting: The man who had been so robotic in his Fox interview would this time around be, they’d learned, “incandescent.” His rage would burn so bright that it would glow; it would be its own tautology; it would be, in a way, beautiful. It would be so righteous—defending a man, and a nation, and a birthright—that it would justify itself.

Kavanaugh, to be sure, had ample reason to feel confident in his rage. He had ample reason to feel confident in general. There was no FBI investigation into Ford’s claims about Kavanaugh, or the other ones made in their wake. There was no summoning of Mark Judge, the man named as a witness in some of those claims. Kavanaugh repeatedly offered explanations—for the things memorialized in the yearbook, in particular—that any reasonable person would doubt as the full truth of the matter: “Renate Alumnius” as merely a tender and respectful compliment offered to a friend; “Judge—Have You Boofed Yet?” as a question about flatulence; “devil’s triangle” as a drinking game. These things, being subjective assessments of the world as Kavanaugh claims it to spin, are difficult to adjudicate; they were, at the same time, merely accepted by GOP senators who seemed determined and by Democratic senators who seemed resigned.

And so, on Thursday, the judge raged and the Judge was kept safe and Atlas shrugged along with the Senate, and the pundits, surveying it all, concluded that Brett Kavanaugh, having given a very compelling performance in this particular theater, has a very good chance, still, of being promoted to the Supreme Court. Satisfactory explanations had been made; “youthful indiscretions” had been forgiven; the world settled back into its familiar physics. This was the pact that had long ago been made on Brett Kavanaugh’s behalf. What happens on the bus stays on the bus—even after it doesn’t.