Brett Kavanaugh Discovers the Unfairness of the World

The Supreme Court nominee and his defenders proved unable to extend their awareness of injustice into empathy with Christine Blasey Ford.


Brett Kavanaugh came before the Senate angry. Photographs of the Supreme Court nominee from Thursday’s hearing show him almost snarling. He cut off Senator Dianne Feinstein mid-question and demanded to know whether Senator Amy Klobuchar, who had just described her own father’s struggle with alcoholism, had ever blacked out drunk. The contrast could not have been more stark between the judge’s testimony and that of Christine Blasey Ford, who testified earlier in the day that a teenage Kavanaugh had tried to rape her in high school. Ford was restrained and polite, her bangs falling in front of her face. She was eager to please. “I’m happy to describe them to you if you wanted me to, and I’m happy to not,” she said, when interrupted while answering a request to characterize the parties she attended as a teenager. “Whatever you want, whatever is your preference.”

New York magazine’s Rebecca Traister has written incisively about the constraints that exist on women’s anger. It is not a coincidence that Kavanaugh’s rage and open weeping seem to have buoyed his chances of confirmation, while Ford’s self-presentation was far more “nice”—if she had shown an ounce of the anger Kavanaugh did, she could have easily been written off as shrill or hysterical.

The many women alongside whom I watched the hearing—both in person and virtually, through text messages and social media—all seemed to see some of themselves in Ford because they had all experienced, or lived in fear of experiencing, something along the lines of her story. They, unlike her, were openly angry—probably because they did not have to perform for an audience of mostly male senators. These past two weeks have been a time of sickening, exhausting rage for many women I know.

And for that reason, Kavanaugh’s anger was familiar, too. It was the anger of a person who seemed to be just discovering the unfairness of the world.

Over the year since The New York Times and The New Yorker first reported allegations of sexual assault against Harvey Weinstein, the national reckoning over assault and sexual misconduct has produced a constant stream of exhausting news stories. The Kavanaugh allegations, though, seem to have hit particularly hard. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (better known as RAINN) estimated an “unprecedented” 147 percent spike in requests to its hotline during Thursday’s hearing. (Hotline calls increased 33 percent after the release of the Access Hollywood tape in October 2016.) As Ford and Kavanaugh were testifying, a stream of callers reached out to C-SPAN to share their stories of assault on air. Over the two weeks since Ford came forward by name in The Washington Post, almost every substantive conversation I have had with another woman has turned, as if by some dreadful gravitational force, toward Kavanaugh.

The allegations against Kavanaugh are particularly painful due to their familiarity. The Weinstein stories had such an effect in part because they were so baroque and exaggerated in their horror. Very few of us have been film stars, but nearly everyone has gone to high school. And the boisterous cruelty of teenage boys and young men, desperate to prove themselves to one another, is one of the foundational components of American education.

Ford’s fear at being trapped in an unfamiliar bedroom by two drunk teenagers who scrabbled at her one-piece bathing suit, her shame at having gone out drinking without the knowledge of her parents—all these are things that could have happened, and did happen, to so many other women in high school. So, too, in the first years of college with Deborah Ramirez’s story of joining a drinking game that suddenly ceased to be a game, with a male student—she alleges Kavanaugh—thrusting his genitals in her face. And so, too, with the story of Renate Schroeder Dolphin, who discovered only this week that Kavanaugh and his friends had apparently mocked her supposed promiscuity in the pages of their high-school yearbook without her noticing. (Kavanaugh denies Ramirez’s story and claimed before the Senate on Thursday that the yearbook was a reference only to Dolphin’s friendship.) “The laughter,” Ford said, when asked by Senator Patrick Leahy to describe her worst memory of the assault. “Them having fun at my expense.”

Cruelty of this type—what both Lili Loofbourow and Jia Tolentino have characterized as the stripping of a woman’s personhood in the service of male bonding—is common to the point of being unremarkable. In my junior year of high school, a group of younger boys began spending their mornings near my locker, lining the hallway so anyone walking through would have to run the gauntlet. They ignored most people, including me, but there was one girl who became a target of regular mockery. What they said was bad—I don’t remember the specifics. I never did anything.

Nearly bellowing during his opening statement on Thursday, Kavanaugh blamed the allegations against him in part on “pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election” and “revenge on behalf of the Clintons.” He is not entirely wrong. It’s impossible to disaggregate the wellspring of female rage over sexual harassment and assault over the past year from the election to president of the United States of a man who has been credibly accused of such misconduct by 19 women. Donald Trump’s electoral triumph after the Access Hollywood tape was, among other things, profoundly unjust. It should not be possible to win the presidency after the entire nation has heard you boast about sexual assault.

It’s a similar outrage at sudden injustice—though a different injustice—that animated Kavanaugh and his defenders on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “A lifetime of public service and a lifetime of high-profile public service at the highest levels of American government,” Kavanaugh said, voice raised. “And never a hint” of any accusation of sexual misconduct. Several times he emphasized that he had gone to Yale and Yale Law School. Kavanaugh has gone to the schools one is supposed to go to in order to achieve success. He appears to have done the things that many young men do—drinking, sports, good-natured mockery of women that can quickly become not so good-natured—to cement their place as the righteous inheritors of the world. How jarring, then, to learn that some of the same rituals that helped lead to power are suddenly an obstacle.

How jarring to have the fabric of the world ripped out from under you with no forewarning—to have a life you thought was governed by rules of fairness, where you could get ahead if you just followed the proper instructions, turn out to be governed instead by a different set of rules and a deck stacked against you.

This is the collapse of the old boys’ club. It is also, in a very different context, the experience of being a woman or a survivor of sexual assault. To believe, for example, that you would be safe from bad men if you took care and didn’t wear short skirts and didn’t go out late at night—and then have that belief destroyed.

Midway through the hearing, a red-faced Senator Lindsey Graham raged at Kavanaugh’s opponents on the committee and offered his sympathy for the nominee: “This is the most unethical sham since I’ve been in politics … I cannot imagine what you and your family have been through.” He, too, felt the sudden unfairness of the world. But neither Kavanaugh or Graham or the many (male) senators who offered their apologies to Kavanaugh in the following hours made anything more than a cursory effort to extend their empathy beyond the nominee to Ford and her family, though many of their expressions of anguish could have applied equally well to her.

“Do you know how long the last 10 days have been? For us?” Kavanaugh said. “Every day has been a lifetime.” Later, he said he had not watched Ford testify.

It may have been all the talk of high school, but over the course of the hearing, Kavanaugh seemed very young—rejuvenated by his discovery of injustice. The women watching and commenting seemed very old in comparison, weighed down by their knowledge of the brutality of the world and the odds that Ford’s testimony, like the Access Hollywood tape, wouldn’t matter. After the hearing, I spoke with a male friend who told me that he was glad he had watched it with his female co-workers. “Almost all of them had a story like hers,” he said. “I never understood that.”