The question is no longer whether Republicans have lost the fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. It’s how.
The answer is that they lost by allowing Christine Blasey Ford to speak. Yes, they didn’t subpoena Mark Judge; yes, they didn’t request an FBI investigation, as they should have done. But ultimately, it didn’t matter, because they made a far greater concession: They allowed Ford to show herself to be a human being. And once her humanity came through—once her sincerity and her agony became impossible for any decent person to deny—it was all over.
President Trump, I suspect, understands that. He understands it because he understands the power of dehumanization. For more than two years he has worked relentlessly to make his adversaries appear less than human. He gives his opponents demeaning nicknames. He calls undocumented immigrants “aliens.” He calls women “dogs.” One of the terms he most often deploys to describe his opponents is “animals.”
At rare moments over the last two years, representatives of the people Trump dehumanizes have asserted their humanity and put him on the defensive. The clearest moment prior to Ford’s testimony was Khizr Khan’s speech at the Democratic National Convention. But far fewer people saw Khan’s speech than will have seen Ford’s testimony. Khan spoke at a partisan event. And ultimately, the power of his own humanity, and his family’s, was lost amidst the partisan nonsense that returned to dominate the campaign.
With Ford, it’s different. Her humanity and her sincerity are now the dominant realities in Kavanaugh’s confirmation battle. Republicans cannot change the subject—they cannot get past her—unless they choose another nominee.
In retrospect, the only way Republicans could have pushed Kavanaugh through would have been to deny Ford the right to testify—and instead to depict her as a cartoon, a witting or unwitting agent of a nefarious Democratic and media plot. That’s what Trump did to his own accusers. It almost worked for Roy Moore.
But the #MeToo movement and the cultural legacy of Anita Hill made that impossible. The fear of women’s anger in the run-up to the midterm elections created a guardrail around the tactics the Republicans could use. And once Republicans accepted that guardrail, they lost.
They lost because once you see victims as human beings—not abstract categories—denying them justice becomes much harder. It’s hard to oppose gay marriage when you know individual LGBT people. It’s hard to strip people of their health care when they’re standing in front of you telling you that their lives are at risk. And it’s hard to tell a woman who has been sexually assaulted that she’s lying when her authenticity and her suffering are on display for the entire country to see.
If only representatives of every group that Trump and the GOP have dehumanized—asylum seekers fleeing rape and murder in Central America, black parents terrified that the police will shoot their kids, Puerto Ricans suffering from the Trump administration’s brazen neglect in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Iranians and other Muslims who are banned from studying in the United States—could have the opportunity Ford had on Thursday. Sadly, they probably won’t. But for a brief, majestic moment, Ford showed us what American politics might look like if Americans truly saw the people our society usually silences and grinds underfoot. If only we lived in that country every day.