The Fear Driving Conservative Support for Kavanaugh

Republicans worry that liberals are rewriting America’s moral code.

Jim Bourg / Reuters

It’s remarkable: The more women accuse of Brett Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct, the more committed to his confirmation conservatives become. On Monday, after Deborah Ramirez became the second woman to accuse Kavanaugh of wrongdoing, the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat noted that among conservatives, the belief that Kavanaugh is innocent “actually gained momentum and support on the basis of the second allegation.” Over the course of Thursday, conservatives responded to the allegations of a third woman, Julie Swetnick, by again doubling down.

On its face, this makes no sense. Sure, the third accuser is represented by Michael Avenatti, whom conservatives and some liberals distrust. Sure, the second accuser, Ramirez, “was reluctant to characterize Kavanaugh’s role in the alleged incident with certainty” in “her initial conversations” with The New Yorker. But even if you consider these newer allegations less credible than the initial charge by Christine Blasey Ford, how can they make you more committed to Kavanaugh’s nomination? Assign a percentage chance that Swetnick’s accusations are true, a percentage chance that Ramirez’s charges are true, and a percentage chance that Ford’s allegations are true. Taken together, the additional charges make it more—not less—likely that Kavanaugh committed sexual misdeeds.

The answer to this puzzle is Trumpism. Trumpism, at its core, is a rebellion against changes in American society that undermine traditional hierarchies. It’s based on the belief that these changes, rather than promoting fairness for historically oppressed groups, actually promote “political correctness”: the oppression of white, native-born Christian men. To understand the conservative response to the allegations against Kavanaugh, a few data points are useful. From 2013 to 2018, according to the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), the percentage of Republicans who said that in the U.S. “there is a lot of discrimination against women” fell by half, from 28 to 14 percent. (Among Democrats during the same period it rose from 55 to 71 percent). By contrast, from 2012 to 2016, the percentage of Republicans who said men face a “great deal” or a “lot” of discrimination doubled, from 9 to 18 percent. (Among Democrats it declined slightly). And in 2016, according to PRRI, 68 percent of Donald Trump supporters said American society is becoming “too soft and feminine.”

If you’re already inclined to believe that America increasingly victimizes men simply for acting like men, the accusations against Kavanaugh confirm your fears. First, because if these charges can sink Kavanaugh, they can sink lots of other men, too. “Is there any man in this room that wouldn’t be subjected to such an allegation?” asked Republican Representative Steve King of Iowa earlier this week. The #MeToo movement has established just how pervasive sexual harassment and assault are, and conservatives suspect that Democrats and the media will weaponize such allegations to destroy as many prominent Republicans as possible. Which means that if the GOP can’t hold the line on Kavanaugh, it faces an endless series of Kavanaugh-style scandals. As the conservative pundit Erick Erickson tweeted on Wednesday, “If they cannot confirm Kavanaugh, they cannot confirm anyone. This is the beginning of a new age of judicial character assassination and it only gets worse from here.”

Even more alarming for many conservatives is that, until recently, Kavanaugh’s alleged offenses would have carried few consequences. Liberals have moved the goalposts. It’s a bit like the complaint that conservatives are now called bigots for opposing gay marriage—for retaining a view that was mainstream and bipartisan not long ago. Conservatives are acutely aware that liberals wield more influence than they do over America’s shifting norms of cultural acceptability. Which means, again, that Kavanaugh might be just the beginning. Who knows—conservatives worry—what previously tolerated behavior liberals might try to destroy Republicans for practicing next?

I suspect this is why the new charges are making many conservatives more devoted to Kavanaugh, not less. Every new allegation illustrates the lengths to which the liberal media and Democratic politicians will go. Every new allegation shows just how vulnerable America’s shifting gender norms make Republicans: the party far more dominated by men. And thus every new allegation convinces conservatives that they might as well defend Kavanaugh now rather than fight the next cultural battle after having ceded precious ground.

Liberals fear that if they lose the Kavanaugh fight, minorities, women, and the poor will lose basic rights. Conservatives, by contrast, fear a kind of cultural delegitimization—a liberal rewriting of America’s moral code so that conservatives are forever deemed too sexist or racist to hold jobs like associate justice of the Supreme Court.

In his influential essay “The Flight 93 Election,” the future White House staffer Michael Anton wrote that, “For two generations at least, the Left has been calling everyone to their right Nazis. This trend has accelerated exponentially in the last few years … And how does one deal with a Nazi … You don’t compromise with him or leave him alone. You crush him.” That’s the spirit in which many conservatives are taking the allegations against Brett Kavanaugh. The more women who come forward, the more sinister the plot to crush American conservatism appears.