As Friday’s 1:30 p.m. Judiciary Committee vote neared on advancing Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination to the full Senate, Republican Senator Jeff Flake announced that he had a condition for voting yes: The FBI must be given a week to further investigate sexual-assault allegations against the judge.
And yet, after that dramatic capitulation, the official Twitter account of the Women’s March—the group that organized the protest marches in January 2017—nonetheless called Flake a “rape apologist.”
If you have been following this saga—according to Nielsen, one-fifth of all U.S. households were watching Thursday’s testimony, first by Kavanaugh’s accuser Christine Blasey Ford, then by the judge, at any given time—you’re getting used to hearing or seeing the phrase rape apologist applied so indiscriminately as to dull the accusation’s blade.
Politics ain’t beanbag, sure. But watching the political world tear itself to pieces over this particular case has been deeply dispiriting.
I find Ford’s allegation to be credible, her behavior admirable, her bravery undeniable. But I also understand that there simply isn’t enough corroborating evidence to justify the certainty we’re seeing on either side, and that the 11th-hour leaking of the allegation—Senator Dianne Feinstein had Ford’s letter in her possession through the entire process—reeked of “October surprise” politics. Still, I have advocated consistently that Kavanaugh’s nomination be withdrawn.
But Ford’s story—Kavanaugh, then 17, pinned her down against a bed when she was 15, tried to take her clothes off, and covered her mouth to stifle her screams before she was able to get away—isn’t the only allegation. Two other claims followed. The first, that Kavanaugh exposed himself at a party at Yale, had been pursued by several outlets. When The New Yorker published the claim, The New York Times wrote that it “had interviewed several dozen people over the past week in an attempt to corroborate Ms. Ramirez’s story, and could find no one with firsthand knowledge.” The second story, alleging a series of gang rapes at parties where Kavanaugh was present, and implying—although, carefully, never actually claiming—that he took part in these alleged acts, was presented in a sworn statement that circumvented vetting by the news media entirely. The Wall Street Journal reported Saturday that, in trying to confirm that accusation, the paper contacted “dozens of former classmates and colleagues, but couldn’t reach anyone with knowledge of her allegations. No friends have come forward to publicly support her claims.”
All of a sudden, the picture being painted of Kavanaugh was not just of a man who drank heavily as a teenager and committed sexual assault—in and of itself justifiably disqualifying in many people’s minds—but instead of a psychopath; a monster who repeatedly attacked women, and then coached girls’ basketball and hired female clerks as cover for his creepy predations. “The U.S. Senate may yet confirm Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, but he should stay off basketball courts for now when kids are around,” wrote a columnist for USA Today. (The paper later deleted the comment.)
Ever since the rise of Donald Trump, the conservative movement has oriented itself as a circular firing squad. The attacks on Kavanaugh broke that formation.
In terms of ideological and partisan sorting, no single event in Trump’s presidency has had anything like this impact. And nothing will be quite the same no matter how this ends.
In the days leading up to the hearing, I started noticing something: Mild-mannered anti-Trump conservatives would, in private conversations, fume at Kavanaugh’s treatment and insist Democrats had crossed a line and could not be appeased—the judge had to become a justice.
Some made such comments publicly. Republicans willing to jettison Kavanaugh over Ford’s allegations “are either capitulatory or craven,” wrote Commentary’s Noah Rothman on September 18. “I am afraid I have become radicalized on the present issue,” tweeted Decision Desk HQ’s Jeffrey Blehar on September 26. “Feeling … myself … becoming … radicalized,” tweeted Ben Howe on September 27. After Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono told CNN on September 23 that she was assessing Kavanaugh’s denial of the allegations against him “in the context of … how he approaches his cases” and his “ideological agenda that is very outcome driven,” Tom Nichols—an anti-Trump Republican who advocates voting straight-ticket Democrat in the midterms to set the GOP straight—tweeted, “This is the kind of answer that makes people think voting Republican is more a matter of self-defense than ideology.”
This merely scratches the surface. I was so surprised at the sheer volume of such comments I was hearing off the record, I wrote about it on Twitter. “These are, almost without exception, men and women who are horrified by Trump, and horrified by his treatment of women, and don’t take sexual assault lightly (or are even victims themselves),” I wrote. And as I was writing, more such comments flooded my inbox. The responses are still rolling in—my inbox has become a sort of clearinghouse for anti-Trump Republicans and Trump skeptics boiling over at the treatment of Kavanaugh.
The lesson, I said, was: “This is not about Trump.” Hirono’s comments and others like them are one reason why: Conservatives have been given reason to believe their ideology, not their personal behavior, is the target. Another reason is that the process that led us to this point has given conservatives two terrible choices: Confirm Kavanaugh in an unusually divisive and bitter vote while pouring salt in the wounds of so many women who have been victimized and humiliated, or reject the judge and reward the Michael Avenattization of American politics—that is, respond to Trump’s trashing of certain democratic norms by trashing others.
This was only confirmed by Ford’s testimony. In her opening statement, Ford said this about her claim that Kavanaugh had attacked her: “On July 6, I had a sense of urgency to relay the information to the Senate and the president as soon as possible, before a nominee was selected. I did not know how, specifically, to do this.”
She sent a letter detailing the allegations to her congresswoman, Representative Anna Eshoo. Later in the hearing, Ford was asked why she had contacted Eshoo’s office. Ford’s response: “Because they were willing to hand deliver it to Senator Feinstein.” At one point, Hirono asked Ford if she had any political motivation for coming forward. Ford answered: “No, and I’d like to reiterate that, again, I was trying to get the information to you while there was still a list of other, what looked like equally qualified candidates.”
It’s clear that Ford wanted the information relayed, quietly, to the president’s circle in time to convince the White House to pass on Kavanaugh. There’s no evidence that happened. Instead, after the committee had concluded its questioning of Kavanaugh and he appeared poised for confirmation, the letter’s contents serendipitously leaked. After that, folks like Avenatti got involved, attaching the taint of partisan machinations to additional allegations.
All of which gave us the spectacle of last Thursday’s hearing, putting front and center the life-altering humiliation of both Ford and Kavanaugh, as well as shattering the United States Senate and torching whatever was left of the judicial system’s nonpartisan credibility.
Christine Blasey Ford has acted honorably, with grace and care far beyond what we should in good conscience demand of a victim of sexual assault. But instead of having her warning quietly passed along, she was forced to offer her story in a grotesque spectacle, against her clear intentions. I have said multiple times that the White House should not advance Kavanaugh’s nomination any further. But those who carefully considered Thursday’s testimonies and concluded they could not in good faith reject his heartfelt denial are not rape apologists. Tarring them as such is a deliberate act to erase the distinctions between Trump and his critics on the right, and to then blame that erasure on the targets of a smear campaign.
In contemporary American politics, persuasion is increasingly abandoned in favor of disqualification. The goal of partisans is often to convince their own side why they must not even listen to the other side.
The result is the eradication of principle from public life. Republicans’ treatment of Merrick Garland—Barack Obama’s nominee who was not even granted a hearing, let alone a vote—was atrocious. Along with others on the right, I said so at the time. But the sheer number of times liberals raise Garland as an answer to the Democrats’ procedural perversions is astonishing—as if what matters is not Kavanaugh’s guilt or innocence, but the satisfaction of partisan bloodlust.
One of the tragedies in all this is that leftists have identified those on the right who have been and are prepared to be their allies—Never Trumpers and others—and prioritized such people for destruction. I have said multiple times that the White House should not advance Kavanaugh’s nomination any further. But those who disagree with me, on principle, are not rape apologists. And labeling them so sends an unmistakable message: You would be a fool to reach across the aisle and work with Democrats to rein in the excesses of your colleagues.
This is what enabling Trump looks like: torpedoing efforts that could incentivize constraining his worst instincts. Such people consider themselves the “resistance” to the president. In reality, they are painting the country Trump. The rest of us can only hope they fail.