Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh during Thursday’s Senate Judiciary hearing.
Photo: Pool/Getty Images
Today’s hearing, with the even-voiced woman describing an assault in careful, precise terms, occasionally apologizing to her interrogators as they grilled her, and the soft-faced man, alternately weeping and yelling — is an American crucible. To watch the Senate Judiciary Committee’s questioning of Christine Blasey Ford was stomach-turning, then enraging, then sad. Because it put the stark inequities that permeate our politics and power structures on unapologetic display.
The stunning, disturbingly educational spectacle started in the days that preceded the actual hearing. On Wednesday, Utah senator Orrin Hatch said of the multiple allegations of assault being made against Brett Kavanaugh, “I don’t think it’s fair to Brett Kavanaugh, I don’t think it’s fair to our system, I don’t think it’s fair to the process” — concluding with this assessment: “I don’t think we should put up with it, to be honest with you.”
Hatch was being very honest with us, using language that was remarkably reminiscent of something he’d said as Kavanaugh’s first hearing commenced, in response to a female protester who had stood up to shout about the life-and-death consequences, should the Supreme Court one day repeal healthcare reform. Asking to have “this loudmouth” removed, Hatch added, “We shouldn’t have to put up with this kind of stuff.”
Hatch’s locutions, along with those of his Republican colleagues on the judiciary committee and in the White House, made explicitly clear the dynamic that we saw today: that the right wing in this country — the Republican party that has lined up behind Donald Trump and is now trying to push through his evidently unfit Supreme Court pick — does not believe that it should have to “put up” with the assertion of the full humanity of women.
To these Republicans, women don’t deserve to be treated as full civic participants, with rights and voices of their own. As Majority Leader Mitch McConnell put it, the goal for his party was to “plow through” the sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh — and by extension, the women making them — and confirm the guy already.
Of course, the policies to which Trump’s party has clung — the restriction of abortion rights and attempts to limit access to birth control; the refusal to raise the minimum wage or support equal pay protections; the disinclination, even, to get behind the Violence Against Women Act, not to mention the fealty to a multiply accused and self-confessed sexual predator — have betrayed where Republicans stand on women’s full equality. But at least until recently, the party had engaged in wan, low-bar attempts to dress up their antipathy in a female-friendly package: Mama Grizzlies and Nikki Haley and pit bull hockey-moms.
That façade has been exploded, I hope forever, by the events of the past weeks and days. Hatch, Chuck Grassley, and Lindsey Graham couldn’t hide their annoyance and impatience at having to listen to all these “misses,” as Grassley apparently likes to call women, who’d come forward with stories of assault and trauma. At the same time, women have been used as props (the girls basketball team, for one, which Kavanaugh raised yet again today, bemoaning that he may “never be able to coach again”) to advertise the judicial nominee’s friendliness to women, no matter his determination to curtail their ability to determine whether and when to have children. And then there was the hiring of Rachel Mitchell, the Arizona sex crimes prosecutor, or, as McConnell referred to her, “a female assistant,” whose job was to “assist” the all-white, all male members of the Republican judiciary committee in hiding their disdain for women from a rapt nation watching on their TVs, their computers, their cell phones.
It’s a good thing they hired Mitchell — whom Grassley referred to simply as “Rachel” in a couple of instances — because Grassley, when left to his own devices, did an awful job of extending even common decency toward Ford. Grassley failed to introduce Ford in his opening remarks, after giving a long and admiring list of Kavanaugh’s credentials, then interrupted his fellow senator Dianne Feinstein when she called him on his omission. After Ford finished reading her deeply moving opening statement, Grassley didn’t even take a beat before starting to talk. He didn’t thank her for her story or her willingness to share it. When she said she wanted caffeine, he suggested maybe a Coke. For God’s sake, get that woman a hot cup of coffee!
Worse, Grassley kicked off the hearing by comparing Ford’s suffering to that of Brett Kavanaugh — a classic maneuver in the defense of white patriarchy. You know the one. It’s the canard that to be called a racist is worse than being the subject of racist discrimination or violence; the same goes for being called a sexist and being the subject of sexual discrimination or violence. In other words, for Grassley, to be accused of violent sexual assault is as bad as experiencing it.
Grassley also failed to acknowledge that part of the ill-treatment directed at Ford was his and his colleagues’ doing, in their dismissal, disbelief, and howlingly angry derision of her. Republicans have suggested that she is lying, part of a “con job,” a “smear campaign.” The president of the United States has said in a press conference that he assumes that Kavanaugh’s accusers were paid off in exchange for stories. Hatch, who shows a near Olympian level of athleticism when it comes to the denigration of women — including Anita Hill, whom he was also around to degrade and disrespect — declared that he didn’t hold the women coming forward with stories in “high esteem.”
No, the Republicans certainly don’t hold women in high esteem.
When Donald Trump ran for president, there were many in the news media who believed that his openly racist, sexist slurs, his claims that Mexicans were rapists and that women were pigs and dogs, would disqualify him from the nomination of his own party, and then from the presidency. I saw from my colleagues — and at times even felt myself — some of the same hope in these past few weeks. Surely, the mounting evidence that Brett Kavanaugh was a liar, whose treatment of women had been not only shoddy but violent and rooted in his own lack of respect for them or their autonomy — would disqualify him. Surely, Republicans would see what a disaster they had on their hands and withdraw his nomination.
This was of course wrong. The lesson of the United States in this moment is that misogyny and racism aren’t disqualifiers. They are the qualities the right wing considers key to their larger project — perhaps, in fact, main selling points. (Especially for their president, who today was reported to have loved Kavanaugh’s blustering, aggressive attitude toward his questioners).
After all, the reason that Republicans want to jam through Kavanaugh’s nomination is that as a member of the Supreme Court he’ll be able to help create the mechanisms that determine which kinds of Americans have rights, protections, autonomy, and power.
By building a court that can reverse precedent — around affirmative action, reproductive autonomy, fair wages, voting and collective bargaining — Republicans believe that they can push back the populations that threaten the dominance of the white patriarchy. The right kind of court, so to speak, could turn back social movements that have succeeded to the point that old white men like Orrin Hatch can’t just ignore the Anita Hills and Christine Blasey Fords and Kamala Harrises and Mazie Hironos. To regain the court is to regain the power, to perhaps build a future in which powerful white men do not have to put up with all this kind of stuff anymore.
Watching the hearings, it was impossible not to think of Anita Hill, and how Ford’s description of what happened to her would resonate more strongly because she’s a married, white, upper-middle-class woman, not to mention an almost exceedingly deferential one. To say this is to take nothing — nothing — away from her bravery, her poise, her patriotism in putting herself, her life, her family, in between an abusive man and a lifetime appointment to the court.
Of her own 1991 testimony, Anita Hill wrote, in a later essay, “My reality was so different from that of the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that they found it incomprehensible. They failed or refused to relate to almost every dimension of my race and gender, in combination with my education, my career choice, and my demeanor.” A few of the senators, she wrote, “could not understand why I was not attached to certain institutions, notably marriage, which has traditionally defined the relationship between men and women, and the patronage system, which has often defined the relationship between African-Americans and whites.”
Hill’s words should give us pause and make us consider the relative value of stories, depending on who’s doing the telling. Still, there is no denying that Ford is a hero, and the very raising of her voice — as in the literal moment at which we first heard her speak — was a moment so powerful that it prompted furious, admiring tears, not just in me and my editor, with whom I was watching, but in the dozens of friends and hundreds of strangers who texted or tweeted about the power of exactly that moment. The immense power of a woman’s voice raised in perilous and disruptive challenge to white patriarchal power. No doubt to the dismay of the Republican ruling class, people are listening.