It was painful to watch: a trial that was not a trial and that lacked all sense of justice. The victim cast in the role of the accused and the accused as victim.
The US Senate committee held a hearing to decide whether it would pass the Supreme Court nomination of judge Brett Kavanaugh to a vote on the Senate floor. But unlike the usually dry proceedings of the past, this one was high drama. First Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified about suffering an attempted rape by the man proposed to sit on the nation’s highest court. Then Kavanaugh came before the committee to dispute the accusation. Millions of Americans sat glued to their television sets.
What they saw was one of the most shameful moments in modern U.S. history. The showdown between the privileged white man groomed for power and a sexual abuse victim struggling to be believed was a prime example of that part of Trumpian American society that is not only post-truth, but also post-moral.
Kavanaugh came off as extremely aggressive, angry at times, stricken at others, and deeply annoyed throughout. He donned the victim’s role in front of his victim. Ford, the woman who described being sexually attacked by Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge as a teenager, spoke in firm but vulnerable tone, answering questions naturally and simply, despite receiving a barrage of questions clearly aimed at discrediting her.
Kavanaugh alternated between rage and well-rehearsed crocodile tears, sometimes absurdly reverting questions back to the questioner or simply refusing to answer. Blasey Ford refused to speculate or equivocate. She identified Kavanaugh as the attacker, stating she was “100% sure” he attacked her. In front of a committee with a male and republican majority, Kavanaugh counted banked on the support of the system. Blasey Ford was in enemy territory.
The interrogators had an image problem from the get-go. All the Republican members of the judicial committee charged with reviewing Kavanaugh’s appointment are elderly, white men. They didn’t mind the fact that they brought a homogenous misogynous and discriminatory worldview to the hearings, but they did recognize that the optics of them ganging up on a woman sexual attack survivor were not optimal for their side.
Having strategically considered that the sight of all men questioning a woman’s word could diminish their credibility, they rented the services of a female Arizona prosecutor to question Blasey Ford. When Kavanaugh came up before them, they decided that the female prosecutor no longer seemed to be helping their cause and they sidelined her and took over direct questioning of Kavanaugh. The prosecutor Rachel Mitchell’s role was an embarrassing example of women acting to serve men’s interests, used when useful and discarded when not.
Ever since Blasey Ford decided to go public with the attempted rape, her story has sparked massive expressions of support and also hatred. She received death threats, had to flee her home to protect her family, and has been called everything from a “liar” to much worse. By declaring she was attacked by a powerful man, she immediately brought down the full force of the system against her. She crossed the line.
There are several reasons that explain how this case reached the point of social combustion First, in a government bitterly divided and obsessed with party politics, it was interpreted as a partisan issue. Republicans circled the wagons around their president and his nomination and if that meant trash-talking a sexual abuse victim, they had no qualms with that.
In the United States, the polarization between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party has reached such a degree that for conservatives everything is reduced to “them” against “us”. Apparently, many Republicans no longer have their own moral compass beyond the perpetual partisan politics. An Economist/YouGov poll revealed that 73% of Republicans did not beleive that even if it were proven that Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted a woman in high school, he should be disqualified from being a magistrate on the highest court in the nation.
That’s shocking. It reveals that to get Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court and support the president and the party, many people suspended moral judgments that they would automatically apply. If the attack had been on their daughter or wife, perhaps some, but fortunately few, mothers and fathers would publicly excoriate a daughter to protect the attacker, depending on who the attacker was. But the instinct is to protect the victim not the perpetrator. Instead, Republicans supported the Trump protegé. What they were really supporting was the patriarchal system of control over politics and over women’s bodies. Kavanaugh could be a deciding vote on fundamental decisions about the right of women to control and decide about issues that affect their own bodies and lives–their very autonomy as full human beings. The message is direct and devastating.
Kavanaugh took advantage of partisan loyalty and tried to present Blasey Ford’s statement as a Democratic conspiracy against him and Trump. He called her testimony “a calculated and orchestrated political coup, apparently driven by the rage accumulated against President Donald Trump and the election of 2016 …”
He did not openly accuse her of having made up the attack, but hinted that she is a pathetic, deceived woman, employing the stereotype of women as pawns of powerful interests, unable to act on their own with agency.
The Republican Party’s unconditional defense of Kavanaugh went so far as to oppose an investigation into the accusations, until a single senator, Jeff Flake, insisted on a perfunctory and extremely restricted investigation. The Republican committee members refused to take into account the facts or possible facts. Interviews with Trump supporters at the grassroots level reflect the same knee-jerk reaction of protecting power. Many dismissed Blasey Ford’s testimony in advance, sometimes viciously. The vengeful response of Trump supporters is another sign of growing neo-fascism in the country, or what the Irish writer Fintan O’Toole calls “pre-fascism”.
If for them it was a political power play, for millions more, especially women, it was deeply personal. This was the word of a woman against the word of a man. It stirred thousands of buried traumas in women across the nation who have experienced in their own lives the kind of attack Blasey Ford described. Men made public statements that if every man were submitted to the kind of scrutiny Kavanaugh was under they would all be guilty, uncomfortably admitting the prevalence of sexual abuse as they demanded a return to silence.
On the heels of the #MeToo movement, the Kavanaugh confirmation was the test case to see whether enough progress had been made for women to be believed. And the victim wasn’t even taken seriously enough to call for a real investigation.
That a man with not one but several credible accusations of sexual abuse against him could come forth, red-faced and belligerent, babbling about drinking beer and openly insulting a Congresswoman, and then be rewarded with a seat on Supreme Court was like twisting the knife in a very deep wound.
Now that the Supreme Court has two men publicly exposed for sexual misconduct against women on the court, it is not a question of theory and ideology. It’s an issue of what types of behavior will be condoned and what will not, and to what degree women are allowed to denfed themselves and to what degree the legal system will help or hurt them in the process. This court could soon strip women (and other groups) of the rights they have won over decades of persistent and organized movements. Date rape and sexual abuse of girls and women could be legally and socially considered just part of growing up female. The Kavanaugh case was an important battle between patriarchal reaction and feminist achievements and despite widespread indignation and demonstrations, feminists lost.
The patriarchal rallied its forces in an alarming show of strength. in the context of the normalization of misogyny that began with the Trump campaign, under no circumstances would they allow an inconsequential (to them) woman to end the career of one of their own. It deeply annoyed them, and her accusations were seen not as accusations of a serious crime but as a hindrance to their agenda. Conservative groups groomed Brett Kavanaugh from youth to eventually take a position on the Supreme Court and impose the neoconservative agenda.
Although his character and temperament are clearly not suitable for any court, as manifested in his appearance before the Senate committee, the idea that a woman’s word could jeopardize this plan was unthinkable for the right.
Thousands of women see themselves in Blasey Ford. We often do not report abuse at the time, especially back in the eighties–out of shame, confusion or ignorance. For so many women who kept it secret, dealt with it alone and suffered the consequences for years, the Kavanaugh confirmation was a slap in the face that denied our experience and our trauma. While thousands relived terrible memories, we saw how U.S. society continues to deny our lived experience, even with the advances of the #MeToo movement and the many women who have broken the silence in recent years.
Now we are remembering, reliving and reacting–in solidarity with Christine Blasey Ford and with ourselves. The word of at least three women had to be denied and defied for Kavanaugh to take a seat on the Supreme Court, just as Clarence Thomas did in 1991 when he was accused by Anita Hill and other women of sexual harassment.
It’s a hard lesson about how little we have advanced and how fragile the achievements of women’s rights are.
But it’s also a step forward. We learned a painful lesson in measuring the power of patriarchy, and the weakness of our democratic institutions. When push comes to shove–to shove a woman down on a bed, to push her head back and clamp a hand on her mouth to keep her from screaming–the man wins.
If we can unite in our pain and anger, if we learn to listen to each other and make ourselves heard, if this bitter experience opens spaces to publicly insist that violence against women is not normal in a dignified society, then we can build a more effective movement against the barbarity that we face.
Originally published in Spanish in www.desinformemonos.org.
Minor corrections were made to the original translation 01/04/19