Analysis

Inflamed by Trump and Resisted by Women, the Kavanaugh Confirmation Is a Major Battle in America’s Eternal Culture Wars

The fight over Kavanaugh’s appointment has sparked confrontations and pitted left against right even before Christine Blasey Ford's identity and accusations became public

U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh listens during his U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., September 4, 2018.
Joshua Roberts/Reuters

The right-leaning New York Post published an opinion piece this week dealing with the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford about the sexual assault she allegedly underwent 36 years ago at the hands of Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. “The drive to sink Kavanaugh is liberal totalitarianism,” the headline read. At the same time, the left-leaning Salon web site published an op-ed dealing with the Republican response to Ford’s allegations and their intention to confirm Kavanaugh’s appointment despite them. “Brett Kavanaugh is a blend of toxic male privilege and affluenza: A perfect fit for Donald Trump,” its headline asserted.

Welcome to the one of the most bitterly contested and hard-fought battles in the annals of the eternal American culture wars. The fight over Kavanaugh’s appointment sparked harsh confrontations and pitted left against right even before Ford’s identity and accusations became public, but her account has escalated the Kavanaugh clash and fundamentally changed it. The emergence of the professor of clinical psychology from Palo Alto and her willingness to challenge the new great white hope of American conservatives added personal melodrama to an already tense partisan confrontation, with touches of David vs. Goliath, turning it in the process into a ratings bonanza for the media. Taking place against the backdrop of the #MeToo surge and the unprecedented public focus on sexual harassment and assault, the Kavanaugh-Ford standoff introduced a new force into an arena traditionally occupied by liberal men engaged in mortal battle with conservative men: women. 45 days before pivotal Congressional elections, no one wants to get on the wrong side of women.

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Republicans were determined to secure Kavanaugh’s confirmation before it became known that Ford was accusing him, then 17, of locking her, then 15, in a room against her will, pushing her onto a bed, trying to get her clothes off and stifling her screams to the point she feared she would die, all of which Kavanaugh now firmly denies. After some initial panic, the new developments are now seen as a temporary but surmountable obstacle, not a permanent roadblock that should cause Trump and the GOP to reverse course. The stakes are simply too high: Kavanaugh’s confirmation is the realization of a long held conservative dream to entrench on the bench a durable, long-term majority of conservatives - which many liberals view as reactionary.

Kavanaugh’s appointment cold launch the long-desired process of neutralizing or reversing what many on the right view as the ongoing judicial usurpation carried out be court since 1954, when it ruled that racial segregation was unconstitutional. A solid 5-4 right wing majority, perhaps even a 6-3 split that could follow the resignation of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, could obliterate over time most of the court verdicts most cherished by liberals, from the right to vote to the right to privacy to the right to have an abortion. For such a feat, Republicans seem willing to do anything it takes, up to and including selling their soul to Trump.

The dramatic pinnacle of the duel was slated to take place on Monday, when Ford and Kavanaugh were supposed to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The natural suspense of a political thriller coupled with the court room prospect that either Ford or Kavanaugh’s version of events would collapse under cross examination promised a high-stakes blockbuster, House of Cards at High Noon. As things stand now, Ford insists that a through FBI investigation of her claims precede her public appearance, a demand rejected by Republican Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa. Democrats are furiously pouring fire and brimstone and Grassley and his colleagues for trying to sidestep Ford’s allegations, but they should have already started praying for a deux ex machina that will materialize out of nowhere to save their day.

America has known dramatic confrontations in the appointment of Supreme Court justices, from the four month long, anti-Semitism laced approval of Louis Brandeis in 1916 to the Senate’s repudiation of Abe Fortas, Lyndon Johnson’s 1968 candidate to serve as Chief Justice, which had some similar, anti-Jewish components. The most infamous modern rejection of a Supreme Court nominee was Robert Bork, Ronald Reagan’s ultra-conservative candidate in 1987. The dramatic refusal of the Democratic Senate to back Bork turned his family name into a verb that designates the public shaming and eventual disqualification of candidates for public office.

Beyond what they viewed as Bork’s dangerously retrograde legal views, Democrats punished him for his original sin during the Watergate crisis, when then Solicitor General Bork agreed to carry out Richard Nixon’s demand to sack Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, even though his two superiors, the attorney general and his deputy, had refused and resigned. In Democratic history, Kavanaugh is no less tainted: He was one of Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s key aides in the investigation of Bill and Hillary Clinton, including the Monica Lewinsky affair. Kavanaugh, in fact, drafted the articles of impeachment that were approved by the House of Representatives but later dismissed by the Senate.

But the most striking precedent, of course, took place 27 years ago, when African American attorney Anita Hill accused Supreme Court candidate Clarence Thomas of improper sexual advances and lewd behavior. Hill’s damning, detailed and sometimes nausea-inducing recollection of Thomas’ hints, suggestions and outright proposals did not prevent his appointment to the court, but they riveted millions to their television screens and galvanized American women. The chauvinist, condescending, often rude attitude of the all-male Senate panel - including Chairman Joe Biden - sparked anger among many women and contributed to the unprecedented wave of female politicians swept into office in the 1992 elections. Today there are four women on the Judicial Committee, but they are all Democrats. The GOP remains for men only, stuck in a supposedly long-gone moment that they can’t get out of, with some, including Grassley, having served on the committee since those supposedly long lost days.

Analogies between the Thomas-Hill and the Kavanaugh-Ford standoffs, which have returned the former to the front pages, are undeniable. Like Kavanaugh, Thomas emerged from his confirmation hearings slightly damaged and by the skin of his teeth but supposedly assured of approval by the Senate plenum, until Anita Hill’s testimony threw a spanner in his works. In both cases, it is the victims’ word against their alleged assailants, with no way of knowing which of them is telling the truth: In the Anita Hill case, at least, the FBI tried to investigate her claims. Like Ford this week, for her fans Hill for was the brave woman taking on the hostile white male world out of sense of civic duty. It didn’t take long for her testimony and its aftermath to spark character assassination, with conservatives, including Thomas himself, depicting her as an accomplice and a tool for lefty-pinko conspirers out to undermine the conservative agenda by destroying one of its finer proponents.

The significant difference between Hill and Ford is in the color of their skin, a factor that many believe played a conscious or subliminal role in Hill’s shoddy treatment by Biden’s committee. Ford, is white and blonde, which may clear Republicans from any suspicion of racism but exposes them to high political risk: Shabby treatment of Ford will be seen as unadulterated misogyny. Judging by their track record so far, the efforts of Kavanaugh’s supporters to discredit Ford have only backfired: The bullies who abused and threatened her and compelled her to leave her home to seek safe haven turned Ford into a symbol of the dear price paid by all women who dare report abuse. Others, including Fox News hosts, are desperately seeking proof that Ford, like Hill, is a cog in some vast Deep State conspiracy to get rid of Trump and his conservative agenda. Benjamin Netanyahu’s favorite Bogeyman, Hungarian born financier George Soros, has already been cast in a leading role as the ultimate puller of strings.

Other would-be Kavanaugh fans are ignoring his categorical denials and trying to pass his alleged attempt to force himself on the 15-year old Ford as a traditional juvenile expression of youth, aka “boys will be boys.” The events depicted, they claim, even if true, aren’t serious enough to merit public attention and certainly don’t suffice to drag the name of a fine jurist such as Kavanaugh into the mud. They sound, especially to young women, like fossilized remnants of a male-chauvinist world, which many had deluded themselves to believe was gone forever.

The GOP’s main issue isn’t with liberal women, who opposed Kavanaugh and his worldview from the outset. The prevalence of sexual abuse and assault in the U.S. is an epidemic, which is certainly not limited to left-leaning females. According to official statistics and academic estimations, one in five American women are raped during their lifetimes, a third of which are aged 11-17, like Ford. One in three women suffer sexual abuse at one time or another, including 15 percent of high school students. 90 percent of sexual abuse victims never report the assaults on their body, for reasons that were once again displayed in recent days the reactions to Ford’s account, but they carry their trauma as a scar for the rest of their lives. Republicans run the risk of seeming to place ideological commitment and personal loyalty to Trump above their concern and empathy for their own wives and daughters.

But in the end, as with most everything else these days, it all starts and it all ends with Trump. The strong feelings that he arouses and the political polarization that he enhances have all poured fuel on the already combusting Kavanaugh fire. Out of four potential candidates with similar or even superior conservative pedigrees, Trump chose Kavanaugh because he was the most aggressive advocate of the constitutional positions that serve Trump best: He believes a U.S. President enjoys near absolute immunity for his actions in office as well as crimes committed before, including, one assumes, collusion with Russia and obstruction of justice. Kavanaugh is also thought to believe in the Chief Executive’s near absolute authority to hire and fire as he sees fit, including duly appointed special counsels who don’t know when and where to stop. Democrats are belatedly realizing that Kavanaugh’s confirmation won’t only mark a historic conservative triumph but could also provide Trump with an indictment-proof, career-extending insurance policy.

The irony is that the deeds ascribed by Ford to Kavanaugh pale in comparison with the series of allegations of sexual misconduct made against Trump by more than a dozen women, which didn’t take place in his adolescence but until very recently. Trump even boasted of his kiss ‘em when they’re not looking and grab ‘em by the pussy philosophy in the famous Access Hollywood tape. Americans might ask themselves how is it that a solitary incident from high school, which he denies, can disqualify a candidate for the Supreme Court but endless tales of sexual harassment, of which he’s actually proud, aren’t enough to disqualify a U.S. President. One might assume that Trump is embarrassed by the renewed prominence of the issue or that he is working overtime to get Kavanaugh past the Senate confirmation with a reputation intact enough to shine on Trump positively as well, but given that Trump’s lack of self-awareness is total and absolute, he may not see any common denominator a misogynist President and his candidate for the highest court in the land, now stained by his past.