The senators told Christine Blasey Ford that she was not on trial. They told Brett Kavanaugh that he was not on trial. But America’s political culture was on trial. And the verdict was guilty.
All the bile, all the ugliness, all the tribal politicking of Republican-controlled Washington in 2018 was on display as the Senate judiciary committee met in a cramped room on Capitol Hill on Thursday. It was a dark spectacle that offered a glimpse of the state of the disunion.
In this upside-down era, it was the accuser who was sober as a judge and the supreme court hopeful who was angry, indignant, tearful and deeply politicised, throwing out allegations of a vast leftwing conspiracy. In short, he was channeling Donald Trump.
The gender ironies were inescapable. The actor and activist Alyssa Milano, who was present in the room, tweeted: “If a woman were to yell, interrupt and cry while being questioned, people would call her unhinged or say she had a melt down.”
First, Ford delivered one of the most powerful repudiations of Trumpismsince the first lady Michelle Obama’s speech at the 2016 Democratic convention in Philadelphia.
She meticulously eviscerated the president’s supreme court pick as she accused him of sexual assault in 1982. She offered no hint of exaggeration or partisan motivation but was composed, credible and sometimes clinical. Asked if she was sure her attacker was Kavanaugh, she replied: “100%.” Asked what she remembered clearly, she said: “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter, between the two, and their having fun at my expense.”
Fighting back tears, she also spoke searingly about the long-term effects the incident had on her life, including “anxiety, phobia and PTSD-like symptoms”.
It was an account likely to have struck a chord with thousands of women in America and around the world. It was another defining moment for the #MeToo movement. It was also guaranteed to give Trump a dose of air rage as he flew from New York to Washington.
Any hope that Kavanaugh can be seen as a politically neutral member of the nation’s highest court lies in tatters
Gabriel Sherman, a journalist at Vanity Fair, tweeted: “This is Trump’s worst nightmare: a TV moment going badly for him that’s completely out of his control.”
Democrat after Democrat praised Ford for performing a public service. Richard Blumenthal told the university professor that she had given America “an amazing teaching moment” and “inspired and given courage to women”.
Cory Booker said: “You are speaking truth that this country needs to understand: how we deal with survivors who come forward right now is unacceptable. The way we deal with this, unfortunately, allows for the continued darkness of this culture to exist. Your brilliance, shining light on to this, speaking your truth, is nothing less than heroic.”
Kamala Harris added: “You have bravely come forward and I want to thank you. History will show you are a true profile in courage.”
Ford looked deeply moved by each intervention. Contrast this with the stony silence of the 11 Republicans on the committee, all men, broken only by the chairman Chuck Grassley – a veteran of the 1991 Anita Hill drama – who grumbled about Democrats’ actions, and tart interventions from Lindsey Graham, clearly itching to wage war.
Grimly aware of the imagery – with its echoes of the male chauvinist bullying of Hill when she testified against Clarence Thomas – the Republicans hired a female prosecutor, Rachel Mitchell. The plan backfired. In a poor performance, Mitchell’s five-minute bursts of questioning went rambling down obscure byways, such as Ford’s fear of flying, and failed to cut to the heart of the matter.
Perhaps the ultimate measure of how badly things had gone was Fox News, the conservative network that cheerleads for Trump and shapes his thinking. In a disputed anecdote, President Lyndon Johnson reportedly said of the broadcaster Walter Cronkite during the Vietnam war: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Kavanaugh had lost Fox.
Judge Andrew Napolitano, of whom Trump is a fan, said on the channel that Ford “is extremely credible and Rachel Mitchell not only is not laying a glove on her, but in my view is actually helping her credibility by the gentility of which these questions are being asked and the open-ended answers that the witness is being permitted to give. The president cannot be happy with this.”
The Fox News political analyst Brit Hume said: “I would say this about her credibility – the more hesitant, the more fragile she has seemed, the more powerful and credible I think she comes across to the audience.”
The pundits’ advice was that, just as Thomas did 27 years ago, Kavanaugh could only save himself by coming out all guns blazing. He did, delivering a fiery opening statement that alleged “a calculated and orchestrated political hit” and raging against a “national disgrace”, “circus” and “grotesque and obvious character assassination”. It was a white-privileged Chevy Chase version of Thomas’s “high-tech lynching for uppity-blacks”.
Kavanaugh gave an interview to Fox News earlier this week and appeared to have caught the bug. He railed against Democrats, the Clintons and the media, accusing them of destroying his life, family and reputation. His tone towards Democratic senators was combative and disrespectful, bristling at questions about his drinking habits. The performance was reminiscent of the White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s debut, berating reporters over the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd.
It made a mockery of Kavanaugh’s past claim that “a good judge must be an umpire – a neutral and impartial arbiter who favors no litigant or policy”. Susan Glasser, a journalist at the New Yorker magazine, tweeted: “Anger and partisan fury like this will be very hard for Judge Kavanaugh to overcome as Justice Kavanaugh.”
Crudely, however, the fury seemed guaranteed, perhaps calculated to please Trump and his counter-punching instincts. The president tweeted: “Judge Kavanaugh showed America exactly why I nominated him. His testimony was powerful, honest, and riveting. Democrats’ search and destroy strategy is disgraceful and this process has been a total sham and effort to delay, obstruct, and resist. The Senate must vote!”
Judge Kavanaugh showed America exactly why I nominated him. His testimony was powerful, honest, and riveting. Democrats’ search and destroy strategy is disgraceful and this process has been a total sham and effort to delay, obstruct, and resist. The Senate must vote!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 27, 2018
Republican members of the committee circled the wagons. Most aggressive was Graham, whose soul is apparently being slowly poisoned by spending time with the president, and who may be angling for the attorney general job. He unleashed a furious tirade: “This is the most unethical sham since I’ve been in politics … You’re looking for a fair process? You came to the wrong town at the wrong time, my friend.”
But Kavanaugh’s emotional breakdowns were less likely to impress Trump, who has previously mocked “Cryin’ Chuck Schumer”. The judge was overcome with emotion as he told how his 10-year-old daughter wanted to say a bedtime prayer for Ford. He repeatedly sniffed and stuck his tongue into the inside of his cheeks.
The Senate judiciary committee, which Republicans control, is scheduled to vote on Friday. The matter then goes to the full Senate. Kavanaugh’s fate rests in the hands of a few Republicans and the lesson of Thomas in 1991 is that nothing should be taken for granted. But even if Kavanaugh succeeds, any hope that he can be seen as an impartial, politically neutral member of the nation’s highest court now lies in tatters. The Foxification of American institutions continues.