Many outside the US watched Thursday’s hearing with open-mouthed revulsion at the bad faith, lack of due process and inhumanity on display. Dysfunction in the biggest Western democracy sets a poor example to the rest of the globe.
The present does not own the monopoly on ugly scenes in Congress - the McCarthy interviews are on tape, after all. Nor do either of the parties – from Kenneth Starr’s ultimately futile humiliation of Bill Clinton, to their intransigence during Obama’s two terms, Republicans largely set the tone for the partisanship that reigns today.
But make no mistake about it: in the age of a hysterical and agenda-driven news media, and a social media that amplifies its worst aspects, the Kavanaugh and Ford testimonies marked a new low. And it is the Democrats that have guided the process into a high-stakes wrestling match in a toxic swamp.
Disagreeing with Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination on ideological grounds, and questioning his record and temperament are fine, even if it is to whip up your base before the upcoming mid-terms. This what the confirmation hearings were for (minus the choreographed interruptions from the gallery).
But to pull out a last-minute 36-year-old sexual abuse accusation that you have sat on for weeks, as Dianne Feinstein did, is a dirty trick, notwithstanding her protestations to senators on Thursday that she didn’t time the release of Ford’s testimony, or leak her name (who did then? This person acting against the wishes of a self-described abuse victim must surely be found and punished). As are the systematic stalling tactics in full evidence at the questioning – the condition-setting for the hearings, the alleged flying fears that fell apart after two questions, the “What about Mark Judge, when can we speak to him?” and the demands for an additional FBI inquiry, during which yet more allegations are sure to come out, as Michael Avenatti tap-dances around his office in anticipation. Could a single senator in the room from either party disagree, hand-on-Bible, that the Democrats are hoping to drag out the process to give themselves a better chance?
To do this, the party was prepared to turn a political attack into a personal one, and personal trauma into a political weapon. Whatever traction #MeToo had as a non-partisan campaign that concerns all women is now in question. “Believe women” has turned from an expression of sympathy to reticent victims to a battering ram for short-term political gain, deployed while faux-innocently asking “Why would any woman lie?” in the one case where the reasons to do so are glaringly obvious.
I love the support I'm seeing for Dr. Ford but I am truly shocked that there are people, particularly women, who don't believe her testimony. She is credible! She has NOTHING to gain by lying! Kavanaugh has EVERYTHING to lose so of course he would lie. We MUST stand with victims! pic.twitter.com/l6SyIudiOK
The Republicans’ scurrying to confirm their candidate is similarly blatant and unseemly. They called the accuser to speak, but how many of them would have changed their mind whatever she said? Five? Three? No one? Staging this hearing for them was as much of a charade about the optics. So polite on Thursday, by Friday Lindsey Graham was calling the accusations “garbage.”
A tragedy in the hubbub
Yet this is not what made Thursday’s proceedings tragic. Politicians in that room play their power games and have known each other for decades - but here, real people were involved. For all the disingenuous pretense that this was just a job interview (most employers don’t suddenly ask jobseekers to prove they are not a rapist to get to the next round), their entire lives were at stake over how they would come across in a single afternoon.
Christine Blasey Ford’s account might be fiction or her own truth, but here was a woman who was evidently genuinely traumatized, and having to relive the moment. And if she is telling the facts as they did happen, and she was assaulted by a drunk, violent Brett Kavanaugh, this is hardly the format that best serves to bring her justice. She said she was no pawn, but she was surrounded by politically-motivated lawyers, participating in some improvised talk show format in which smarmy praise from Democrats who regard her exactly as that chess piece, alternated with fragmented lawyerly questioning from a female prosecutor (once again all optics) looking for a “gotcha!” moment in frustrating five-minute chunks. She had been used.
Some observers said she “won” because she looked credible. The entire modern law was invented and allowed to flourish in America, that most legalistic of states, so that people wouldn’t be judged on their “credibility.” It’s fine that she turned out to be an educated, well-spoken woman, but what if she had turned out a little twitchy, or stuttered? Would that have meant that she wasn’t assaulted? After all, many viewers questioned Ford’s patchy memory, the number of times she looked down at her notes, or even her high-pitched voice.
Same goes for Brett Kavanaugh: Some saw a man under extreme pressure in indignant tears as he strove to save his name against allegations so vague they couldn’t even be substantively refuted. Yet his opponents online said his passion made it easy to imagine how angry he would have got before raping Ford (“and this is him sober”), while his tears – a quality supposedly demanded from modern men – merely made him too unbalanced to be a judge. Many just posted photos of unflattering facial expressions and the blotches on his face.
Just got home from work, turned on C-SPAN to watch Kavanaugh’s “testimony.” So far he has done nothing but yell at the Senators, fight back tears over his weightlifting as a teen, and shouted about a dozen times, “I LIKE BEER!” He is so UNHINGED he should never serve on ANY court
Whether he’s guilty or not, Kavanaugh’s aggressive and unstable performance today under duress disqualifies him in my mind from being nominated to a lifetime appointment in the highest court in our country.
In any case, even if Ford provided specific details of her ordeal, this wouldn’t have changed anything. Kavanaugh would still have turned around and denied it. Thursday's hearing was not just inadequate as a court, with its burden of proof, witnesses, evidence, judges and jury – it wasn’t even a tribunal attempting to establish the truth. Instead, it was designed to have the opposite effect, with all sides smearing each other for political gain entirely on the basis of he said/she said accounts.
“This is the most unethical sham since I’ve been in politics,” said Graham as the hearing wrapped up. But even if he was right, he was not the man to say it. Both over the longer term and in the past few weeks, it is him and the other senators who have allowed this human baiting show to take place.
And a cruelty circus there was: the tarred human targets drew to themselves millions of vitriolic opinions, self-righteous statements, and outright lies. Thousands of women told stories of their own sexual abuse (though there is a question if one man, not proven guilty, should be punished for another man’s crime, or even for the cause of equality before the law), abortion advocates reminded viewers that Roe v. Wade was in danger, the Washington Post wrote dissections of various slang terms in Kavanaugh’s yearbook.
On the other side, Republicans spoke of vast left-wing conspiracies – a subject the prospective Supreme Court justice himself raised – and reposted talking points from the questioning and fake memes casting doubts on Ford’s sexual morals, which somewhat misses the point, as well as being slander.
If there was nuance, it got drowned under the majority of the comments that went along strict party lines. Perhaps in an existential battle for the future of America’s legal system the ends justify the means and no one cares about the collateral. More chilling than all this was the tone of callous disregard for the people involved: even if someone believes that a man or woman may only have a ten percent chance of being innocent, shouldn’t they be treated with humanity, particularly in a murky situation like this? Neither Kavanaugh nor Ford are monsters, and even if they were, what of the compassion and tolerance on which much of America prides itself?
What the world sees
Instead, there were two sacrificial lambs in a kangaroo court among lying, plotting, openly amoral politicians, amid a cacophony of raw noise.
This is how the world saw the US on Thursday.
Scores of countries across the world live according to constitutions modeled on the US Bill or Rights, political systems fashioned after that of the US, legal practices that treat America as the gold standard. American leaders are icons of world history, countries hang on to their every word, and many attempt to emulate and follow them (yes, even Trump).
The US revels in this role, and just this week its leader spoke of its “unique values” and how America made the world better and stood up for it. These scenes are not going to persuade Saudi Arabia that democracy is efficient. It excites not awe but laughter within the walls of the Kremlin.
The US has two choices: to fight as best it can to preserve the remaining value of its institutions - Congress, the supreme court, security agencies, and the presidency – or to continue its all-out battle against itself, where everyone is a loser, even when someone is declared the winner either on this nomination, the mid-terms, or 2020.
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