Trump, Kavanaugh, bravado and fantasy
Dr Christine Blasey Ford and her family are in hiding. Somewhere in California. It’s not a fixed place, either – her family shuttles between multiple safe homes. At their expense. The death threats have compelled it. Perhaps – perhaps – as a single woman she might have stayed home. But not with kids. Not now.
Ford’s decision to employ security guards, and to move between secret homes, was taken before she testified to the United States Senate judiciary committee, alleging sexual assault by Supreme Court justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh – and before President Donald Trump mocked that testimony at a public rally. In other words, death threats were rolling in before she had spoken in front of a live audience of millions – and well before the US president had suggested she was dishonest and unleashed the hounds of hell.
It wasn’t meant to be this way.
In some ways, the presidency has been a dream run for Trump. He controls his party, his party controls both houses, he inherited an improving economy, and, with Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement, he has his second opportunity to nominate a Supreme Court justice. In eight years, Barack Obama made only two successful appointments to the court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Elena Kagan.
In July, Trump announced Judge Brett Kavanaugh as his nominee to fill Kennedy’s vacancy. From the White House’s East Room, he said: “Judge Kavanaugh has impeccable credentials, unsurpassed qualifications and a proven commitment to equal justice under the law. A graduate of Yale College and Yale Law School, Judge Kavanaugh currently teaches at Harvard, Yale and Georgetown. Throughout legal circles, he is considered a judge’s judge, a true thought leader among his peers. He is a brilliant jurist with a clear and effective writing style, universally regarded as one of the finest and sharpest legal minds in our time.”
Back in July, before Kavanaugh’s nomination became a national firestorm, the prevailing questions were, naturally enough, about his constitutional beliefs. Kavanaugh inclines towards the theory of “unitary executive” – practically, that Congress should not create federal agencies that aren’t directly beneath the president’s authority.
Legally speaking, Kavanaugh has great affection for presidential power, the primacy of which flows from Article Two of the US Constitution. In 1999, Kavanaugh wondered if the Supreme Court, in a unanimous 8–0 decision in 1974, hadn’t erred in finding against Richard Nixon when he challenged a subpoena for the damning “White House tapes”. In that instance, the Supreme Court found that the president does not enjoy unqualified executive privilege, nor immunity from court orders. Kavanaugh worked for prosecutor Kenneth Starr in the 1990s, during Starr’s investigation of Bill Clinton, but he would later come to regret the fact. “The nation certainly would have been better off if President Clinton could have focused on Osama bin Laden without being distracted by the Paula Jones sexual harassment case and its criminal-investigation offshoots,” he later said. Kavanaugh has written that Congress should pass legislation granting a sitting president immunity from criminal charges – the job is exceptionally burdensome, he has argued, and so requires exceptional privileges. Defenders of Kavanaugh have said that this would simply codify what the Justice Department’s legal counsel has long believed anyway: that the indictment of a sitting president would be unconstitutional.
Most concerning for critics, though, were Kavanaugh’s beliefs on abortion – and most pertinently his views on Roe v Wade, a 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalised abortion, with qualifications. During the 2016 election campaign, Trump said that Roe v Wade should be repealed – returning to states their power to outlaw abortion – and that, if he became president, he would appoint justices to do just that.
But in the past few weeks, little of this has been mentioned.
“I am here today not because I want to be,” Christine Blasey Ford said, opening her testimony before the Senate judiciary committee last week. “I am terrified. I am here because I believe it is my civic duty to tell you what happened to me while Brett Kavanaugh and I were in high school.”
Millions were watching. In bars, classrooms and aeroplanes. The giant news ticker in Times Square ran updates. The president watched from his residence. People watching on C-SPAN called in live with their own stories of molestation. “The details about that night that bring me here today, are the ones I will never forget. They have been seared into my memory and have haunted me episodically as an adult.
“When I got to the small gathering, people were drinking beer in a small living room, family room-type area on the first floor of the house. I drank one beer that evening. Brett and Mark [Judge, Kavanaugh’s friend] were visibly drunk. Early in the evening, I went up a very narrow set of stairs leading from the living room to a second floor to use the restroom. When I got to the top of the stairs, I was pushed from behind into a bedroom across from the bathroom. I couldn’t see who pushed me. Brett and Mark came into the bedroom and locked the door behind them ...
“I was pushed onto the bed and Brett got on top of me. He began running his hands over my body and grinding into me. I yelled, hoping that someone downstairs might hear me, and I tried to get away from him, but his weight was heavy. Brett groped me and tried to take off my clothes. He had a hard time, because he was very inebriated and because I was wearing a one-piece bathing suit underneath my clothing.
“I believed he was going to rape me. I tried to yell for help. When I did, Brett put his hand over my mouth to stop me from yelling. This is what terrified me the most and has had the most lasting impact on my life. It was hard for me to breathe and I thought that Brett was accidentally going to kill me. Both Brett and Mark were drunkenly laughing during the attack. They seemed to be having a very good time.”
The White House and congressional Republicans had discussed how to handle the questioning of Ford. “Treat her like a Fabergé egg,” was the tactic. And for a fortnight, President Trump – relative to his standards, at least – was restrained. Following Ford’s testimony and questioning, Trump referred to her as “credible” and her testimony “compelling”.
Part of the Fabergé-egg approach was the Republican Party’s appointment of a female prosecutor, expert in sexual crimes, to ask questions on their behalf – wary, as they were, of being composed entirely of men. But less than a week later, Trump’s restraint would shockingly fail him.
When Ford first met her husband, she confided in him that she had been sexually assaulted in her youth. But it was not until 2012 that she offered specific details and named her alleged attacker. Ford and her husband were in couple’s therapy, ostensibly to address deepening arguments about the renovation of their home but, as it became clear, the tensions actually derived from the assault. Ford wanted a second front door added to their home, a fact that was incomprehensible to her husband – until it was explained that it was a function of her anxiety, and the need to shape the material world in such a manner as to create avenues of escape.
And now, for just the second time, Ford was specifying those details again in the US Senate and before a rapt country that was variously tearful, sympathetic, incredulous and hostile. One of the more memorable exchanges came between Ford and Democrat senator Patrick Leahy.
“What is the strongest memory you have, the strongest memory of the incident, something you cannot forget?” Leahy asked. “Take whatever time you need.”
“Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” Ford responded. “The uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.”
“You’ve never forgotten that laughter, you’ve never forgotten them laughing at you?”
“They were laughing with each other.”
“And you were the object of that laughter?”
“I was, you know, underneath one of them while the two laughed.”
One theory had been floated by Republicans – that Ford had been assaulted, but it was a case of mistaken identity. Tactically, it seemed ideal: Ford’s credibility was partially respected, while Kavanaugh exonerated. Senator Dianne Feinstein put the question directly to Ford.
“How are you so sure that it was he?”
“The same way that I’m sure I’m talking to you right now,” Ford replied. “Just basic memory functions ... [neurotransmitters] encode memories into the hippocampus, and so the trauma-related experience is locked there, whereas other details kind of drift.”
“So what you are telling us, this could not be a case of mistaken identity?”
Judge Kavanaugh’s testimony and questioning were also memorable. For hours, Kavanaugh was variously tearful, indignant, belligerent – and consistent in his vehement and unequivocal rejection of all allegations of sexual misconduct. “This has destroyed my family and my good name,” he said. “A good name built up through decades of very hard work and public service at the highest levels of the American government.
“This whole two-week effort has been a calculated and orchestrated political hit, fuelled with apparent pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election. Fear that has been unfairly stoked about my judicial record. Revenge on behalf of the Clintons, and millions of dollars in money from outside left-wing opposition groups.
“This is a circus. The consequences will extend long past my nomination. The consequences will be with us for decades. This grotesque and coordinated character assassination will dissuade competent and good people of all political persuasions, from serving our country.”
Kavanaugh wept as he recalled his young daughter saying that they should pray for Ford and her family, too. “A lot of wisdom,” he said.
Kavanaugh’s characterisation of his student days was of a hard-working, God-fearing, sports-loving and academically successful kid who occasionally liked a beer. It was this characterisation that prompted more than a dozen old high-school and college friends and acquaintances to emerge and challenge what they regarded as a whitewashing of his past. Central to this was their witnessing Kavanaugh’s serial abuse of alcohol, in which he was liable to become petulant and – crucially – black out. Kavanaugh emphatically denied ever having blacked out because of alcohol. This is crucial. If this were admitted then he could no longer unequivocally refute the sexual assault allegations.
That made for a resonant counterpoint in their two testimonies – that Ford’s memory might be lucidly, life-changingly consolidated by adrenaline; and, divergently, that Kavanaugh’s might be damaged by the booze he enjoyed excessively.
One old drinking buddy went public with a story – which he said he would swear to in an affidavit – that, one night in 1985, a drunk and belligerent Kavanaugh threw the contents of his glass at a man, instigating a bar brawl that resulted in the arrest of a mutual friend. Kavanaugh’s testimony, he said, was dishonest. Dissembling.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell derided the story. “Last night The New York Times unleashed this major story,” he said sarcastically. “Get this! Judge Kavanaugh may have been accused of throwing some ice across a college bar in the mid 1980s. Talk about a bombshell!”
His derision was disingenuous. It wasn’t the act itself that was important to the old friend, but how it contradicted the judge’s personal characterisation of his younger self. This was true for most of the old acquaintances – the point wasn’t about binge drinking and boorishness, but their discomfort with Kavanaugh’s elision of it. In other words, it wasn’t the youthful behaviour that mattered, but its concealment under oath.
The shot clock was running down on Kavanaugh’s appointment – a shot clock determined by the midterm elections on November 6. There is a chance that the Democrats can reclaim both houses, which would oblige a compromise nominee for the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh’s window was narrowing, which is why the White House, in ordering the FBI to renew its background check on the judge, was given only a week to do so. The FBI delivered its report on Thursday and it was passed to the Senate for review after the White House declared it contained no corroborating evidence for the allegations against Kavanaugh. At time of writing, the vote on his confirmation was expected to be held this weekend. Republican senator Jeff Flake, who became crucial when he declared himself undecided, had said that if the report returned nothing new, he would vote affirmatively.
It can be hard writing with sobriety about Trump, when it’s easier to glimpse him as a megaphone for America’s id – shameless, brooding, vindictive and incurably impulsive. More practically, it’s difficult to measure and respond to statements that are so insistently anarchic. There pours from Trump such a volume of lies, non sequiturs and vulgar provocation that the listener is trapped by their own outrage and nausea.
Yet retaining the capacity to be shocked increasingly seems like a virtue when Trump’s transgressions are made with numbing regularity. This week, he indulged in his favourite part of the job – fronting a large and adoring crowd. Trump was rallying for the Republican Party in Mississippi, ahead of the midterm elections. His address was yet another transgression, and one more chapter in the great diminishment of the American republic.
It was an almost two-hour speech, mostly improvised, and strewn with falsehoods and untethered digressions – a bizarre libretto arranged entirely for its speaker’s ego.
The speech’s most insistent theme was Trump’s perpetually embattled self, and thousands of words were spent ridiculing perceived enemies. Conveniently, his long soliloquy avoided the day’s biggest story – a massive New York Times investigation that found the president had aided his late father’s tax dodges and been handsomely rewarded in turn. It punctured Trump’s deceitful origin story of a modest parental investment that he transformed, through guile and gumption, into a multibillion-dollar empire.
In Mississippi, the Times story was never mentioned. Instead, Trump kicked sand. A lot of it. The media were “dishonest”, critics of Kavanaugh were “really evil”, and he implied that Democrat senator Patrick Leahy had a drinking problem. But most shocking was his sustained mockery of Christine Blasey Ford, whose testimony he crudely imitated before a rapturously amused crowd. “Thirty-six years ago this happened,” Trump said. “I had one beer, right? I had one beer. How did you get home? I don’t remember. How did you get there? I don’t remember. Where is the place? I don’t remember. How many years ago was it? I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. What neighbourhood was it in? I don’t know. Where’s the house? I don’t know. Upstairs, downstairs, where was it? I don’t know. But I had one beer. That’s the only thing I remember.”
And there it was again: they were laughing at her.
Having emptied his bottle of kerosene – and having repeated Ford’s nightmare – Trump ended his rally speech by returning to script. “A vote for Republicans is a vote to reject the Democrat politics of anger, destruction, chaos and to come together as citizens and neighbours.”
The dissonance causes whiplash. And not for the first time. Trump rarely uses language to heal, but rather to hurt. He has rarely used language to collaborate – conversing with foreign dictators excluded – but more often to consolidate his base. In streams of abusive or self-revering babble, Trump relies upon his ability to insult – and to profitably inflame America’s id.
In Joe Klein’s book on Bill Clinton’s presidency, The Natural, Klein introduces the fact that Clinton was the first US president to publicly acknowledge he had undergone psychotherapy, before imagining Clinton as a therapist’s “worst nightmare”: charming, voluble and knowing intuitively how much to confess, so as to appear cooperative – and only the better to mislead them.
If Clinton gave lessons in artful dissembling and shamelessness, Trump offers a more frightening one: his dissembling is shamelessly artless, and it can afford to be so because his shamelessness has no borders. It’s infinitely unconstrained. It’s a rare, frightening and immensely powerful quality. And the Republican Party – and a reasonable rump of the US – rides happily in its saddle.
Sure, Trump was a symptom of American decay, distrust – and not its cause. But having ridden his country’s anxieties and contempt to the Oval Office, he hasn’t loosened his reins on them. Or is it Trump who is harnessed by his base’s anxiety and contempt? Who is guiding who? And towards what? Certainly not towards a “coming together as civilians and neighbours”. If Trump’s speech was a guide, there’s no goal beyond maintaining chaos, bad faith and fantasy.
“The final key to the way I promote is bravado,” reads Trump’s The Art of the Deal. “I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration – and a very effective form of promotion.”
The passage is both ghostwritten and antiseptic, suggesting a shrewd titan of capital with wisdom to spit, rather than a serial bankrupt whose vast inherited wealth has been variously lost, sleazily invested and greased against taxation. But it’s still revealing. Bravado. Fantasy. Hyperbole. Promotion. Blithe and soulless, this posture sufficed in selling steaks and condos, but it’s now used to sell the presidency itself.
The midterm elections are less than four weeks away and now, as a central battleground for it, Christine Blasey Ford’s family will likely still be in hiding.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 6, 2018 as "Against bitter judgement". Subscribe here.