Christine Blasey Ford, Brett Kavanaugh, and the day the laughter stopped for America’s privileged | Will Bunch
Writing live off what happens in today's Super Bowl of politics and gender, the Brett Kavanaugh-Christine Blasey Ford showdown. Whatever happens, the GOP has made it abundantly clear: They are the party of privilege, and they will go to the mat to preserve it.
That's the most indelible memory that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford said she's kept bottled inside of her since a horrific summer evening in 1982 — the wild cackling of then-teenagers Mark Judge and Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, chillingly described now by the 51-year-old research psychologist as "the boy who sexually assaulted me."
Today it's a safe bet that millions of Americans who spent an early autumn day riveted to the screen will never forget the moment she finally released the burden of that memory – under the blazing hot glare of TV lights and a Senate hearing room that Dr. Ford had so desperately wanted to avoid.
"Indelible in the hippocampus" — the brain's center for both memory and emotion — "is the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense," Dr. Ford said. That's how she described the worst moment of the incident in which she alleges that Kavanaugh – a federal appeals judge who stood on the brink of becoming the 114th Supreme Court justice – threw his full weight on her, tried drunkenly to remove her clothes, and covered her mouth when she tried to scream.
The emotional retelling of that moment by Dr. Ford – delivered with a remarkable, crisp clarity, even as her voice sometimes cracked and tears welled in her eyes as she brushed away a stray hair – was just one unforgettable moment in a day of drama that now will be inked indelibly in the pages of American history.
The unflinching directness of Dr. Ford's account – her "100 percent" certainty that it was Kavanaugh, along with his best friend Judge, who pulled her into a suburban Maryland bedroom and locked the door, her vivid description of the weight of Kavanaugh atop her body and how she struggled for air and thought she might die as the then 17-year-old covered her mouth – seemed to throw into doubt the once near-certainty of Kavanaugh's confirmation the longer she spoke.
Indeed, that looming reversal of fortune surely sparked Thursday's other hard-to-believe-this-is-really happening moment, Kavanaugh's loud, forceful — some might dare say belligerent — burn-it-all-down afternoon rebuttal, in which the 53-year-old jurist called both the confirmation process and the mounting allegations against him "a national disgrace."
Alternating between near-shouting and barely muted sobs as he described the impact the allegations have had on his family, an animated Kavanaugh sounded less like the calm witness who earlier this month promised to rule impartially like a baseball umpire and more like a Glenn Beck-style talk-radio host, calling himself a victim of "revenge on behalf of the Clintons." It wasn't clear whether Kavanaugh's clear attempt to appeal as a macho brawler to President Trump and his political base was enough to save his nomination. After nine grueling hours, the only thing that could be said with certainty is that there hasn't been this much crying in the public arena since Prince died.
People inside the hearing room and throngs that gathered in and around the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill reported that many wept as Dr. Ford told her story after admitting at the outset she was "terrified" to be there. President Trump is said to have watched the proceedings as he returned from New York City on Air Force One and – according to Vanity Fair's well-sourced Gabriel Sherman – was blindsided by Dr. Ford's credibility, only to be encouraged later in the day by Kavanaugh's angry rebuttal.
It was a day of emotional ping-pong and high stakes political poker. Hanging in the balance were the biggest dream of the conservative movement – a decidedly right-wing Supreme Court for the next generation, with huge consequences for everything from corporate power to women's reproductive rights – but also the fate of a predicted "blue wave" for the Democrats in November that could become a blue tsunami if white women continue to desert the Republican Party in droves.
But make no mistake: This was also a kind of cultural Pearl Harbor, a date — September 27, 2018 — which will live in infamy in the culture wars between a deeply entrenched patriarchy and a rising #MeToo movement of women telling their survivor stories of sexual abuse and harassment. That rising ride encouraged Dr. Ford to come forward with her long-repressed reckoning, and her courage in testifying on Thursday seemed to pay the #MeToo movement back with interest.
In the morning, everything that Republicans tried to do seemed to backfire, reinforcing the notion that the GOP is a, yes, a party for old men. It began with a cowardly decision to outsource the questioning of Dr. Ford to a female sex-crimes prosecutor from Arizona, Rachel Mitchell. Every time that committee chair, Sen. Charles Grassley, called out the name of a man – John Cornyn, Ben Sasse, Lindsey Graham, etc., etc. — yielding his time because they were so afraid of the political risks from questioning a woman, the moral stature of the Republican Party shrunk a little.
Clearly, Dr. Ford was not the only "terrified" person in the room, but unlike 11 Republican men, she showed the courage to fight through it.
Dr. Ford does lack corroborating evidence from 36 years ago – a point hammered home repeatedly by Kavanaugh's defenders – but her account held together in a way that made Mitchell's focus on peripheral matters, like whether Dr. Ford wasn't fully truthful when she mentioned a fear of flying in scheduling her testimony, look both silly and counterproductive.
But it was hard for the Arizona prosecutor or others to drill deep on the facts — not after a Republican White House blocked an FBI probe of either Dr. Ford's allegation or those of two other women who went public, not after GOP senators refused to subpoena Mark Judge to tell his version, and not after an unprecedented rush to vote Kavanaugh onto the court.
The rush to judgment – at least before the monkey wrench of Dr. Ford's testimony – betrayed what a growing number of Americans are seeing as the sociological subtext to the Kavanaugh fight: a last stand for an embattled regime of white male elite privilege, under assault from the #MeToo movement and other seismic cultural shifts.
The lengths to which Republicans seem determined to force Kavanaugh – the most unpopular Supreme Court nominee in modern polling, even before Dr. Ford and the others came forward – on the American people has left a bitter taste for many women, who only reached a new boiling point of anger Thursday as they watched Dr. Ford being put through the emotional wringer of telling her story in public. Sen. Graham gave away the privilege game when he raged to reporters about Dr. Ford's testimony, saying, "I feel ambushed in the majority."
The sexual divide is why Dr. Ford's recollection of the hysterical laughter by Kavanaugh and Judge cut so deeply. To laugh in the throes of such an act of violence and domination is the power play that undergirds the terrorism of such an act. Sexual assault isn't so much about sex as about power, and this is what many find so disturbing about the accusations against Kavanaugh; his second accuser, Yale classmate Deborah Ramirez, also said one of her most vivid recollections of the night she claims the future judge shoved his penis in her face was her assailant's laughter.
The laughter — a powerful thing that cuts many ways. No one knows that better than President Trump, who frequently voices his concern, or fear, that people are laughing at America or its leaders. This week, it was Trump who found himself on the defensive after other world leaders at the United Nations laughed at him and his boasts about his presidency. Laughter, in these circumstances, is all about respect. Even President Trump, in his own Trumpian way, gets that.
But so do America's women. It's the reason why Thursday's emotional but morally direct testimony by Dr. Ford was such a cultural touchstone for them. It's still quite possible that the male-dominated GOP majority in the Senate will take its refuge in Kavanaugh's high-volume anger – and not Dr. Ford's soft dignity – and place him on the Supreme Court, perhaps in a matter of a few days. But that won't protect these 11 men and their party from a firestorm of fury in November. America's angry women voters may still have the last laugh.