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Brett Kavanaugh Unhinged? Unlikely

Reflections on his testimony and on the need to resist his candidacy

Some reporters, bloggers, and pundits think that during his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, Judge Brett Kavanaugh just “lost it” and became “unhinged.”

I disagree. I have no doubt that he was angry and emotional, but his belligerent and partisan comments were also very strategic and calculated. He was not out of control. He was putting on a performance — the performance that Donald Trump insisted he put on under threat of withdrawing his nomination.

Kavanaugh spent several days huddled with White House officials preparing his testimony and discussing their strategy for combatting the various accusations of sexual assault, drunkenness, and violent behavior. It is well-known that at Trump’s request, Kavanaugh appeared on friendly Fox News Monday night to defend himself. He depicted himself as a choir boy concerned primarily with academics and sports, but in doing so revealed details that would be easy to disprove. Trump was unhappy with his performance, which he thought was too timid, defensive and unconvincing. Kavanaugh’s Senate testimony was his last chance to show Trump he was worthy.

Trump and Kavanaugh have much in common. They were both born to well-off parents. They attended private schools. They grew up entitled and privileged. Trump has a history of sexual abuse and it appears that Kavanaugh does as well. Trump is a pathological liar and we now know that Kavanaugh has lied his way through his confirmation hearings for his federal judgeship and now for the Supreme Court.

But there are also differences between the two men. Kavanaugh was a big drinker. Trump doesn’t drink. Kavanaugh was a good student in college and law school, while Trump was a mediocre student and today is barely literate. Kavanaugh spent his entire adult life as a conservative Republican zealot. Throughout his life, Trump had no clear principles or ideology other than a passion for wealth and celebrity, deep-seated racism, and a penchant for humiliating his critics.

In his testimony on Thursday, Kavanaugh adopted Trump’s modus operandus when confronted with accusations of misconduct and wrongdoing. Attack. Never admit a mistake. Charge your opponents with being part of a conspiracy. Lie if necessary. Kavanaugh’s rant on Thursday, like Trump’s similar rants throughout his presidency, demonstrate that both are unfit for public office.

Trump did not have to talk to Kavanaugh directly to relay the message that he would withdraw the nomination unless he stepped up his game when testifying before the Senate. The message was clear: If you don’t go on the offensive, be defiant, make it partisan, attack the Democrats and describe the attack on you as a left-wing conspiracy and witch-hunt, and insinuate that the criticisms of you are revenge among Hillary Clinton supporters, I will withdraw your nomination and find another candidate.

Many pundits have compared the controversy over Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination with that of Clarence Thomas in 1991, and compared Dr. Christine Blasey Ford to Anita Hill, who accused Thomas of sexual misconduct. There are certainly many parallels. But there are also significant differences. Back then, the phrase “sexual harassment” was not commonly used and there were no laws explicitly addressing this form of discrimination and behavior. Back then, the Senate included only two women members and neither of them — Republican Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas nor Democrat Barbara Mikulski of Maryland — served on the Judiciary Committee. Hill testified before a panel of all white men. Hill’s brave testimony and Thomas’ confirmation catalyzed an upsurge of anger and activism, leading to a doubling of the number of women in Congress in the 1992 elections, including the election of Diane Feinstein (former San Francisco mayor) to the Senate. Today there are 23 women in the Senate, 17 of them Democrats. Four of them, including Feinstein, serve on the Judiciary Committee.

Equally important, we’ve seen a renewed upsurge of activism and protest since Trump took office In January 2017, more than four million Americans took to the streets as part of the women’s march to protest Donald Trump’s reactionary agenda. We’ve also seen the emergence of the #metoo movement which has not only raised awareness about the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and assault but also forced the resignation, firing, indictment, and imprisonment of powerful men in entertainment, media, business, and politics who have engaged in these sexist behaviors. The number of women running for political office this year – at all levels of government – is at an all-time high. More than 500 women filed to run for Congress in 2018, according to the Rutgers Center for Women and Politics, a dramatic increase from the previous record of 298 in 2012. Of the 254 non-incumbent Democratic nominees for the House, half of them are women, compared to 18 percent of Republicans. There are currently 74 women in the House — 61 Democrats and 23 Republicans – but that number is likely to surpass 100 after the November elections.

A key part of Trump’s agenda has been to change the composition of the Supreme Court to guarantee a right-wing majority that will repeal Roe v Wade and same-sex marriage, dismantle voting rights and environment protections, and eviscerate the rights of miners, janitors, school teachers, and other workers and their unions.

Putting Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court will guarantee that, even if Trump is impeached, resigns, decides not to run for re-election, or is defeated for re-election in 2020, his legacy will be guaranteed in the right-wing Supreme Court for the next three or four decades.

But the fight isn’t over. Doing Trump’s bidding, the spineless, sexist, hypocritical Republicans on the Judiciary Committee voted to send Kavanaugh’s nomination to the full Senate.

But the ground has been shifting on a day to day, even hour by hour basis. It was public protest that forced the Republicans and Trump to reluctantly allow Dr. Ford to testify before the Judiciary Committee. They refused her request that the FBI investigate her allegations, and Kavanaugh’s denials, before they appeared before the committee. But the Democrats, and activists around the country, kept up the drumbeat for an investigation. Finally, Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona – who had previously said he would vote to confirm Kavanaugh — broke the logjam, announcing at the end of Thursday’s hearing that he would vote “no” on Kavanaugh unless the FBI is permitted to investigate Dr. Ford’s allegations of his sexual assault. At the end of hearing, Judiciary Committee chair Charles Grassley and his fellow Republicans reluctantly agreed to suggest a one-week FBI investigation, which would delay a final vote on Kavanaugh in the full Senate. Lacking the votes to confirm Kavanaugh, GOP Majority Leader Mitch McConnell grudgingly acquiesced.

But the drama didn’t end there. Trump – a serial sexual predator who has consistently defamed the agency – had to formally request an FBI investigation. Would he or wouldn’t he? The nation found out on Friday afternoon, when Trump ordered a limited, week-long FBI probe of the allegations against Kavanaugh. It was a full 180-turn from his previous statements.

If the FBI probe lends more credibility to Dr. Ford’s accusations (and perhaps those of other women) against Kavanaugh, and reveals that Kavanaugh was lying about his past, Trump might withdraw his nomination rather than risk a defeat on the Senate floor. But Trump may still insist that the Senate vote on his nominee, which would trigger an historic political battle – around the country, in the media, and on the floor of the Senate.

Overturning Trump’s nomination of Kavanaugh simply requires 51 Senators to vote “no.” Forty-eight of the 49 Democrats have already indicated that they will oppose Kavanaugh. Only Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia remains on the fence. Forty-nine of 51 Senate Republicans have signaled their intention to support Kavanaugh. But Flake appears to have had a change of heart, or at least a willingness to remain noncommital. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska are still publicly undecided.

That gives Americans of conscience a chance to change the political dynamic. Protest should be directed at the four Senators who still appear to be on the fence – Flake (who is not running for re-election), Collins, Murkowski, and Manchin. So it is up to the American people to again take to the streets, particularly in West Virginia, Alaska , Maine,and Arizona , and at these Senators’ houses and offices in their home states and in the DC area, to heighten the pressure.

Just as unions, environmental and LGBT groups, and civil rights organizations joined forces with women’s groups at marches around the country in January 2017, we need a diverse coalition to join forces to say “no” to Trump and Kavanaugh. If public opinion polls – especially in Alaska, Maine, West Virginia, and Arizona — show broad support for Dr. Ford and other accusers over support for Kavanaugh, we can still stop this wretched man from getting a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court.

 

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Peter Dreier

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