Post-Kavanaugh Stress Disorder
Ending our political suffering will be a bigger project than winning the next election
Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last Thursday, and Brett Kavanaugh’s unhinged response to her charges, was an epic installment of the Trump Show, now in season two. It’s probably safe to say that neither Kavanaugh or the GOP leadership care whether they alienate women voters by dismissing Blasey’s certainty that she was sexually assaulted by the nominee in question while his bestie, Mark Judge, looked on. According to a CBS poll taken in the three days after Blasey and Kavanaugh told their stories, “41 % of men said they think Kavanaugh should be confirmed, compared with 29% of women,” while 70% of female registered Republicans “said they thought that Kavanaugh should be confirmed.”
The Trump administration has rallied behind a damaged candidate whose best defense seems to be that everyone loves a beer or two — or six. (I don’t: it makes me fat. And Brett, it makes you fat too. I’m just saying.) As of last night, news outlets were reporting that the reopened FBI investigation that was originally scheduled to last until Friday might be foreclosed as early as today; Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority leader, plans to move for a cloture vote on Kavanaugh by the end of the week. Meanwhile, at a campaign rally last night, Trump mocked Blasey for things she could not remember about the assault.
While two Republican senators have condemned what is now routine behavior from the President, Kellyanne Conway, the President’s designated sexual assault spokesperson in the West Wing, indicated that Blasey had caused everyone enough trouble and she should go away now. “The woman has been accommodated by all of us, including Senate Judiciary Committee,” Conway snapped. “She’s been treated like a Faberge egg by all of us, beginning with me and the President. He’s pointing out factual inconsistencies.”
You know what seems like a Faberge egg right now? Democracy. Process. Human decency. The damage that the Kavanaugh hearings has done is so thick you can practically taste it floating in the air. Not only must we deal with a bully President for at least the next two years, but Trump’s surrogate bully – a man who makes Clarence Thomas look like a guy with a dorky sense of humor and a few bad pick-up lines – now threatens to perpetuate a lifetime dry drunk from the Supreme Court.
Right wing media figures perpetuate the notion that liberals and leftists are constantly running around with our hair on fire about things we need to just get over, like racism, homophobia, incarceration and sexual assault. I guess they really believe this. Conway herself came out as a sexual assault victim last week, solely, as far as I can tell, to be a living example of someone who got over it. Should this confirmation be successful (and my confidence that Jeff Flake, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski will do the right thing is very low), I fear that it will not energize votes against the GOP as much as plunge much of the country into despair.
Curious as to what this might mean, I looked up the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and came up with the following descriptions and advice from the National Center for PTSD at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Washington, D.C. They reassured me that “It is normal to have stress reactions after a traumatic event. Your emotions and behavior can change in ways that are upsetting to you.”
This perfectly describes how I, and most of my friends, feel in this post-Kavanaugh moment. Yet, as I think about it, I have to ask myself: when did the “traumatic event” actually start? Was it the night of November 8, 2016, when I looked at James Carville’s grim face behind the MSNBC election night coverage desk and thought: “He knows something, and this is not good”? Or was it earlier – on October 7, when the Washington Post published the now-infamous Access Hollywood video, and I realized that Donald Trump, a candidate for President of the United States, thought it was great fun to grope and kiss women without permission? Or maybe it was afterwards, when women who alleged that Trump had actually grabbed `em by the pussy started calling reporters about it, and it did not disqualify him from being President?
Or was it further back than that? Perhaps it started on February 26, 1998, when another president, Bill Clinton, got on national television and looked firmly into the camera, with that tight little frowny mouth that indicated how angry he was to be interrupted from running the Free World, and said: “I want you to listen to me. I’m going to say this again: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time; never. These allegations are false.”
And I thought, oh God. He did.
The Department of Veterans Affairs reassures us that “Even though most people have stress reactions following a trauma, they get better in time.” Do they? I’m not sure. Whether there is any hope of getting better in time would depend, of course, on when the event started. If it started in 1998, perhaps — but what if it started even earlier – say, on July 18, 1969, when Senator Ted Kennedy drunk-drove his car through the guard rail on the Dike Bridge connecting Chappaquiddick Island to Edgartown, MA, accidentally drowning poor Mary Jo Kopechne?
If the event began fifty years ago, there may be little hope that we will all actually get better. “But,” the site tells us, “you should seek help if symptoms last longer than three months, cause you great distress, disrupt your work or home life.” Easy for you to say. Where do we go for help if the people in charge – Donald Trump, Kellyanne Conway, Mitch McConnell – are telling us that the event never happened, or if it did, we need to just get over it? Furthermore, our efforts to seek help only seem to make things worse. We read about the various details of Brett Kavanaugh’s high school and college drinking obsessively. We fulminate on Facebook and Twitter, activating the fantasy that we live in a democracy where anyone cares what we think. We ask for investigations. We march. But nothing we do seems to change anything. Engaging public life is a process of comforting ourselves that things could be worse.
How could they be worse, if facts themselves are so under siege? Nevertheless, we try. We report stories, as if it will support our version of the truth that Trump, and everyone associated with him, are grifters and carnies. Just last night, an eighteen-month investigative report from The New York Times broke, detailing chronic tax evasion by the Trump family dating back at least to Donald Trump’s babyhood, when he earned thousands of dollars a week as his father’s “employee.” Journalists David Barstow, Susanne Craig and Russ Buettner estimate that by undervaluing property, steering money through shell companies, and “taking improper tax deductions” Fred and Mary Trump passed on around $550 million to their children that properly belongs to the American people. Other than a history of felonious behavior, what this story reveals is that the narrative of Donald J. Trump, self-made man and master dealmaker, is about as fraudulent as the idea that the Devil’s Triangle is a drinking game.
Lying is part of the event, producing more symptoms: disorientation, rage and confusion about the true order of the world. And when there is no penalty for lying, our symptoms intensify. “Symptoms of PTSD,” the Department of Veterans Affairs tells us, “may disrupt your life and make it hard to continue with your daily activities. You may find it hard just to get through the day.” What is really disrupting my life, frankly, is what seems like the constant need to pay attention to each new outrage. As Virginia Heffernan pointed out on last week’s Trumpcast, a podcast that Slate has been producing since Donald Trump became a viable candidate for the Republican nomination in March 2016, you have to wonder sometimes why “every newspaper headline isn’t just: `What the Hell’”?
However, not paying attention does not seem like an option – not just because I am a political historian, but also because the prominence of sexual assault on the Trump Show, and the lies the characters tell about sexual assault, make it almost impossible to get through a day without thinking about sexual assault. Furthermore, because Kavanaugh is completely gaslighting us about both the extent of his drinking and his behavior while drinking, we all spend a lot of time decoding Kavanaugh’s words and affect as if somehow this will give us access to the truth and bring the event to a close. Daily life under these conditions becomes a constant battle between simply doing what needs to be done – registering the car, teaching, taking out the trash, writing a column for Public Seminar – and being obsessed with an event that makes no sense but must be endured anyway.
Part of the problem with living life with the Trump Show playing relentlessly in the background is that the event is everywhere. Furthermore, Christine Blasey Ford’s courageous testimony emphasizes what we have suspected all along: a great many people have been touched by, or experienced, sexual violence. Reporting is going through the roof. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, in the United States “One in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives,” and “In the U.S., one in three women and one in six men experienced some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime.” While sexual assault is common in families, it seems to be rampant in institutional settings: schools, prisons, and the military are but a few examples. Over 40% of women and 50% of men are sexually assaulted by an acquaintance, and 80% of men and women who are raped (or in the words of Republican lawmakers “forcibly raped”), are raped by someone they know.
“PTSD symptoms,” the Department of Veterans Affairs concludes, “usually start soon after the traumatic event. But for some people, they may not happen until months or years after the trauma. Symptoms may come and go over many years.” But to know when the symptoms began, we would also have to know when the event began.
But we don’t. It crept up on us when we weren’t looking. And it will take more than another election to make it go away.
Claire Potter is professor of history at The New School, and Executive Editor of Public Seminar. You can follow her on Twitter.