Thursday’s Judiciary Committee hearing was a study in contrasts whose differences were oddly erased by their result. Christine Blasey Ford seemed terrified but brimmed with goodwill. The extent of her cooperation is measurable: She went to great lengths to be as painfully precise as she could be, clarifying her comments at every turn. She was considerate of the committee and answered every question, repeatedly going out of her way to offer more than was asked. Her effort to comply under difficult circumstances was unrelenting, even as she downplayed the negative effects of all this on herself and her family. (Asked how her husband and children were doing, she said they were basically “OK.”) She came across as dedicated, responsible, and motivated by a sincere desire to help.
She was called credible by most observers.
Brett Kavanaugh launched his half of the proceedings without an iota of graciousness or respect for the body charged with advancing his confirmation. He began yelling his grievances at the committee. Though this may have been intended in part to be strategic, his demeanor quickly careened away from controlled chaos to just chaos as he attacked the committee’s Democrats in a hissing second person, his mouth curled in a sneer of contempt: “You have tried hard. You’ve given it your all. No one can question your efforts. Your coordinated and well-funded efforts to destroy my good name and destroy my family will not drag me out.” He used phrases like lying in wait. Take me out. So shocking was it to see a judge abandon reason and decorum in order to lob accusations and float conspiracies—at Americans whose offense was requesting that a serious charge against him be investigated—that many watching thought he must be about to withdraw from consideration. But no. He did not admit defeat in a blaze of glory. He denied, he attacked, and he obstructed, all the while making himself the victim of a proceeding he would later repeatedly claim to respect.
He, too, was called credible.
This, in short, is the power of anger: who gets to use it, and how it’s misread.
Vox charted the actual number of questions answered by each witness. See for yourself whether—per the actual information each offered—it’s appropriate or fair to call them equally candid. So, what happened? Why would some rush to call Kavanaugh authentic and sincere when his testimony brimmed with sarcasm and scorn? In a culture that instructs men to hide their emotions, this is the unfortunate side effect: a tendency to see anger—male anger, specifically—as a sign of candor because it’s broken through the wall of repression. Male outrage frequently functions—in our clumsy social calculus as outside observers—as a proxy with which we gauge a man’s honesty and even righteousness.
This means that anger is the kind of weapon that works on more fronts than we’re necessarily aware of. Rage, like tears, can be exploited for sympathy—but only in certain hands.
Kavanaugh’s performance wasn’t exactly a surprise: I’ve written about what I see as Kavanaugh’s strategy, which is to exaggerate his innocence in every matter, big or small, counting on male support while tailoring his personal conduct so as to earn the approval of his latest target. In his TV interview, Brett Kavanaugh believed he needed to be a buttoned-down choirboy for the Fox News audience he hoped to win over. He sat with his mostly silent wife and portrayed himself as a nice, quiet, decent man. On Thursday, his intended audience had changed: It was now Trump. The president prefers those who are more like him, so Brett Kavanaugh obliged. He shouted and sobbed, insulted half the country, and claimed the system was rigged, tying Ford’s allegation that he assaulted her into (I can’t believe I’m typing this) “revenge on behalf of the Clintons and millions of dollars in money from outside left-wing opposition groups.” It was an appalling, partisan, unhinged display. But it worked as intended: The president called it “riveting”!
To be clear, I don’t doubt the sincerity of Kavanaugh’s anger. No one doubts (least of all me) that Brett Kavanaugh feels passionately sorry for himself. He wanted this confirmation badly, and my impression— while watching that damp, extraordinary tantrum—was that he hasn’t had much experience coping with not getting what he wants. One can lightly sympathize: For a judge accustomed to holding other people accountable for their behavior, having the public combing through his yearbooks and asking about his drinking and sex life would not be pleasant. That is unfortunate. It is unpleasant, too, to be accused of assault. But his inability to cope is not, perhaps, what one looks for in a Supreme Court justice. This isn’t a trial; it’s a high-profile job interview for a big promotion. But it’s worth noting anyway that conduct like his wouldn’t be acceptable from a run-of-the-mill defendant—even one who was falsely accused—for whom the stress and stakes would be infinitely higher. We expect ordinary people in those circumstances to comport themselves with a modicum of dignity and restraint. For a lifetime appointment, one would think the standards for conduct and temperament would be rather higher, but Kavanaugh ground those expectations into the dust with his heel and stomped on them.
But the funny thing about male anger, no matter how pouty or infantile, is that people respect it. Many have pointed out that if Christine Blasey Ford—a woman whose only crime is coming forward with information she thought was useful to the American public before Brett Kavanaugh was even the nominee, and whose reward was to be inundated with threats and forced out of her home—had shown even a tenth of the anger Kavanaugh felt himself free to express, she’d have been compromised. Female anger is not only disapproved of; it’s read as essentially wrongheaded, a sign of pathology and brokenness. (See the “angry feminist” trope—the implication is that the anger is unwarranted.) Ford’s anger would have contaminated her motives. Given the reactions to Kavanaugh’s tirade, however, it’s clear that many still regard male anger as not just not acceptable but as corroborating: the fact of his inappropriate outburst somehow proves the legitimacy of whatever aroused it. Kavanaugh is angry, so what he’s angry about must be true! The illogic of this should be self-evident; it’s laughable, certainly, to anyone who has had to live with an unstable and angry man.
But people with a level of entitlement (as well as abusers) do see themselves as the victims—they’re not lying about that. They’re often mild-mannered and nice so long as no one tries to exert any authority over them. When confronted, they lash out. Jennifer Freyd at the University of Oregon has called this familiar pattern of behavior DARVO: Deny the behavior, Attack the individual doing the confronting, and Reverse the roles of Victim and Offender. I’ll note here that I’m not sure how well this maps onto Kavanaugh’s behavior, and I’m not making any presumption about abuse. Still, this strategy must be better understood, because it has something in common with the president’s conduct too. And while abuse has been researched, everyday male anger still seems to benefit from the assumption that there’s always a rational link between the anger and what caused it. Men are angry for good reason. This reflexive rationalization of male anger—our sense that it is somehow honest, if not always proportionate—deserves a long, hard look. Kavanaugh’s emotional outbursts were not proof of his authenticity, or of his honesty, or of the extremity of his suffering. The infamous yearbook incident is, I regret to say, a good demonstration of this.
Before the hearing, I wrote about what Kavanaugh’s lie about the “Renate Alumnius” caption under a photo of himself as well as the photos of some other football players said about Kavanaugh’s relationship to male networks. To my astonishment, he lied about that stupid ugly joke again, under oath. He got choked up during his opening statement—tears as sincerity—as he blamed everyone for misunderstanding what was, he insisted, a sweet gesture of inclusion. “That yearbook reference was clumsily meant to show affection, that she was one of us,” he said. Curiously, he and his friends never showed this touching homage (which shows up over a dozen times) to the person for whom it was allegedly intended. Renate did not know about the entry when she signed the letter of support affirming Kavanaugh’s respectful treatment of women. And she was understandably horrified when she did learn, because another guy in the group had included this poem in the yearbook: “You need a date/ and it’s getting late/ so don’t hesitate/ to call Renate.” Hardly a sweet gesture of inclusion.
I hadn’t expected Kavanaugh to double down on this particular lie because it was just so dumb. Yes, his strategy up to that point had been to overshoot with his denials, but at least he admitted (many times) in the hearing to “liking” beer. There were signs, in other words, that he was willing to abandon at least some of his virtuous fictions about himself.
I was wrong. Kavanaugh did not admit that he and his buddies made a cruel, dumb joke. Instead, he lied. And cried about it. And railed against the injustice of being so maliciously misunderstood. That tells us something about how much we can trust the relationship between his emotional displays and his truthfulness.
For a hearing that was specifically engineered to yield nothing conclusive—no witnesses questioned, no experts, no FBI investigation done—the spectacle was nonetheless instructive. It isn’t often that you get to see a nominee lose control, nor do you get to watch them regain their composure. Here, we got to see both: Kavanaugh eventually got a hold of himself. I’ve suggested that the allegations made about Kavanaugh, if they are true, paint the picture of a man who firms up his bond with other men however he can, sometimes by laughing at shared cruelty to women. It surprised me yesterday to see anger serving a similar in-group function in the halls of the Capitol, in front of a national audience. Kavanaugh settled down from his fever pitch, yes, but only once the male GOP senators displayed anger on his behalf, questioning him directly and scuttling the female prosecutor, Rachel Mitchell, whom they’d used as a go-between for all of Ford’s session and only part of Kavanaugh’s. As Sen. John Cornyn said after the hearing, they’d ditched Mitchell because the senators wanted to make arguments “that she frankly was not equipped to make.” She certainly wasn’t. The moment Kavanaugh started to find his footing and regain his composure was during Sen. Lindsey Graham’s own equally partisan and bizarre tantrum.
Before his ruffled feathers got smoothed, Kavanaugh had been impatient and angry, particularly when he was being questioned by women. He yelled at Sen. Dianne Feinstein, interrupted her, and yelled again. He was snappish and ungracious to Mitchell, the GOP prosecutor on his side. He refused to say he wanted an FBI investigation—repeating ad nauseam that he respected the committee’s decision and process—but that respect was less than evident when he had a female questioner. Graham helped calm him, but Sen. Klobuchar’s questions got him riled up again. He initially singled her out for praise, but when she asked him whether he’d ever drunk so much that he couldn’t remember what happened, he snapped. “I don’t know,” Kavanaugh sneered. “Have you?”
Klobuchar: Could you answer the question, judge? I just—so you—that’s not happened. Is that your answer?
Kavanaugh: Yeah, and I’m curious if you have.
It was aggressive and disrespectful. He apologized to her after a break (clearly someone had chastened him), but his instincts were perfectly clear.
Rage, like a microphone, can really only be held by one person at a time in these settings. Different people picked it up at different times during the hearing—Kavanaugh most of all—but its persuasive function was pretty obvious. The group that most effectively performed anger got to seem more honest, more righteous, more wronged. That group was male and Republican.
That rage became, if not exactly a bond, a shared ethos. The second half of the hearing became a blear of angry Republican men apologizing to Kavanaugh and furiously condemning the very process they devised as being “unfair”—even as they repeatedly refused to change it by, for example, reopening the FBI background investigation or interviewing the relevant witnesses. It was a bad-faith performance, but they performed it so angrily that plenty of people found it stirring and sincere.
This was not a path available to Ford. She did everything she needed to do, and more, with striking composure. Kavanaugh came off raging, paranoid, petulant, obstructionist. Yet afterward, their testimonies were treated as if they had been exactly equal and opposite. All her effort. All her control and precision and goodwill. All her sacrifice, for nothing. Her quiet pleas for a full investigation were erased by a manic flurry of bellowed indignation.
This hearing offered indirect evidence, then, of how much we value male anger, and how little we rate female sadness. Women and men who have been sexually victimized have torn themselves open, laying bare their most traumatic experiences in an attempt to educate those in power on what this is, how it works, how it hurts. On Thursday, it didn’t matter. There was no performance so credible and sympathetic on Ford’s part that would have made a difference to these men, and no performance so unhinged by Kavanaugh that would have changed their vote. This is bad for the court. If Kavanaugh is confirmed after that disqualifying display, in which he lied under oath, spewed partisan invective, and disrespected female questioners, the Supreme Court as an American institution will no longer be able to sustain even the fiction of its legitimacy.
There may be lessons here for the rest of us about anger and the way it is used and interpreted. As observers, we probably need to learn to uncouple male anger (or tears) from sincerity—or to at least apply as much skepticism as we do to angry women. For another, there’s no point in containing one’s anger anymore. If a potential Supreme Court justice can behave that way, so can the rest of us. Bottling one’s rage into an acceptable social performance is enormous labor, and we’ve learned this week that it’s not worth doing. It does not work. All it does is condense the rage into a numbing grief that erodes the self and weakens the will to action. If this is how it’s going to be, lesson learned.
There are lessons for Republicans, too, should they want them. When you break a system so badly that even an unimpeachable performance by a credible witness fails to be taken seriously, you play an extremely dangerous game. A small number of senators may have been able to force a delay in the confirmation vote, but Thursday has made its mark. Kavanaugh said it himself: “You sowed the wind for decades to come. I fear that the whole country will reap the whirlwinds.” The hearing revealed what the way forward must be: Anger is less than a truth test, but it’s also more than a feeling. It’s a strategy and a tool. And women’s anger must come out. We’ve been left no other choice.
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.Join Slate Plus