How Are We Supposed to Understand Brett Kavanaugh Now?

Six months later, with Joe Biden running for president, I can’t stop thinking about how we got here.

Demonstrators protest against the appointment of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in Washington D.C. on Oct. 5, 2018.
Demonstrators protest against the appointment of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in Washington on Oct. 5.
Jose Luis Magana/AFP/Getty Images

When I think back on the weeks I spent writing about Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault allegation against Brett Kavanaugh, it all feels like a bad dream. Everything was so real in the moment: the palpable admiration for Ford among young activists; the way all conversation, even at friendly dinner gatherings, tilted toward Kavanaugh for almost an entire month; the white-hot women’s anger that exploded into elevators and the halls of the U.S. Senate. And then, after weeks of buildup that felt much longer, Kavanaugh was anti-climactically confirmed to the Supreme Court. There wasn’t even much conscientious deliberation among the swing voters in the Senate. Today, he sits with the other justices in one of America’s most secure and powerful jobs; he can wear a stately black robe and write abortion rights out of the Constitution until he dies. Everything and everyone has moved on from the Ford hearing because we’ve had to.

The strangeness of this current state of things—the expectation that everyone move on without any form of reconciliation—is perhaps best exemplified by a pair of dueling entries in Time magazine’s annual “100 Most Influential People” list. In the “Icons” section was a blurb on Ford, written by Sen. Kamala Harris, who described her subject as a woman who “had a good life and a successful career—and risked everything to send a warning in a moment of grave consequence.” In the “Leaders” section, Sen. Mitch McConnell described now–Justice Kavanaugh as “one of the most qualified Supreme Court nominees in modern history.”

There’s something unnerving about these Time tributes, beginning with the fact that Kavanaugh appears to be the beneficiary of some both sides–y affirmative action. (He’s no more of a “leader” than any of his fellow justices on the court—he’s barely had time to establish a doctrine or M.O. since his swearing-in six months ago.) Even weirder, neither blurb mentions the other most influential person.

Ford’s doesn’t even hint at the Supreme Court nomination that compelled her to make her allegation public; nor does Harris acknowledge that she was there in the room as Ford told “her story, spoken while holding back tears” because it was part of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. (She does note that it “shook Washington and the country.”) Kavanaugh’s blurb says nothing about sexual assault at all—McConnell reduced Ford’s entire testimony to an oblique mention of the “unhinged partisanship and special interests” that “sought to distract the Senate from considering [Kavanaugh’s] qualifications.”

Some might argue that excising Kavanaugh from Ford’s write-up is dignifying: It establishes her influence on her own terms, unblemished by the reality of Kavanaugh’s easy confirmation. But Ford’s story does not make sense as it is written. It makes no reference to the systemic forces that kept her silent for 30 years, or the people who subjected her to ridicule when she did speak out. She would not have had to upend her life (and thus become an “icon”) if badly behaving men were not routinely rewarded for hoarding power in chummy alliances built on female humiliation. Ford’s alleged sexual assault would not have happened without an alleged sexual assailant. It was never just about Ford doing something brave and right. It was about lots of other people doing things that were cowardly and very, very wrong.

These two blinkered blurbs telling mutually exclusive versions of the same historically significant event in a single American publication seem to indicate that the country has emerged from the Ford-Kavanaugh crucible no closer to a shared understanding of sexual assault and the lifelong pitfalls of frat-bro masculinity than before. More evidence to that end came earlier this month in the form of a new report from PerryUndem: In December, the research firm surveyed 1,319 registered voters on their opinions of Kavanaugh and Ford. Overall, 55 percent said they believed Ford while 39 percent believed Kavanaugh, a split more than twice as wide as a poll conducted immediately after the Ford’s testimony had found. Four in 10 said the Senate did the wrong thing by confirming Kavanaugh; slightly fewer, 35 percent, said the Senate did right.

Although the majority of survey respondents landed on Ford’s side, one group took away a totally different lesson. When PerryUndem compared the December 2018 survey results to those from a November 2017 poll, researchers found that the proportion of Republican men who agreed with the statement “most women interpret innocent remarks or acts as being sexist” had gone up 21 percentage points (68 percent of them agreed in 2018, compared to 47 percent in 2017 and 44 percent in 2016). Fewer than half of Republican men agreed that “sexism is a problem in our society” in 2018, down 18 points from 2017. And the proportion of Republican men who said they were more likely to believe women alleging sexual harassment over men denying such allegations fell 21 points between 2017 and the months after the Kavanaugh hearings. The percentage who said they were more likely to believe men over women nearly doubled.

It’s possible that we’re currently in the peak of male backlash. As Irin Carmon reported in New York magazine, public support for Clarence Thomas initially increased after Anita Hill testified in 1991 that he’d sexual harassed her (a Gallup poll taken at the time found that Americans believed him over her by a margin of 19 percentage points). Even so, the hearing and the public response appeared to convince President George H.W. Bush to rescind his threat to veto a bill supporting harassment victims. And just one year after the Hill hearing, Time reported that public opinion had turned in Hill’s favor. Today, Hill’s testimony is broadly recognized as a turning point in America’s conception of sexual harassment as a widespread problem—and her mistreatment by the Senate Judiciary Committee is credited with a surge of Democratic women who sought and won elected office the following year.

And yet it is extremely difficult to see Hill’s story as one exemplifying progress. Thomas and Kavanaugh both ended up on the court, where they’re shaping U.S. law and American lives for generations to come. For those of us who’d expected better returns on the quarter-century of feminist activism between the Hill hearing and the contemporary #MeToo movement, it’s hard to stave off the feeling that there’s some upper threshold to the amount of justice survivors can expect to see in this country.

There’s a feeling of hopelessness that accompanies this perceived stalling-out of progress. In today’s America, evidence of a plateau in the arc of the moral universe appears to be coming from all sides. On the right, there’s a burgeoning movement of conservatives itching to prosecute abortion-seeking women as murderers, making ordinary outrages—like targeted zoning restrictions that cause abortion clinics to shutter—seem inevitable, especially with Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court. On the left, there’s the 2020 campaign of Joe Biden, a candidate who embodies some of the most reactionary moments in Democratic Party history. In a primary cycle that has 40 percent of Democratic voters saying they’d choose the most electable candidate over their ideological match—twice the share that said so in July 2015—Biden, the candidate voters apparently think stands the best chance of beating Trump, has entered the race with a hell of a lead.

For me and some of my like-minded peers, the very fact of Biden’s candidacy inspires the same kind of exhaustion and hopeless frustration we’ve felt about the aftershocks of the Kavanaugh hearings (and not just because of Biden’s role in the Hill hearings). In the country’s most diverse candidate pool ever, with several people running on ambitious plans to remake systems of power that have facilitated the exploitation of generations of Americans, Biden has stepped in to add—what, exactly? A promise to return the country to the good ol’ days? He doesn’t seem to realize, or care, that those days weren’t all that good for massive swaths of the electorate. Instead of attempting to chart a bold American future, Biden is peddling a gussied-up version of America’s past.

Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan wouldn’t have felt at all out of place in Biden’s campaign announcement video, which seemed designed to soothe culturally and politically moderate white Americans who believe every problem currently plaguing the nation can be traced back to individual bad apples, not a poisoned tree. According to Biden, the Trump era is an “aberrant moment” in U.S. history, a moment that can be erased by the right successor, as if Trump had not been nominated, elected, and reliably supported by the same Republican Party that will again support him in 2020.

As many others have written, considering his political record and his seeming inability to take seriously a slew of earnest complaints from women who said his touches made them uncomfortable, Biden is uniquely ill-suited to this moment in Democratic politics. Trump’s election set off an alarm that hasn’t stopped screeching, awakening left-leaning voters to the realization that a lot of things they thought were slowly but surely solving themselves (racism, misogyny, Islamophobia) very much were not—and that, in fact, left-leaning voters were often part of the problem. This has been the dominant thrust of the most visible and powerful vehicle for anti-Trump protest: the Women’s March, which helped make self-reeducating activists of women who’d been lulled into a false sense of inevitable progress.

It is in this context that Biden has stepped up to loudly insist that, actually, America was built on good intentions: He quotes Thomas Jefferson via the Declaration of Independence, then admits that even Jefferson didn’t live up to America’s founding ideals, striking a bizarre “nobody’s perfect” note. The overarching theme of Biden’s pitch is that everything used to be more or less fine, and everything can again be more or less fine if we just elect the guy who was standing next to the president the last time we felt proud of this country.

If elected, Biden will be 78 when he takes office, beating Trump’s record for oldest first-term president by eight years. He’s already had a long, proud career in politics, and it doesn’t sound like he’s motivated by a burning desire to remake America for the better. There’s only one good reason for Biden’s candidacy besides raw ego: He thinks he stands the best chance at beating Trump, despite his poor record on school integration, criminal justice, abortion, the Iraq war, consumer protection, and gender issues. Biden is the candidate of stagnation, of the belief that not only are Americans so not ready for a female president that we’d elect an authoritarian nitwit instead, but that after Trump, we can’t even be trusted to elect a Democrat who’s reliably landed on the right side of history. In an era of resistance, Biden is running on resignation.

This is what puts Biden’s candidacy in the same symbolic and emotional category as the Kavanaugh aftermath. Both suggest to voters and activists and people who care that all their fighting, thinking, hard lessons, uncomfortable arguments, and reopenings of painful wounds have been for naught. Trump’s election got us front-runner Biden, who’s already phoning it in instead of working to earn women’s trust and votes. Kavanaugh’s petulant show of overentitled masculinity got him a spot on the Supreme Court and endowed Republican men with a renewed sense of their own gendered victimhood. The proportion of American men who think sexual harassment is a “major problem” has fallen 13 percentage points since the contemporary #MeToo movement began. The current share, 53 percent, is closer to 1998’s numbers than 2017’s.

Somewhere in these agonizing, enraging upheavals was an unspoken promise that it was a cleansing process, a dreadful but necessary—and crucially, temporary—lancing of an ugly American boil. Now, it’s clear that there was no promise, just some unfounded hope that exposing a bunch of terrible things would make people act differently. But even with all this outrage, the system’s beneficiaries still don’t think the system is broken. Remember Roy Moore, the Republican Senate candidate from Alabama who narrowly lost after multiple women accused him of molesting or pursuing romantic relationships with them when they were teenagers? He may run again; in fact, he’s already leading in the polls. His wife recently sent a fundraising email to supporters. “In 2017, Republicans and Democrats alike conspired to defeat Judge Moore in the U.S. Senate special election” with “false and scurrilous tactics,” she wrote. But, she went on, there is reason for Moore supporters to hope for a better outcome this time around: “Then there was Kavanaugh.”