Politics

The Women Who Still Speak Up

One used to speak truth to power. Now, one speaks truth to nonsense.

Constitutional scholar Pamela Karlan of Stanford University testifies before the House Judiciary Committee in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Speak “truth to power”—this is how most people standing up to the constant disinformation and bullying of the Trump administration may have once reasonably described their task. Increasingly, though, that work is being honed and refined into something a bit more complicated: speaking truth to nonsense. It’s not so much holding up a mirror so that power can see what it’s become; it’s simply the job of creating a record, for history if nothing else, of what is actually happening.

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It’s not, by any means, that the power imbalance is irrelevant anymore. If anything, the power differential between President Donald Trump and those seeking to hold him to account is more chilling than ever: Trump has pressed the entire Justice Department (including new threats of abusing its policing powers) into service to protect his interests above those of the nation, the White House counsel currently serves as his personal lawyer, the foreign service and the military are being purged of experts and patriots, and Senate Republicans have debased themselves to the point that they are openly peddling debunked Russian propaganda in his service. Congress cannot stop him, and the courts will likely be timed out in constraining him. The lopsidedness of his power is now axiomatic.

Also axiomatic is the fact that, frequently, it is women who have come forward, in droves, to speak truth to that power, or to nonsense, or, perhaps most accurately, to the nonsense that feeds his power. From Sally Yates to E. Jean Carroll to April Ryan to Greta Thunberg to Fiona Hill to the undocumented housekeepers who used to work at his properties, it is often women who have stood up to say “No” to this president. As Sandra Diaz, one of those two undocumented cleaners, explained her decision to finally speak up even though everyone around her warned her not to: “How can you know something so big, how someone—who goes on national television and says something—and you know it’s not true … whether it’s the president or not, you have the responsibility to say no. To pass through this barrier of fear and say no.” Ukraine Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch described, in real time, at a public Intelligence Committee hearing last month, what it feels like to pass through that same barrier of fear: As Trump tweeted threats at her midhearing, she was asked how she was experiencing it. “It’s very intimidating,” Yovanovitch quietly confessed to the members of the Intelligence Committee. “I can’t speak to what the president is trying to do, but I think the effect is to be intimidating.” Lisa Page similarly passed through the barrier of fear this past week, when she told the truth about Trump’s relentless attacks on her and defended her record in the face of his lies.

On Wednesday, professor Pamela Karlan was the only woman testifying before the House Judiciary Committee’s panel on the constitutional framework for impeachment. (Disclosure: Karlan is a friend.) Her presentation was so effective and so crystal clear that House Republicans, of whom all but two were men, were too afraid to question her on history or doctrine, opting for personal threats and shouting instead. Ranking member Rep. Doug Collins suggested in his opening remarks that she hadn’t read the witness transcripts (she had). Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., shouted at her about her campaign donations as well as a joke she made on a podcast. When she attempted to respond to his claims that she was “mean,” he shouted, “Excuse me, you don’t get to interrupt me on this time.” When Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., asked all of the constitutional law professors whom they had voted for in the 2016 election, it was Karlan who shot back that Americans still enjoy the right to a secret ballot. Rep. Jim Jordan just used his time to scream.

But everyone really agreed to melt down when Karlan referenced the name of the president’s youngest son, Barron, to make a point about the difference between monarchs and presidents. Yes, she used it in a bit of wordplay, and yes, people laughed, but, no, it was not a targeted attack on a child—it was a targeted attack on claims of monarchic powers. But let’s be honest. Whether Karlan had done a joke about the British nobility, or Ninja Turtles, or diet soda, the rage machine at the White House would have singled her out for vivisection, just as it did with Hill, who didn’t make a joke, or Yovanovitch, who also didn’t make a joke. (The hate machine largely left the male law professors alone, by the way.) These women’s words themselves, the substance of them, the truth of them, were never the issue. Do you even recall what they said? Sometimes, they weren’t even permitted to speak, or respond. The rage machine, in coordination with the White House spokeswoman (who does not do press conferences) and Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, finds their rabid talking point and repeats it and tweets it until there’s nothing left, until absolutely no fact, or statistic, or idea, can cut through the dry-ice fog it creates. (Tucker Carlson started Wednesday night’s news show with “This lady needs a shrink” and “What a moron.”) In the end, Karlan apologized for her pun, because Republicans, who put children in freezing cages at the border and leave them to die, told her she was the one being mean to children.

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It is worth recalling that Karlan—like Fiona Hill before her, and Yovanovitch before her, and Thunberg, and Carroll, and Karen McDougal, and Christine Blasey Ford, and Debbie Ramirez, and Sandra Diaz, and Lisa Page, and all the other women who have subjected themselves to the raging Trump campaign of abuse—was simply speaking the truth. In the face of lies, imaginary conspiracies, smear campaigns, and disinformation, each was simply relating the facts as she knew them.

The truth does not really have a place in this administration. Attorney General Bill Barr’s pretend investigation into his conviction that federal agencies were illegally “spying” (his words) on the Trump campaign will be a bust. Never mind, they will refocus the umbrage on some attenuated fact about the Steele dossier. The evidence that Donald Trump has, on several occasions, conditioned foreign aid on domestic political favors is now so unequivocal that Republicans have advanced three dozen alternate defenses for it, without even attempting to coordinate a theory beyond the Russian propaganda line upon which they now seem to have settled. Any attempts to pierce the logic of that illogic is pointless, which is why House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has no option other than to keep seeking and speaking truth into the factual void. Doug Collins somehow kept up his refrain on Wednesday that nobody in the room could agree on the most elementary facts, even as every single fact witness (including those selected by the GOP) and every single legal expert (including one selected by the GOP) agrees substantially on all of the material facts surrounding the Ukraine transaction.

Michelle Goldberg, in response to Collins’ repeated claim that “there are no set facts here,” described all this as “epistemological nihilism.” Which is why it’s all the more important to understand what these women are doing when they stride into these hearings, and into their press conferences, and into their lawsuits, to tell the truth in the face of disingenuous Republican tears about incivility and partisanship. These women all know they’re being catapulted into the epistemological wood chipper, and that, if they’re lucky, the death threats and the violence directed at them and their families will eventually subside. But this is about much more than speaking truth to power—in its own way, speaking truth to nonsense is even more important. Power is immune to truth-tellers these days, but history may not be. And women have had centuries of experience in what happens when you let the gaslighters win.

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For one last example, take a look, if you have a moment, at the utterly extraordinary amicus brief filed by 366 women in June Medical, the abortion case that will be heard at the Supreme Court in March. The litigation is poised to overturn Whole Women’s Health, a case decided only three years ago that upholds women’s constitutional right to abortion. If it succeeds, it will only be thanks to the lies about women’s health outcomes, lies about abortion providers, and claims about religious dogma that come dressed as solicitude for women’s health. Indeed, if Whole Women’s Health stands for anything, it’s for the proposition that lies about abortion are not to be ignored in the courts. In a few months, we will learn if that is still the case.

The women lawyers who attached their names to that brief have told the painful stories of their own abortions. For doing so, some will see themselves shredded and attacked. Their experiences and truths will be distorted and diminished. Some of them are still law students, and some practice or teach law in states where they will face professional consequences for telling the truth. Some will be excommunicated from family and church for their stories. And yet, they told their stories, poured them into what is best described as a #MeToo brief about the secrets and lies that enable restrictions to abortion.

This, too, wasn’t a matter of speaking truth to power. Everyone knows there are now five votes at the Supreme Court to deny them the reproductive freedom they have enjoyed in the past, and no amount of science, doctors, or data will dislodge the power. This is, sadly but faithfully, about women telling truth to nonsense, at a time when their ability to do anything about it is slipping away. For ever increasing numbers of women, that is becoming the only power they have.

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