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Jamil Smith: Brett Kavanaugh’s Fragile Manhood

Thursday’s hearing was a master class in Trumpian masculinity

Brett Kavanaugh

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The anchor between Brett Kavanaugh’s eyes — a deep crease that turned upward at the ends as he got angry — this was new. At least to any of us who had yet to see the Supreme Court nominee this mad. But liars often attempt to cloak their deceit and faults with anger and volume. Given Kavanaugh’s history of falsehoods, the whole thing was alarming and yet not surprising. Few things are as recognizable as the fury of a privileged man denied.

I believe Christine Blasey Ford, so yes, I would argue that Brett Kavanaugh lied to the Senate Judiciary Committee during his ranting testimony on Thursday, in which he vociferously denied the allegations that he sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers. He may soon be on the court, however, because he used a brand of masculinity fully endorsed by the Republican Party. The GOP celebrates a manhood of excess, embodied in the president, whom Republicans still fear. Now, that same excess may be calcified for decades in the form of a Justice Kavanaugh.

The nominee likely knew he had some ground to make up. Trump was displeased with a Monday interview that Kavanaugh did with Fox News in which he appeared, by the president’s estimation, “wooden.” How someone does on television matters a little too much to Trump, so Thursday’s performance was seemingly designed to impress him. Kavanaugh had the act down cold. Petulant and entitled, he took advantage of the leeway that his gender affords him. While Ford painfully adhered to standards of female decorum, perhaps in order to be believed — note how often she asked “Is this good?” — Kavanaugh clearly felt that he had license to misbehave. In lieu of exonerating information, he testified as though his belligerence would ensure that he was believed. Even more than denying the accusations, he openly resented having to endure this “national disgrace,” as he called it.

The Supreme Court nominee began his virtuoso performance of Trumpian machismo with a line that the president must have loved. “I wrote it myself yesterday afternoon and evening,” Kavanaugh said at the top of his opening remarks. “No one has seen a draft of it except for one of my former law clerks,” he continued. “This is my statement.” Kavanaugh chose to wing it on what could have been the most significant day of his career, relying more on arrogance than aptitude.

A lack of both preparation and editing are two things that have characterized Trump during his political career. So, too, has his petulance. Men, particularly white and privileged men, find that they can get away with acting like colicky children, and they are infantilized when it suits them. (Witness how Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner, both adult men, are “good kids” in Trump’s eyes while actual boys like the Central Park Five, whom Trump said should be executed, were suddenly graduated to adulthood.) Even better for Kavanaugh, the subject of Thursday’s hearing was his juvenile behavior. He seemed to take license to behave as he once did in his youth. His testimony was a tantrum.

I use words like “performance” and “act” because in that environment, behavior is theater. Is Kavanaugh the stilted choirboy who celebrated his adolescent virginity on Fox News? Or is he the belligerent and condescending prep-school brat? Is he the guy who, as we’ve been told by accusers and former classmates alike, was a sloppy and mean drunk? After yesterday, I think we know him a little better.

This is not to say that he was particularly forthcoming. Kavanaugh hid behind his indignation until he no longer could, when Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) called his tough-guy bluff. If he was so certain of his innocence, Durbin asked, why not turn to White House counsel Don McGahn and demand that these claims be investigated by federal authorities so that he may be exonerated? Kavanaugh, for once, was struck dumb. He sat there frozen, the anchor between his eyes disappeared into a shocked visage. Wildly swinging all day, he’d been hit by the punch he didn’t see coming. There was a litany of other questions that the nominee evaded or refused to answer, but Durbin pinned him so hard to the mat that Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), once thought to be reasonable, tried to shift the momentum with a hysterical tirade.

Kavanaugh, a veteran of the George W. Bush administration, exposed himself anew as a naked partisan, railing that the resistance to his nomination was about “revenge on behalf of the Clintons.” I laughed to keep from crying as I imagined him giving a fair hearing to a case involving Planned Parenthood or any other group associated with the left.

In normal political times, such a display would have immediately disqualified Kavanaugh from serving on the Supreme Court. But all of that surely helped him. Trump, having already recognized his bond with Kavanaugh as a fellow accused sexual abuser, had to see some of himself in his nominee’s showing. Having watched just about all of the testimony from Air Force One and later in his White House residence, the president’s praise was effusive.

“His testimony was powerful, honest, and riveting,” Trump tweeted. Adopting Kavanaugh’s own characterization of the allegations, he added that “Democrats’ search and destroy strategy is disgraceful and this process has been a total sham and effort to delay, obstruct, and resist. The Senate must vote!”

Despite pleas to the contrary from the American Bar Association and others, Republicans have scheduled a vote to advance Kavanaugh’s nomination for Friday afternoon. Even Jeff Flake, the outgoing senator from Arizona who enjoys talking tough about Trump, signaled his support for the nominee. Kavanaugh’s presentation embodied the malignant manhood that the Republican Party has embraced under Trump. They excuse the boy that Kavanaugh was so that they can use the man he is now. As the voices of #MeToo rise, these powerful white men somehow feel silenced. Kavanaugh is a retort.

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