Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” (St. Martin’s Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Donald Trump’s operating assumption is that shamelessness is powerful. Abusive talk, lies and red-faced emotion worked well enough to put him in the White House and seem to have inspired a Supreme Court nominee to spew conspiracy theories and distortions in the pursuit of a lifetime appointment.
Instead of acting like the sober judge the nation needs, Brett Kavanaugh last week lowered himself to Trump’s level and deepened the divide that plagues America.
With the FBI now interviewing sources about sexual assault and misconduct he allegedly committed in his youth (allegations he strongly denies), Kavanaugh faces the possibility that the Senate will reject his nomination. If this humiliation comes to pass, it will mark the moment that we discovered the limits of masculine anger and entitlement. It will come as a result of the accusation of sexual assault made by Christine Blasey Ford and because of Kavanaugh’s Trump-style response and the finger-pointing diatribe Senator Lindsey Graham offered in support.
“The most despicable thing I have seen in my time in politics,” was Graham’s verdict – not on what Kavanaugh is alleged to have done but on the process that brought the changes to light.
Graham and Kavanaugh showed that the fight over the nomination is occurring in the context of a larger struggle over the most basic of human values. The #MeToo movement is demanding a straightforward reckoning with the problem of sexual harassment and abuse. Unfortunately, thanks to Trump, Americans can no longer expect sincerity, mutual respect, and sobriety in response to this serious issue. Instead we have knee-jerk dismissals of inconvenient facts.
In his comments throughout the past week, President Trump has consistently sided, as he invariably does, with the man accused of wrongdoing. On Monday at a press conference, he displayed his inner chauvinist pig with his insult of a female reporter: “I know you’re not thinking. You never do.”
In this current crisis, Kavanaugh spent days at the White House preparing to answer the charges against him and emerged in a Trumpian frame of mind. So it was that he allowed himself to lose control of his emotions, insult senators, repeat dopey catchphrases such as “I like beer” and attempt to turn the tables on a senator by asking her about her alcohol consumption. (Some of Kavanaugh’s classmates at Yale say he demonstrated a pattern of heavy drinking at the time, but others dispute that.)
The nominee’s drinking is relevant because Blasey Ford said he was drunk when he assaulted her in the summer after Kavanaugh graduated from a party-hard prep school. (She was fifteen at the time.) A second incident of inappropriate sexual behavior allegedly occurred under the influence of alcohol. (On Monday, days after Kavanaugh’s testimony, The New York Times obtained a 1985 police report that described Kavanaugh’s reported role in a bar fight.)
Testifying Thursday, Kavanaugh dismissed allegations against him as “last-minute character assassination” and insisted he was not the creature others described.
As important as the specific allegation is the culture of heedless and reckless male entitlement described by many of those who have come forward to talk about Kavanaugh’s early years. He says that obvious references to alcohol abuse and sexual entitlement, which he wrote for his own high school yearbook page, aren’t what they appear to be. The “Ralph club” is not about alcohol-induced vomiting but his tender tummy. A woman who Kavanaugh and several classmates obviously slut-shamed considers his words demeaning. But he wants us to believe that the boys were warmly implying “that she was one of us.”
Kavanaugh’s demand that others ignore what is obvious mimics the gaslighting method used by Trump when he insists we believe his thousands of lies and ignore his disgraceful talk. When Trump was faced with more than a dozen credible accusations of sexual abuse and harassment, and videotaped evidence that he thought he could grope woman at will, he offered denials and dismissals and still managed to become president. In Bob Woodward’s new book, “Fear,” Trump is quoted as advising a man facing accusations from women: “You’ve got to deny anything that’s said about you. Never admit.”
As president, Donald Trump has plunged the capital into continuous chaos and threatened key democratic institutions. The press remains generally independent, even as Trump slanders journalists as the “enemy of the people.” However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan have capitulated to Trumpism and permitted him to dominate the Republican Party.
Kavanaugh’s performance suggests that the judiciary is vulnerable too.
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Before Kavanaugh’s troubles, the Supreme Court was one of the few high-level institutions of power that had not been degraded by the 45th president. Now, whether he becomes a justice or returns to his position on the appeals court in Washington, Kavanaugh’s ill-tempered display has cast a shadow. How, one must ask, can those who appear before him expect considered judgment from a man who insulted senators and cried in petulant anger when he thought he might lose a position to which he so clearly felt entitled? Do other judges share his temperament? Are we equal in the eyes of the law?
As the resolution of the Kavanaugh mess approaches, the only thing certain is that the controversy is not just a matter of women alleging a pattern of abusive behavior. The nation is also contesting how responsible adults should respond under pressure. On one side sits Blasey Ford, whose measured and respectful testimony helped move Republican Senator Jeff Flake to expand the investigation of the nominee’s past. On the other sits Kavanaugh, flanked by Graham and Trump, shamelessly insulting victims of abuse and degrading our politics because they want what they want, now.