As I write this, the day’s hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee is still ongoing. Perhaps by this evening we will know the fate of Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. But we already have a good idea of how this spectacle will reverberate through our national life.
In her prepared testimony, Christine Blasey Ford said, “I am here today not because I want to be. I am terrified.” And she clearly was. It would be hard enough for anyone to get up in front of all those senators and all those cameras, knowing that the eyes of the world were on you, even if you were testifying about soybean yields or banking regulations.
But to have to describe the most traumatic thing that had ever happened to you, something that you had been taught to treat as a cause of shame? It is almost unimaginable.
Twitter (much less the people I happen to follow) is not a representative sample of anything, so take this as anecdotal, but as I watched Ford’s testimony with my computer in front of me, what I saw from one woman after another were expressions of pain, anguish, even horror. Whether they had experienced sexual assault themselves, watching someone have to describe her assault to the world, seeing how difficult it was for her, her voice cracking from the strain of keeping her composure, was unspeakably painful. I’ll just share a few of those comments:
i am just watching this securely and comfortably through a screen and my stomach is twisting into a cold knot so I cannot imagine being in the room— Alexandra Petri (@petridishes) September 27, 2018
What's breaking my heart right now is Ford's desperate and quite earnest desire to please.— Jennifer Senior (@JenSeniorNY) September 27, 2018
A genuine question: were men out there brought to tears or shaking visceral response by that? Because the messages I have from women, and what's happening in my own apartment, suggest that many many women were.— Rebecca Traister (@rtraister) September 27, 2018
The most powerful moment so far came when Ford was asked what most stays in her memory from the attack, and she said it was the laughter: Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge, laughing with each other as she was gripped by terror.
The women who don’t have stories like Ford’s, or stories that are worse, know that it is only through good fortune that they avoid being victimized by men with predation on their minds. Their partners, their coworkers, their acquaintances or just men they walk by on the street have power over them and their bodies. They move through life knowing that they are always vulnerable, and if the worst happens and they are victimized, they will probably be disbelieved and attacked for having the temerity to complain about what was done to them. That is the psychological context in which every woman watches this hearing.
He won’t testify until later today, but I suspect Kavanaugh’s testimony will be far less dramatic. We have seen him before, so we know what he looks and sounds like, and we know what he is going to say: It’s all lies, he has always been an upstanding gentleman, and he never hurt anyone. There will be some perfunctory words about how sexual assault is serious and wrong, but the message will be clear: I’m the real victim here.
I’m sure that there are many people who will find Ford’s testimony unpersuasive. Each will seize on whichever of the theories about why she is not telling the truth each finds the least outlandish. She’s part of an anti-Trump conspiracy, she has been paid off by George Soros, she is delusional, she was assaulted by someone who looked like Kavanaugh but was actually someone else. Kavanaugh is an extraordinary man who deserves nothing less than a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. Some of them will react the way President Trump did, by saying what amounted to You know what liars women are.
Despite the power of Ford’s testimony and all the reasons to believe her, there is enough ambiguity here (it’s not like we have video of the event) that anyone who wants to can convince themselves that Kavanaugh is the one telling the truth. And so it is entirely possible that at the end of all this — the multiple accusations, the questions about Kavanaugh’s honesty that exist apart from whether he committed sexual assault, Ford’s dramatic testimony — Kavanaugh will still get on the Supreme Court. Where, by the way, he will be poised to join the other (all male) conservatives on the court to begin an assault on women’s reproductive rights.
How is that going to feel to American women? Men like me can do what we can to listen to them and understand how this all looks through their eyes. But we can’t feel the same thing they feel. Judging by what so many of them are saying, what they feel already — after all the revelations of the #MeToo movement, after Trump got elected despite being on tape bragging about his ability to sexually assault women with impunity — is, yes, pain and frustration. But more than anything else, what they feel is anger. Let’s even call it rage.
If Judge Kavanaugh becomes Justice Kavanaugh, that rage is going to erupt. It could have an enormous impact on this year’s elections, the 2020 election and the future of our two parties. And we have no idea yet how far it will go.