How could this happen? Last week, it initially appeared that Republicans had overplayed their hand. As chief Kavanaugh accuser Christine Blasey Ford testified, the odds of his confirmation plunged on Internet betting sites. And then — the pushback. The accusations against Kavanaugh set off a torrent of rage — from men. Kavanaugh himself fumed. Republican senators howled. President Trump attacked Ford at a rally Tuesday in Mississippi, to the roaring approval of the thousands-strong crowd. And when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) took the floor of the Senate Thursday morning, he knew exactly whom to blame for the delay on the road to Kavanaugh’s likely Supreme Court coronation. “Partisan histrionics,” McConnell called it. Talk about a loaded phrase. We all know which sex is more likely to be deemed histrionic.
For men, especially white men, anger is a unifying force. When Kavanaugh came out verbally swinging at last week’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, he rallied many Republicans. He was viewed as strong, defending his family and reputation. For women, rage is viewed differently. At that same hearing, Ford, who had every right to be ragingly, boilingly, incandescently angry, took pains to be accommodating. She spoke in a soft voice. She apologized numerous times. “I’m used to being collegial,” she said at one point to the committee’s chairman, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa).
Imagine what would have happened if Ford had appeared as out of control as Kavanaugh. On second thought, don’t. It’s the stuff of fantasy. While men assume control with their anger, women lose control when they show their rage. This is no accident. Anger is an invigorating emotion, one that contributes to challenging power and making change. The result? As Soraya Chemaly writes in her recent book, “Rage Becomes Her”:
“When a women shows anger in institutional, political, and professional settings, she automatically violates gender norms. … When a man becomes angry in an argument or debate, people are more likely to abandon their own positions and defer to his. But when a women acts the same way, she’s likely to elicit the opposite response.”
The 2016 election offers a demonstration in how this works. The media’s first response to Trump’s surprise win was piece after piece after piece about the anger of Trump’s male blue-collar supporters. But the women’s march that occurred the day after Trump’s inauguration, the largest protest in U.S. history? At one point that day, CNN featured a panel with eight men and one woman discussing it. The next morning, it was barely mentioned on the Sunday talk shows. As Rebecca Traister notes in her new book “Good and Mad,” more than a few pundits expressed doubt that women would keep it up, and cautioned women that they needed to remember to organize and vote, even though women are more likely to show up at the ballot box than men and have been for decades. We so frequently take men’s priorities as our societal default that it occurs to almost no one to puzzle how strange, illogical and, yes, sexist this formulation is.
Men, on the other hand, are both permitted to look out for number one and are assumed to be competent at it. An attack on Kavanaugh, they are told, is an attack on them personally. “It is a very scary time for a young man in America, where you can be guilty of something you may not be guilty of,” Trump said Tuesday. “What’s happening here has much more to do than even the appointment of a Supreme Court justice.”
In this worldview, millions of women’s rage and identification with Ford cause men — and conservative-leaning women — to identify with Kavanaugh’s travails and rage. This, in turn, could boost turnout and possibly carry Republicans to victory in November. Let’s hope this is so much wishful thinking.